An interview with Ambassador Luis C.deBaca on human trafficking

Ambassador Luis C.deBaca (retired), Robina Fellow in Modern Slavery, Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Abolition, & Resistance at the MacMillan Center
Friday, December 7, 2018

Ambassador Luis C.deBaca (retired) Ambassador Luis C.deBaca, Robina Fellow in Modern Slavery, Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Abolition, & Resistance at the MacMillan Center, has negotiated law enforcement, labor, and human rights advances and managed multi-million dollar grant portfolios combating slavery and sexual abuse during his career in public service. As one of the United States’ most decorated Federal Prosecutors, he built his litigation record at the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division into policy: he investigated and prosecuted trafficking cases involving hundreds of victims and developed the “victim-centered” approach that is now the global standard for modern slavery cases. As principal DOJ drafter of the US Trafficking Victims Protection Act and member of the team that negotiated the United Nations’ trafficking protocol, he helped to enshrine the “3P” approach of prevention, protection, and prosecution. Ambassador C.deBaca served in the Administration of President Barack Obama as Ambassador at Large to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (2009-2014), and Director of the Office for Sex Offender Monitoring Apprehending, Registering, and Tracking (2015-2017). Retired from government service, he is working to ensure exploitation-free supply chains and financial flows, to amplify the voices of victims and survivors, and to establish information-sharing that makes communities, college campuses, and industries safer. He is a 2017-2018 Soros Open Society Fellow focusing on human rights issues and worker-led social responsibility and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Human trafficking, also known as trafficking in persons (TIP), is a modern-day form of slavery and a major threat to women and girls, who account for 71 per cent of global trafficking victims. This complex issue takes many forms, including sex trafficking, child sex trafficking, forced labor, forced child labor, domestic servitude, debt bondage, and the unlawful recruitment or use of child soldiers. 

New data developed by the International Labor Organization (ILO) and released at the 2017 UN General Assembly suggested that there are more than 40 million victims worldwide, 15 million of which were in forced marriage and 25 million of which were in forced labor. It further confirmed that 152 million children, aged between 5 and 17, were subject to child labor, accounting for one in ten children around the world. 

Human trafficking is a multibillion-dollar criminal industry surpassed only by drug trafficking and arms sales. Anyone can become a victim; however, high-risk populations include undocumented migrants, runaways and at-risk youth, and oppressed or marginalized groups. Within the United States, the victims who have been identified are disproportionately girls and women of color, many of whom have been in the child welfare system. 

Human trafficking is considered a crime under federal and international law, yet the obstacles to identifying, enforcing and prosecuting this largely hidden offense are considerable. Nevertheless, UN Women continues its work with governments to enact gender responsive legislation and make sure trafficking and labor laws are consistent and address the needs of survivors. It also works on issue awareness and education targeting vulnerable populations. 

Join us as we speak with Ambassador deBaca who shares his insights about public policy mechanisms and other efforts to eradicate corruption and human trafficking to prevent even more people from becoming victims of this heinous crime.

How do you stay motivated to continue the fight against human trafficking when, despite progress made, the number of reported cases continues to grow, with 8,000 reported in the U.S. alone last year? 

Amb. C.deBaca: Through the resilience and bravery of the survivors themselves. Human trafficking is a grueling area of law. If you’re not coming to it as theoretical but instead trying to get as close to the issue as possible, it can be very daunting and emotional. But when you see survivors putting their lives together or overcoming suffering from exploitation, you realize there is very much a job to be done and that you need to amplify their voices and walk with them on their journey to freedom. Their strength helps to sustain my continuing work in this area. 

What advice would you give to prosecutors and policymakers who are now entering their careers and responsible for anti-trafficking efforts and the protection of potential victims and survivors? 

Amb. C.deBaca: The same advice I give to everyone: develop a craft and be good at it. We have seen lots of people who get moved to work on the human trafficking issue, but the desire to help without any skills to go with it is nice but frankly a luxury. In order to truly help, one should excel in their professions, such as a financial analyst or clinical social worker or prosecutor. We need people who can trace money using forensic tools as well as those who know exactly how corporate procurement and supply chains work. We need people who understand trauma. That’s the one thing I stress to everybody -if you want to share your skills with the anti-trafficking fight, develop them highly so you will be ready to make an impact when the time comes. Then there is an opportunity to say, in effect, that my desire to help is delivered by my craft and expertise. 

Why are we seeing an increasing number of female traffickers even as women and girls continue to disproportionately account for the number of human trafficking victims? 

