Trafficking in Politics

Bush’s strong rhetoric on sex slavery masks policy failures.

Eartha Melzer

Gypsies living in Baghdad say that since the fall of Saddam they have to make their living through prostitution and theft.

George W. Bush seems to take one human rights cam­paign seri­ous­ly — he decries human traf­fick­ing as mod­ern slav­ery” and a spe­cial evil.” Indeed, he used sex slav­ery to mobi­lize his evan­gel­i­cal base dur­ing the 2004 campaign.

The evan­gel­i­cals are not alone. In 2000, they formed an uncom­mon coali­tion with fem­i­nist groups to lob­by for a new law com­bat­ing human traf­fick­ing. The result­ing Traf­fick­ing Vic­tims Pro­tec­tion Act (TVPA) set up min­i­mum stan­dards for all coun­tries to meet in com­bat­ing traf­fick­ing, and cre­at­ed the Office to Mon­i­tor and Com­bat Traf­fick­ing in Per­sons with­in the State Department. 

But four years into the anti-traf­fick­ing pro­gram, both evan­gel­i­cals and fem­i­nists are dis­ap­point­ed with the results. Com­mer­cial sex­u­al exploita­tion of women is on the rise glob­al­ly, and in many cas­es the Unit­ed States is dri­ving, not stop­ping, the trend. Coun­tries with the most severe traf­fick­ing prob­lems have been ignored, while oth­ers appear to have been tar­get­ed for polit­i­cal rea­sons. And the eco­nom­ic plight of women who sell sex for mon­ey has been over­shad­owed by a sen­sa­tion­al­ized rhetoric of sin and redemption.

A sim­plis­tic take on a com­plex problem 

Reg­u­lat­ing the glob­al sex trade is no easy propo­si­tion. Pros­ti­tu­tion is legal, with var­i­ous caveats, in sev­er­al coun­tries, and inter­na­tion­al legal experts have devel­oped elab­o­rate def­i­n­i­tions to dis­tin­guish between vic­tims of coer­cion and adults who will­ing­ly exchange sex for mon­ey. The Inter­na­tion­al Labour Orga­ni­za­tion, dis­cussing the boom­ing sex trade in Asia, rec­og­nizes, In many cas­es, sex work is often the only viable alter­na­tive for women in com­mu­ni­ties cop­ing with pover­ty, unem­ploy­ment, failed mar­riages and fam­i­ly oblig­a­tions in near­ly com­plete absence of social wel­fare programs.”

Bush, how­ev­er, has eschewed the notion that sex work­ers have needs or agency, instead lump­ing togeth­er traf­fick­ing, pros­ti­tu­tion and com­mer­cial sex as offens­es against the moral law that stands above nations.” With the 2003 Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Direc­tive 22, Bush announced a zero tol­er­ance” pol­i­cy for traf­fick­ing, includ­ing involve­ment in traf­fick­ing by U.S. ser­vice mem­bers. The direc­tive also required that anti-traf­fick­ing funds be kept from groups that do not take an abo­li­tion­ist approach to prostitution. 

As with the administration’s poli­cies on ille­gal drugs, fam­i­ly plan­ning and AIDS, the U.S. pol­i­cy against traf­fick­ing does not focus on harm reduc­tion. Fund­ing pref­er­ence is giv­en to groups that forcibly remove women from pros­ti­tu­tion. That means leav­ing out some of the orga­ni­za­tions best sit­u­at­ed to address prob­lems faced by sex work­ers, like the Son­agachi project in India. This health project, for and by sex work­ers, has been rec­og­nized by the Unit­ed Nations as a mod­el pro­gram for stop­ping the spread of HIV and pro­tect­ing the rights of peo­ple involved in the sex trade.

The Bush administration’s abso­lutist approach bears strong sim­i­lar­i­ties to Amer­i­can moral cru­sades of days past. In the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry, indus­tri­al­iza­tion and immi­gra­tion fueled sen­sa­tion­al sto­ries of defiled vir­gins,” and a cru­sade against pros­ti­tu­tion result­ed in the 1910 pas­sage of the White Slav­ery Traf­fic Act, which banned trans­port­ing women across state lines for immoral purposes.” 

Near­ly a cen­tu­ry lat­er, the media is rife with accounts that sim­i­lar­ly depend on pub­lic pruri­ence and stereo­types of women as vic­tims. On Jan­u­ary 25, 2004, the New York Times Mag­a­zine ran a cov­er sto­ry by Peter Lan­des­man titled Sex Slaves on Main Street: the Girls Next Door.” While this tale of large-scale traf­fick­ing of women and girls into the Unit­ed States was quick­ly dis­cred­it­ed, that didn’t stop direc­tor Roland Emmerich, the man who brought us Inde­pen­dence Day, from option­ing the film rights. 

Dou­ble standards

Under TVPA, the Depart­ment of Jus­tice (DOJ) has set up Human Traf­fick­ing Task Forces in cities around the coun­try. A Novem­ber 2004 DOJ press release, announc­ing a $450,000 anti-traf­fick­ing grant to the D.C. Metro Police Department’s high­ly expe­ri­enced’’ pros­ti­tu­tion unit, stat­ed that the mon­ey would be used to arrest pros­ti­tutes and work up the chain to appre­hend traffickers.”

Such an approach not only con­flates human traf­fick­ing and pros­ti­tu­tion, but could fur­ther per­se­cute peo­ple work­ing in the sex indus­try. Taina Bien-Aime, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the New York-based fem­i­nist group Equal­i­ty Now, explains that while TVPA pro­vides for visas for traf­ficked women, in order to avoid pros­e­cu­tion and depor­ta­tion any undoc­u­ment­ed immi­grant must coop­er­ate in the pros­e­cu­tion of her traf­fick­er. Obtain­ing this coop­er­a­tion may prove dif­fi­cult because the traf­ficked women are often from the same vil­lage as the traf­fick­er and many fear reper­cus­sions to their families.

