By an act of Congress, today, Jan. 11, is Human Trafficking Awareness Day in the United States. President Obama has taken important steps to recognize the nation’s responsibility to “prevent, identify and aggressively combat” human trafficking. The Department of State has included the United States in its Trafficking in Persons Report 2010 and individual states have adopted important legislation to combat human trafficking. For instance, on Jan. 1, California became the first state to require major retailers and manufacturers doing business within its borders to publicly disclose measures taken to eradicate forced labor and human trafficking from their supply and distribution chains. However, as many of these measures do not provide for clear penalties but instead seek to provide citizens and consumers with information on the conditions under which the products they purchase are produced, they are unlikely to effectuate significant change.
Human trafficking is a global problem that calls for a global response, because, as President Obama observed in 2011, “no country can claim immunity from the scourge of human rights abuses, or from the responsibility to confront them.” In fact, no government can claim immunity, nor can intergovernmental organizations such as the United Nations, domestic businesses, multinational corporations and civil society. There is a convenient reluctance to admit that trafficking is a response to market demands, weak or perverse labor and immigration legislation, absence of penalties for abusers and obscene economic and development disparities, including gender and ethnic inequities.
A Human Trafficking Awareness Day serves to call attention to a problem that we’ve been avoiding for centuries. We are so good at avoiding the scope of the problem that we are unable even to put a number to it. Estimates vary widely, ranging from 4 million to 27 million victims per year. The nomenclature employed is as unclear as the breadth of the problem: sex trafficking, bonded labor, forced child labor, debt bondage, involuntary domestic servitude and child soldiers are all terms employed to subsets of the broader problem.
There is an urgent need to raise awareness to this problem and the millions who are victimized by trafficking. To begin with, a clear understanding of the problem would be a good start. The United Nations defines trafficking in human beings by emphasizing three elements: the movement or receipt of people; some form of threat, force, coercion or deceit; and the purpose of exploitation. We need greater investment in effort to stop trafficking. We should dedicate more resources to research, developing interdisciplinary methodologies that include the causes and conditions of vulnerability among different groups in the varied contexts of war and peace to respond and combat the problem more effectively. We should develop public policy to curb the growing economic inequalities that exacerbate conditions in which human trafficking tends to occur. For our part, the Program on Human Rights at the Center on Democracy, Development and Rule of Law (CDDRL) will sponsor an international speaker series and workshops over the next two quarters to promote debate and discussion on solutions for human trafficking worldwide.
In short, we are trying to promote an approach that includes international cooperation as well as an active role for local and international business and organizations, the United Nations, the World Bank, philanthropic institutions and non-governmental organization — an approach that will work today, Jan. 11, as well as the other 364 days each year in which human trafficking continues.
Manager of the Program on Human Rights at Stanford