Amb. C.deBaca: A lot of people are surprised by how many women are involved in crime, particularly human trafficking. The idea that Violence Against Women can be carried out by other women rather than a man has taken time for people to wrap their heads around conceptually. The place where we have derived the most understanding when thinking about power dynamics and new ways of investigating and prosecuting sexual violence and sexual assault came out of cases and activism in the early 70’s and 80’s, where we learned about power dynamics. In domestic violence and sexual violence, that is typically men wielding that power. However, in human trafficking, especially in the domestic servitude cases, it was not men who were the bad actors, but women who have almost absolute power over women who are vulnerable because of differences in race, ethnicity, language, or poverty. Through the courtroom we have come to understand women abusing other women and were able to develop a more centered approach to power dynamics that is better understood and applied. So even if TIP is not exclusively a form of male violence against women, we have been able to harness the insights of that movement to create a more just approach for all victims of trafficking, no matter their sex or that of their abuser. 

It isn’t necessarily that there are more women committing this crime, though. It is likely that more focus on the trafficking issue in general also means more female traffickers are getting caught. There are no simplistic answers as to why they do it. We see a lot of sex trafficking in the U.S. enforcement activity and when pursuing traffickers, you are going to find a substantial number of women in different types of trafficking. It can vary from classic organized crime with powerful women in charge of the operation, to former sex workers who have been promoted to low-level management within a small group (sometimes escaping their own abuse through choosing to collaborate), and everything in between. While understanding that many of these women are hardened criminals or engaged in wanton cruelty, we also make sure to look at their own histories to see what victimization they themselves may have suffered. 

What other key trends in human trafficking patterns does the existing data show? 

Amb. C.deBaca: One of the biggest misperceptions as far as patterns of human trafficking today is that it’s something that happens “over there”. Both the UN Protocol and the U.S. law used the term “trafficking”, and that term comes with transportation-based assumptions that have done a lot of mischief and have helped many Americans to think that this is a foreign problem. It isn’t just a problem in other countries. 

With broader trends in the interconnected global economy, if something is happening “over there” also means it’s happening “over here,” and not just in child sex trafficking in our communities, which is another misconception many people have. Given the high level of shrimp exports to the U.S., for example, all of us in this country have some level of consumer culpability for the abuse of Burmese and Cambodian workers who are suffering peeling shrimp in cleaning sheds, or the people on the boats or aquaculture operations where the shrimp originate. It is unfortunate that we are not as moved by a girl or women enslaved in a packing shed 5,000 miles away so that we can have cheap shrimp as much as 

we are by an American girl or woman taken to a hotel for prostitution in our home town. It is heartening, however, to see people in the U.S. make the effort to learn more about child trafficking. That initial compassion is leading to a more complete vision of this crime – the task forces that resulted from that initial interest in child sex trafficking are now also being used to liberate women and men from forced labor, as is seen in recent cases in Texas restaurants and Minnesota construction sites. 

How would you characterize efforts by the U.S. and other governments to tackle the challenges related to international cooperation on human rights, labor laws, criminal law enforcement, and migration, etc.? 

Amb. C.deBaca: Since the Clinton Administration, Human Trafficking has been a consistent and regular part of U.S. foreign policy around criminal enforcement. We see growth of anti-trafficking cooperation around the world largely driven by the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons (2000) which has come alive and is nearing universal ratification with blazing speed, prodded by the U.S. State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report. The report tracks closely with the UN Protocol, serves as a road map, and highlights specific steps each government can take to protect victims of human trafficking, prevent trafficking crimes, and prosecute traffickers around the world. 

The Palermo Protocol is considered a very transformative tool because it reaches a broader set of abuses and breaks down siloes in the international community. The set of abuses that it reaches are not tied to movement or limited to transnational activities under international law and can be applied in-country, because it applies to everyone, regardless of gender; and because it applies equally to cases of enslavement for sex or labor alike. Plus, the Protocol, like the U.S. law, is centered around the 3Ps—prevention, protection and prosecution—which place those concepts as all equally important as opposed to simply defaulting back to the law enforcement frame of the past. I would have to also say that the U.S. taking on the herculean task of an annual report has helped not only implement the Palermo Protocol, but has produced a staggering amount of information and analysis, framed by the 3Ps, that likely could not have been done through the United Nations. Self-reporting mechanisms with treaties are increasingly seen as toothless, since most States simply don’t want to explain themselves and their treatment of migrant, minority or marginalized communities (perhaps because power may have flowed from having exploited those communities or by sustaining previous inequalities). 

What role does corruption by public officials play in human trafficking and thwarting the rule of law? 

Amb. C.deBaca: The World Bank defines corruption as the abuse of public power for private benefit. Dealing with human trafficking and corruption together is not only a natural thing but is imperative. Part of the reason is that human trafficking sits at the fissures of society. Zones of impunity can be physical such as the fishing fleet operating past the 12-mile mark in the lawless zone, they can be gaps in legislation, or they can even be places traffickers know they can operate and get away with it like parts of town the police don’t go. Corruption is a way to, in effect, buy one’s own private zone of impunity. 

