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June 18th, 2009
01:54 PM ET

A Q&A on human trafficking

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Russian police acknowledge that human trafficking for sexual exploitation is a major problem.
Russian police acknowledge that human trafficking for sexual exploitation is a major problem.

E. Benjamin Skinner
Author and Journalist

Before being sworn-in last week as President Obama’s Ambassador-at-Large to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, Luis C. de Baca was one of the nation’s most decorated federal prosecutors, and helped to write the principal U.S. law on modern-day slavery, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.

On Tuesday, the same day that he and Hillary Clinton released a State Department report condemning 69 countries for failing to do enough to combat trafficking, I spoke with de Baca about his 15-year career, which has included more than a hundred successful convictions of human traffickers.

What is modern-day slavery?

Ambassador de Baca: Modern-day slavery, also called human trafficking, is the phenomenon of people being held in some form of service using coercion.

How much of this is sex trafficking?

Ambassador de Baca: International trafficking and trafficking here in the United States is a big problem whether it’s in the sex industry or labor. While a lot of attention has been paid to sex industry over the years, and it is a terrible there, the problem is in the labor sector as well. Regardless of whether the underlying service is in the labor or sex sectors, we see widespread, routine sexual abuse of women who are being held in servitude no matter what it is that they are being forced to do. That’s something that we have to confront regardless of the labels of sex or labor trafficking. So we’re looking to see whether the ideas about trafficking that are gaining some currency worldwide can actually be applied to all forms of trafficking rather than simply one of its many aspects.

One of the phenomena highlighted in today’s report is how the global economic downturn is affecting human trafficking. Could you elaborate on that?

Ambassador de Baca: One of the reasons why we’re concerned that the global economic crisis is making people more vulnerable to trafficking is that there’s such a displacement of workers and a shutting down of opportunities which leaves people much more willing to expose themselves to risk, as they’ve become increasingly desperate. We’re also worried that governments worldwide, and non-governmental organizations, that so often are able to provide victim services are not going to have the resources to be able to find these people, or to help them once they are free.

You’ve worked on trafficking under three administrations now, starting in the Justice Department under Clinton. Do you have any sense of a difference of approach on this issue between Bush and Obama?

Ambassador de Baca: The common challenge of the three administrations that I’ve worked with on this—including the Clinton Administration in the early years of formulating U.S. policy, and the last years as we tried to take the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) and the Palermo Protocol and tried to give it some life—is the promotion of an underlying assumption that this is a crime of slavery and that this is a crime of compelled service. And the appropriate response to it is through the “Three P’s”: protection, prosecution and prevention. Hillary Clinton remarked at the launch of this year’s trafficking report—and we’ll see more of this throughout the coming years under President Obama—a fourth “P”: partnerships. The United States will look at other countries not solely to rank them but to look at them as partners to enlist.

Now what about those countries that either can’t—Somalia, for example—or won’t—take Saudi Arabia, our closest ally on Tier Three of the report. How do partner with those countries?

Ambassador de Baca: One of the things that we look at in the annual rankings is the capacity of the country to be able to address the problems. Obviously a poor country with very weak governmental structures that is taking halting steps towards confronting the problem is going to be in a different situation than a wealthy country, that should and could easily address it. Just as we hold ourselves to a high standard, we also hold developed countries to a high standard.

What about Saudi Arabia? How do you address this issue with a country like Saudi Arabia which obviously cannot be swayed by the threat of non-trade sanctions?

Ambassador de Baca:We’re heartened by the fact that there has been some movement, not in Saudi Arabia, but in some of the neighboring states. Those states had many of the same labor practices that we see replicated in Saudi Arabia, but we’re seeing engagement from those countries who also did not necessarily need American development assistance. Oman was upgraded to Tier Two in this year’s rankings because they have started prosecuting defendants and they have started to help victims in their shelters. That’s certainly something that we think Saudi Arabia can do as well. It’s not going to be because of the threat from the United States. But rather, as they become increasingly alone on the peninsula as far as continuing those particular practices, we hope that Saudi Arabia will change.

You’ve been actively working on modern-day slavery since 1994. What keeps you on this subject?

