On Human Bondage

Published at The Weekly Standard

[Note: John Miller, mentioned below, was the immediate past chairman of the board of directors at Discovery Institute.]
WHEN SEN. SAM BROWNBACK of Kansas heard President Bush address the U.N. General Assembly last week, he was taken by surprise. Bush spent several minutes urging international action against human trafficking, an issue Brownback has followed closely in the Senate, but one you rarely hear about. “I was so pleased to hear the president take an interest in the issue,” says Brownback.

Human trafficking is the term for the buying, selling, and involuntary transportation of people across international borders. But it’s only one component of the forced-labor underground. Kevin Bales, the author of Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy, estimates that 27 million people worldwide are forced to work against their will. Many are used as sex slaves. According to the State Department, today’s slave trade is a highly profitable industry that generates roughly $7 billion in annual revenues.

In his address to the U.N., the president chose to focus on the 800-900,000 people who are illegally smuggled across borders. Bush called human trafficking a humanitarian crisis. He said the “exploitation of the most innocent and vulnerable” is evil. He said the United States spends $50 million a year to support groups that are working to free slaves.

In fact, the Bush administration has acted more vigorously against human trafficking than any administration in recent memory. Bush has directed offices in the departments of Justice, Homeland Security, Labor, Health and Human Services, and the U.S. Agency for International Development to go after the traffickers and rescue their victims. In the last two years, the Bush Justice Department has prosecuted three times as many traffickers as were prosecuted in 1999 and 2000. And Bush recently placed sanctions against three countries that haven’t done enough to combat trafficking.

The president took that last action under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, shepherded through Congress by senators Brownback and the late Paul Wellstone and congressman Chris Smith, and signed by President Clinton. The law stiffened penalties against traffickers and strengthened victim protections. It also instructed the State Department to publish an annual report on various governments’ efforts to combat trafficking.

The report divides governments into three “tiers”: those that comply with the legislation’s minimum standards, those that haven’t fully complied but are making efforts to stop trafficking, and those that haven’t tried to comply, making them subject to economic sanctions.

This is the first year when third-tier countries were liable for sanction. Ten of them avoided sanctions by passing legislation, training police forces to combat trafficking, and establishing victim-protection programs, but Burma, Cuba, and North Korea failed to do so. Although the United States already has trade sanctions against them, additional sanctions, affecting cultural and educational programs, are due to take effect on October 1.

Not everyone is satisfied with the administration’s efforts. Some say this year’s sanctions are largely symbolic, a sop to the left-right coalition that is combating the new slavery. Others feel the administration still hasn’t done enough to draw attention to the issue. “Why is Bush’s agenda confined to those slaves who are shipped across international borders?” asks Tommy Calvert Jr. of the American Anti-Slavery Group, a leading abolitionist organization.

The president’s critics also question the amount of money spent each year to combat human trafficking. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage recently pointed out that human trafficking is so profitable that “our intelligence community estimates it will outstrip the illicit trade in guns and narcotics within a decade.” Armitage may be right–most anti-slavery activists think he is–but the trend he warns about is not reflected in spending priorities. Each year the United States spends over $1 billion to fight the drug trade, but only $60 million to fight human trafficking. The gap is even greater at the U.N., which spends $77.5 million a year on anti-drug programs and just $450,000 on anti-slave programs.

Those numbers may increase as a result of President Bush’s challenge to the U.N. But there are also complaints about the State Department’s list itself. Mauritania, a country long associated with slavery, doesn’t make the list at all. And several countries that were placed in tier two, critics say belong in tier three. Saudi Arabia, for instance, does not outlaw trafficking and has prosecuted no traffickers. Pakistan is also in tier two, but scholar Kevin Bales estimates that 75,000 people there continue to live in debt-bondage, a form of indentured servitude that amounts to slavery.

Congress is expected to address these problems when it votes to reauthorize the Trafficking Victims Protection Act later this year. Senator Brownback says he’s pushing for a bifurcation of tier two, which would show various countries’ efforts to tackle the issue in more detail. He also wants to give ambassadorial rank to the head of the State Department’s office to combat trafficking, currently former congressman John Miller. And he’s enlisted pop star Ricky Martin to champion anti-trafficking efforts. The hope is that the former singer for the boy band Menudo will elevate the issue’s profile. Martin has his work cut out for him. These days, the foremost proponent for the liberation of contemporary slaves works in the Oval Office.

Matthew Continetti is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.