Countries that have formal laws and a modern anti-slavery regime based on the Palermo Protocol and the 3P’s of prevention, prosecution and prosecution still need to have cops out there enforcing these structures. We’ve seen country after country with corrupt polices that enforce the laws against the brothels who don’t pay them and leave those that do pay go unmolested; in those circumstances corruption is as much a matter of who authorities choose to enforce the law against as anything else. 

Currently in the United States, there are two New York Police Department officers under federal indictment for tipping off brothel owners about scheduled raids and identifying undercover cops. 

We need to begin building a culture of integrity. There are already many activities under way but first, there needs to be unified and well set out laws, not just having a corruption law with an obstruction law off to the side. If you obstruct efforts to prevent slavery, then you should be guilty of slavery. International frameworks already exist, including Article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which includes a restatement of the U.S. Thirteenth Amendment. Much of what we are learning about transparency, victim care and stopping slavery once and for all, is not actually coming from people at the top with titles but from the voices of once-silenced survivors. Those are the voices that need to be harnessed to build a culture of integrity within police forces and other public officials. 

To learn more, I recommend people read the International Bar Association’s Presidential Task Force report, “Human Trafficking and Public Corruption.” Also, the United Nations University report , “25 Keys to Unlock the Financial Chains of Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery.” 

SDG targets 5.2, 8.7, 16.2 call for effective measures to end forced labor, modern slavery, human trafficking and child labor in all forms. Which protective and preventative measures/strategies do you believe are most effective? 

Amb. C.deBaca: The only way these SDG targets will come to fruition is through political will. There is a lot of talk about SDGs in the corporate social responsibility (CSR) space, but outsourcing government responsibility to multi-national supply chains can’t be a substitute for countries stepping up and doing their own enforcement. Often foreign ministries will sign on to international instruments with no subsequent action on the part of their security and justice counterparts, leaving ministries of social affairs or ministries of women and children to cite to the goals without any way to advance them. Target 8.7 and others thus risk being just an expression of the UN system as opposed to fueling new policies or standard operating procedures. There needs to be less focus on trying to get the perfect structure or approach to each target in international fora and gatherings, and more work to ensure that States demonstrate their commitment not by making speeches, but by getting results on the ground. 

How can citizens, youth, businesses, faith organizations, NGOs, and the media take actions to help prevent more people becoming victims of human trafficking? 

Amb. deBaca: The one thing everyone can do to help prevent more people from becoming trafficking victims is to think about where you are and what you can accomplish within your own circle. Your church, school, place of work, all give you a forum to have the conversation that slavery does exist and we can do something about it, rather than throwing up your hands thinking it’s inevitable. 

What we are seeing is kids in high schools and colleges starting anti-trafficking organizations and taking that energy out into the world with them. Millennials are transforming their own environments as they insist that their campuses or companies have a formal and actual anti-slavery response. In some way it is a simple solution – insisting that the institutions we are affiliated with or working with daily start responding. Holding their feet to the fire so they don’t become window-dressing or even worst “greenwashing” by enacting paper policies that never get implemented in the field, in order to defuse 

the immediate scandal. Anti-sweatshop initiatives created good structures about 20 years ago, but current students might not know about them. They can kick the tires on their colleges and find out where their school is sourcing its T-shirts and sweatshirts. Organizations like Goodweave provide good sourcing data in textiles. Know the Chain is putting out good information about corporate actors who appear to be making progress, and every student should be going on to and learn how their own consumption fuels forced labor. What about the food supply on campus? The Fair Food Program is a successful workplace monitoring program that protects workers in the tomato fields, and frankly there is no excuse for any University to not be participating in it, but the companies who work with them can’t yet guarantee that the lettuce in the dining hall is free from exploitation. People in Master’s and PhD. Programs also need to build their research around this, so the slavery issue is addressed at the higher echelons and we can accelerate the academic rigor that has been slowly coming into the field. We additionally need more pressure from consumers on regulators, so they know there is no market for slave made goods. 

The fight against modern slavery should no longer be thought of as a niche issue, or the new kid on the block, and that is being recognized by the international community. Over the past few years two people were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize by the Nobel Institute in Oslo in recognition of their cutting-edge human rights work against human trafficking. The 2018 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Nadia Murad, who was formerly held by ISIS in sexual servitude, who fights for freedom as the UN goodwill ambassador for the dignity of survivors of human trafficking. It is so inspiring to see how far she has come in the few years since she escaped. In 2014, the Nobel Prize was awarded to Kailash Satyarthi, the founder of Goodweave and other anti-slavery organizations in India, for his work to confront forced labor, especially of children in textiles and mining. He is a wonderful partner in this fight, bridging the gap all the way from the abusive worksite to the corporate offices high above in the supply chain. Their leadership has been recognized with the Peace Prize and should be a sign to everyone that activism works. I encourage everyone to join the march, and become a modern abolitionist!

If you suspect human trafficking call or text the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) at 1-888-373-7888.

This interview was conducted by Kathie Bolognese, former Vice President of the UN Women- USNC Metro NY Chapter, for UN Women.