Amer­i­can pros­e­cu­tion of these crimes abroad seems decid­ed­ly less aggres­sive. The State Depart­ment has a man­date from Con­gress to issue annu­al Traf­fick­ing in Per­sons (TIP) reports grad­ing coun­tries on their progress on stop­ping traf­fick­ing. Tier 3” coun­tries — those judged by the Unit­ed States not to be mak­ing progress — face sanctions.

Accord­ing to a source at the State Depart­ment, most Tier 3 coun­tries are the ones that have poor rela­tions with the U.S. gov­ern­ment, such as North Korea, Cuba and Venezuela. Venezuela’s rank­ing, for exam­ple, seems based more on its refusal to rec­og­nize the U.S. pro­gram than with the scope of traf­fick­ing there. 

The selec­tive atten­tion to the seri­ous­ness of some coun­tries’ traf­fick­ing has angered con­ser­v­a­tives. Gary Hau­gen is the direc­tor of Inter­na­tion­al Jus­tice Mis­sion (IJM), a Chris­t­ian group that has received mil­lions of dol­lars in fed­er­al funds to work on traf­fick­ing. IJM infil­trates the sex trade in India and Thai­land and con­ducts broth­el raids, plac­ing sex work­ers in homes for res­cue and re-education. 

In June 2002, Hau­gen told the Con­gres­sion­al Human Rights Cau­cus that the State Depart­ment has ren­dered the stan­dards of the act vir­tu­al­ly mean­ing­less,” by plac­ing India and Thai­land in Tier 2. Although the sex trade is huge in these coun­tries, Hau­gen said, vir­tu­al­ly no one has been pros­e­cut­ed for trafficking.

Adding injury to insult

Even worse, U.S. inter­ven­tions around the world are con­tribut­ing to the traf­fick­ing and exploita­tion of women. The State Depart­ment TIP report for 2003 not­ed that traf­fick­ing activ­i­ties have increased in Afghanistan and Iraq as a con­se­quence of insta­bil­i­ty brought on by armed conflict. 

As we have seen else­where,” the report stat­ed, the demand for pros­ti­tu­tion often increas­es with the pres­ence of mil­i­tary troops, expa­tri­ates and inter­na­tion­al per­son­nel who have access to dis­pos­able income.” 

On April 24, 2002, Ben John­ston, a heli­copter mechan­ic for Dyn­Corp in Bosnia, tes­ti­fied to Con­gress about Dyn­Corp employ­ees who were alleged­ly buy­ing women and girls to keep in their homes as sex slaves. Yet, despite the president’s zero tol­er­ance” direc­tive and the devel­op­ment of laws that would hold con­trac­tors respon­si­ble for involve­ment in sex traf­fick­ing, Dyn­Corp remains in good stand­ing as a U.S. con­trac­tor, and in 2003 was award­ed a no-bid con­tract to re-estab­lish police, jus­tice and prison func­tions in post-con­flict Iraq.” 

In 2002, media reports detailed how cour­tesy patrol” units around U.S. bases in Korea were direct­ing sol­diers and tourists to loca­tions where they could engage the ser­vices of sex work­ers, main­ly women from Rus­sia and the Philip­pines who were held cap­tive and forced to have sex with sol­diers. South Kore­an author­i­ties esti­mat­ed that their country’s sex indus­try was worth $22 bil­lion a year and involved 330,000 women. 

Con­gress called for an inves­ti­ga­tion and on Sep­tem­ber 21, 2004, the House Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee and the Com­mis­sion on Secu­ri­ty and Coop­er­a­tion in Europe held a forum titled Enforc­ing U.S. Poli­cies Against Traf­fick­ing in Per­sons: How is the U.S. Mil­i­tary Doing?” 

The inspec­tor gen­er­al of the Defense Depart­ment, Joseph E. Schmitz, a Bush appointee charged with being the eyes, ears and con­science of the Defense Depart­ment” on traf­fick­ing issues, failed to give spe­cif­ic infor­ma­tion about his inves­ti­ga­tion. Instead, he deliv­ered a paper at the hear­ing called Exam­in­ing Sex Slav­ery Through the Fog of Moral Rel­a­tivism,” which read in part: 

What­ev­er else one might say about sex slav­ery in the 21st cen­tu­ry, these recent proac­tive mea­sures tak­en by U.S. and West­ern lead­ers reaf­firm the moral truth” that pros­ti­tu­tion and human traf­fick­ing fall with­in those dis­solute and immoral prac­tices” envi­sioned by our Con­ti­nen­tal Con­gress when it pre­scribed a duty to guard against and sup­press” such prac­tices through, inter alia, vig­i­lance by lead­ers in inspect­ing the con­duct of all per­sons who are placed under their command.” 

At the same hear­ing, the duty of sub­stan­tive analy­sis fell to lawyer Mar­ti­na Van­der­berg, a for­mer researcher with Human Rights Watch. In con­trast to Schmitz’s — and Bush’s — bom­bas­tic pro­nounce­ments, she tes­ti­fied that the loop­holes for con­trac­tors have not been closed, that edu­ca­tion pro­grams have not yet yield­ed the par­tic­i­pa­tion of sol­diers in iden­ti­fy­ing traf­fick­ers and that it is unclear how the zero tol­er­ance pol­i­cy is being implemented.

Eartha Melz­er is a writer and video­g­ra­ph­er in Washington.
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