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Let My People Go: U.S. Efforts to Combat Human Trafficking

June 27, 2012

Despite common misconceptions, slavery is still alive and well in many parts of the world.

Last week, the Sate Department estimated 27 million people are slaves, victims of sex trafficking, indentured servitude, bonded labor, or forced military service. The annual report, known as the Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, provides a comprehensive, as well as a country-by-country reports concerning the status of forced labor and human trafficking. The annual reports trace their origins to a piece of legislation, The Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA), designed to combat slavery and human trafficking. The law provides enforcement mechanisms to pressure countries to improve their anti-trafficking efforts.

In compliance with Section 108 of the TVPA, the report assigns a ranking to each country based on their efforts to confront human trafficking. A country may be placed in one of three “tiers.” Each nation’s tier is determined by their adherence to the 3Ps: prevention of acts of trafficking, protection and rescue of existing victims, and the prosecution of offenders that perpetrate such acts. A tier one nation is one that meets the minimum TVPA standards. Tier two nations do not fully comply with the minimum standards, but are taking significant steps to do so. Nations that receive the lowest ranking, tier three, not only fail to meet the minimum standards, but also take inadequate steps to bring themselves into compliance.

The 17 countries that received a tier three ranking.

The most recent report found 17 countries that have significant problems with human trafficking and are not taking sufficient measures to address it, giving them a ranking of tier three. Countries that receive the tier three ranking are subject to a series of strong sanctions, including the withholding or withdrawal of non-humanitarian, non-trade related assistance; in addition, government employees of tier 3 countries may not receive funding for participation in educational or exchange programs. Furthermore, the sanctions include U.S. opposition to financial assistance from groups such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

A legal provision within the TVPA, however, can prevent the sanctions from being implemented. During the 90-day period after the release of the report, the president may grant waivers to suspend a part or the totality of the sanctions for tier three countries on the grounds of national interests. In the TVPA’s 12-year history, both Presidents Bush and Obama have used the waivers quite liberally. Currently, only 3 countries on the list—Eritrea, Madagascar, and North Korea—are subject to the full range of sanctions. The remaining 14 countries have received partial or complete waivers, despite their unsatisfactory records in human trafficking.

The problem with the waiver provisions is that they can be used to play “favorites,” leading to inconsistent application of the sanctions. Recently, this has certainly been the case: if a country receives developmental assistance from the U.S., it receives a waiver; if it does not receive assistance, the sanction is applied. This is done on the theory that ending non-humanitarian aid may cause economic decline in the host country, possibly making trafficking worse.  Critics of the TVPA have long pointed out that the sanctions are missing teeth, recommending that Congress narrow the waiver provision so that the law is applied in a more impartial manner.

A case in point for the unequal application of the sanctions is the treatment of Saudi Arabia and North Korea under the TVPA. Although Saudi Arabia has a very poor record in addressing human trafficking, the country received waivers because the sanctions would result in the termination of more than $10 billion in military sales, $3 million in partnership funds, and $360,000 in counter terrorism support. In addition, the U.S. has no desire to deal with the repercussions sanctions may have on a country that supplies 42.5 million barrels of oil a month.

In contrast, North Korea has received the opposite treatment. North Korea has a similarly dismal record with human trafficking, but it has received the entirety of the sanctions. The decision to apply sanctions to North Korea was not surprising. In fact, the TVPA sanctions did nothing at all, given that the U.S. already doesn’t give non-humanitarian assistance to North Korea. The decision is only further evidence that the TVPA sanctions are not being applied in a manner that sustains their credibility.

A promising stopgap measure to fight human trafficking is the usage of actors outside the governmental sphere. NGOs religious organizations, and faith-based groups have tremendous potential in their ability to rescue individuals that have fallen into adverse conditions. A sterling example is the work of the International Justice Mission. Since 2005, the group has brought relief to more than 11,000 trafficked individuals and protected tens of thousands more from entering slavery. In the long run, governments may lead the charge against human trafficking, but private organizations can provide much needed relief in the immediate future.

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