No One Is Steering the United States’ Fight Against Human Trafficking

No One Is Steering the United States’ Fight Against Human Trafficking

Luis CdeBaca, the Ambassador-At-Large to Combat Trafficking in Persons (TIP), has just stepped down. As we note in a recent op-ed, this leaves the State Department’s anti-trafficking office without leadership, and imperils the progress the United States has helped make in calling attention to the problem of human trafficking. The TIP office, headed by the ambassador, we write,

monitors how countries around the world perform in their fight against human trafficking, and its annual report is the world’s most comprehensive resource of governmental anti-human trafficking efforts. The report, which ranks countries on different "tiers," is so important because governments, NGOs and intergovernmental organizations worldwide pay close attention to its findings. Low rankings can trigger sanctions; perhaps more importantly, they can shame countries into action. Countries dislike being known for failing to fight appalling violations of human rights and loathe being grouped with other low performers. The reporting and tier-placement help TIP and embassies around the world engage local officials in dialogues about how to improve. It creates leverage.

Argentina, Armenia, and even an ally unused to its criticism — Israel — have felt the pressure from the U.S. office. In the face of criticism from the office, Switzerland closed loopholes that allowed the prostitution of minors. Most recently, Thailand has paid notice to the office’s criticism of its human trafficking in its fishing industry, criticism that prompted delegations of Thai officials and business people to lobby Congress extensively. Although the president has often waived the sanctions on those with the lowest tier rankings, the pressure is still on: bad publicity hurts business and countries are taking notice.

But the problem is that lots of people in the State Department would rather see the TIP office shrivel up because it gets in the way of other U.S. goals. As we explain:

It is very easy for an issue like trafficking to take a back seat to other more visible U.S. priorities. In the past, the office has experienced significant pressures to downplay criticisms. Some who see trafficking issues as getting in the way of other top U.S. priorities might like to see the president appoint someone who will keep a low profile. That would be a mistake.

This spring the office will draft its next annual trafficking report, and without strong leadership the report will be watered down. This will irreparably harm the valuable leverage the U.S. has built. The office needs authoritative leadership that can negotiate within the U.S. government and assert the importance Congress gave the office in legislation in 2000. Failing to appoint someone quickly, or appointing a weak figure, would undermine a decade of progress.

This is unacceptable. It leaves vulnerable the 21 million people that the United Nations’ International Labor Organization estimates are suffering in forced labor and human trafficking.

Read the full article here.

This is a guest post from Mark Lagon, a faculty member at Georgetown University and adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, who becomes president of Freedom House in January 2015.  Judith Kelley is a professor and senior associate dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University.