OPINION: How can the U.S. renew the fight against human trafficking?

by Mark Taylor | .
Thursday, 12 November 2020 16:45 GMT

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden speaks as Vice President-elect Kamala Harris listens during a brief news conference in Wilmington, Delaware, U.S., November 10, 2020. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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Mark B. Taylor is an independent consultant on human trafficking issues, based in Southeast Asia.  He worked in the U.S. State Department for 28 years, during which he was the Senior Coordinator for Reporting and Political Affairs in its Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.

The transition of power underway in the United States coincides with the 20th anniversary of the signing in Palermo, Italy of the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons, and presents the incoming Biden Administration with an opportunity to reinvigorate the U.S. response to human trafficking. 

The forging of the Palermo Protocol in December 2000 came just two months after strong bipartisanship collaboration in the U.S. produced the enactment of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA).  A new and first anti-trafficking in persons (TIP) law, the TVPA allowed strong US leadership in the concurrent development of the UN Protocol’s contents and the international consensus needed for its ratification among UN member states. 

This was a proud time for American leadership, marking the start of a period of progress against a serious and emerging human rights and crime issue.  Over the last four years, though, that pride of leadership has taken a heavy beating, tarnished by policies of the departing Administration that enabled trafficking, hurt victims and vulnerable people, shunned collaboration with partners, and weaponized the issue against undocumented migrants. 

READ MORE: Anti-trafficking groups urge Biden to focus on labor exploitation

As it prepares to assume leadership on this and some many inter-linking global issues, the Biden Administration should consider the following recommendations as key to the path of restoring a more effective anti-trafficking policy:

Strengthen the Integrity of the State Department TIP Report  

Time has not been kind to the TVPA’s “minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking” that underpin the State Department’s TIP Report, and they have not been significantly revised in 20 years. These standards for evaluating anti-trafficking performance around the world are overwhelmingly based on law enforcement (prosecution) performance. 

However, evidence gathered over the last 20 years has shown that criminal justice responses as often ineffective in the face of systemic and institutional factors enabling exploitation, and do not attempt to address the needs of victims. More priority should be given to metrics in the area of trafficking prevention– currently give only a brief mention in the TVPA minimum standards – which research suggests is where the lasting answers to solving this tough problem reside. 

In measuring criminal justice responses, the emphasis should be away from current and simplistic quantitative indicators of prosecutions – which often incentivize governments to “pump up numbers” through low-quality or even harmful law enforcement actions, such as the arrests of victims – and towards indicators of the quality of criminal justice responses, specifically their ability to address victims’ needs. Alternative pathways towards justice should also be part of the TIP Report metrics, particularly collaboration with the private sector in remediating labor trafficking in supply chains.  

Overhaul the State Department’s ineffective anti-TIP aid program, or give it to USAID and USDOL

The State Department’s TIP Office is currently responsible for some $75 million in assistance annually, but this has not been well administered.  Most is spread out in small grants scattered over some 90 countries, with few lasting longer than 36 months, guaranteeing that no funding sinks deep enough and lasts long enough to create real, sustainable impact. 

Clear evidence-based strategies should be articulated for regions and sectors of human trafficking, with long-term commitments of resources and data-rich criteria (going beyond exclusively quantitative indicators) for evaluation of impact.  Have the State Department join major global donors in making publicly available the research products it has funded, the specific allocations of funding, and the evaluations of its projects. 

De-link International and Domestic Roles

The U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Monitoring and Combatting Trafficking in Persons at the State Department should not have responsibilities over domestic anti-trafficking efforts; this has been the case since 2003 and 17 years of this experiment has shown that it simply doesn’t work.

The TIP Ambassador has plenty of work to do projecting leadership among other nations and in regional and multilateral fora, and integrating human trafficking goals into foreign policy in collaboration with colleagues in the State Department and other foreign affairs agencies.  Relieve the Ambassador of managing interagency food-fights. 

Put the human trafficking policy issue where it belongs and can be managed most effectively – in the foreign policy coordination committees under the NSC and in parallel committees under the Domestic Policy Council.  Mainstreaming TIP will strengthen its currency in foreign policy.

New Diplomatic Leadership Needed

The creation of an ambassador-level position in the State Department to advance anti-trafficking goals globally was key to the sustained progress seen in countries enacting Palermo Protocol-compliant laws and starting criminal justice responses to TIP.  This success has been greatly aided by having three former federal prosecutors serving consecutively as US Ambassador on TIP over the last 12 years.

Now it’s time to shift away from law enforcement-focused leadership and appoint a TIP envoy who better represents the diversity of expertise in the anti-trafficking field and the broader array of responses that evidence shows us are key to future success.