Ambassador de Baca: You know, what’s interesting is that when we were doing the report rollout this morning, Congressman Chris Smith asked me exactly that. How does one stay in the countertrafficking world for as long as I’ve done, and how does one keep from burning out and crashing. I think one of the things that has enabled me to work in this area, despite the horrible things that one hears from the victims and survivors, is their strength. It really comes down the fact that survivors, who don’t necessarily have all of the legal or diplomatic language that we have when we talk about it, are able to articulate what it is that they know that they have suffered. They might not know which international convention it was or which international law it is or which code of the countries labor laws were violated. But what they can tell is in much more eloquent words than we could ever think up, is that something wrong was done.

We have to stand in testament to the wrong that was done to them. But also to the grace that they show to the rest of us who are privileged to work on this issue, as they cycle out of slavery to continue the rest of their lives.

There’s a woman, who I never met, named Imelda Ritua. She left the Philippines and her family with just a suitcase, knowing that she was giving up her job as a CPA, an accountant, there. She had to come to the United States and work as a domestic servant because her parents needed the money. When she arrived, she was working as domestic servant and a nanny in the home of another Filipina and her husband in Edison, New Jersey.

When I met Imelda Ritua in 1999, she was a body on a slab, as a result of the abuse. She had been dumped like refuse on the side of the road, as the couple tried to cover up what was probably, quite frankly, an inadvertent killing, when she died after they’d beaten her. Even thought the state of New Jersey was able to prosecute them, they didn’t get as much time as I would have liked. The state successfully prosecuted them, but won what we thought were terribly low sentences for a murder conviction: four years for the woman, and one year for the husband.

We investigated, and, with the help of the New Jersey State Police, we found people whom the wife had confided in that Imelda was forced to be their maid, that they beat her because she was poorly behaved. If we’d had the kind of task force that we now have up in New Jersey, is there something that we could have done? But it was before the Trafficking Victims Protection Act and so we weren’t able to prove the case through the psychological coercion as we would be able to today. So these people that killed their maid walked away with—yes, a conviction, yes, a deportation—but basically a slap on the wrist.

And while we were investigating it, I was in the Philippines, and I met with Imelda Ritua’s parents. A very small, very old, and very distinguished couple who’d come all the way to Manila, about a four hour drive, specifically to meet with me. And they were honored that the United States would send someone all the way around the world to talk to them about their daughter. And they brought pictures, they brought all of their keepsakes, because they wanted to show this American official, this “important person,” who their daughter was.

I try to square the body in the morgue, with the girl that they knew. And I try to square the gratitude that this family had for the United States, with our inability to have known about their daughter, and to have helped her. That’s pretty frustrating. And I only think that if we’d had the TVPA before then. If we’d had the kind of task force that we now have up in New Jersey, there is something that we would have known. That’s a pretty raw thing for me even now.

I know that you’ve worked with hundreds of survivors. Are there any that really give you hope?

Ambassador de Baca: I’m going to be going to a Fourth of July celebration that’s being held by the 300-plus Chinese and Vietnamese workers who were enslaved in a garment factory in American Samoa. This is the tenth anniversary of their liberation. In those ten years, they’ve gone from being literally starving to death when we got them out—the factory operator, Kil Soo Lee, when he got arrested, he left them in the camp without any food—to folks who are flying in from all over the country who are hosting an all-day event where folks who are members of Congress, elected officials, archbishops and others are going to be present to help them celebrate.

When I was emailing with one of those people, she emailed me a photograph of her little daughter. And thinking about the fact that that child of hers will have a life that her mother could have only dreamed of when she was behind those fences—it’s pretty impressive what can happen in only a few years.

Editor’s Note: E. Benjamin Skinner, author of A Crime So Monstrous: Face-to-Face with Modern-Day Slavery (Free Press, 2008), has witnessed negotiations for the sale of human beings on four continents.

soundoff (2 Responses)
  1. Jim

    Slavery is more common here today than most people realize, If you have a Mortgage your a Slave to the Banks. Same with Credit cards.
    That is why I have niether.

    June 18, 2009 at 4:32 pm |
  2. Kristine Gasbarre

    Thank you for this fantastic interview, and to Ambassador de Baca for his unparalleled efforts in this cause. This is a truly harrowing topic and with more slaves today than at any other point in human history, the greatest violation of human rights of our time. Bravo to AC360 for covering it.

    June 18, 2009 at 3:05 pm |