America needs an ambassador to combat human trafficking, and we need it now
Last year, the United States celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act — the foundation for U.S. policy to combat human trafficking — and the Palermo Protocol — the UN’s framework to address trafficking worldwide. While we have seen unquestionable progress in the fight against trafficking over this period, there is more to do. Twenty-five million people are estimated to be victims of sex or labor trafficking, and the risk of exploitation continues to grow as traffickers take advantage of vulnerabilities caused by the pandemic, economic duress, and forced migration. This is why swift action is needed by the Biden administration to fill a role that will be critical to continuing the fight against human trafficking.
A small office in the United States Department of State, known as the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (J/TIP), leads our nation’s international counter-trafficking efforts. It is vital the Biden administration prioritize nominating an ambassador-at-large to lead this office. Over the past two decades, the United States has had a number of strong J/TIP ambassadors from both parties who have helped established our country as a global leader in the fight against trafficking. However, as multiple crises exacerbate vulnerabilities worldwide, we risk losing decades worth of progress. U.S. and international efforts will benefit greatly from having a confirmed ambassador to prioritize anti-trafficking efforts, with three specific areas that demand the new ambassador’s immediate and sustained focus.
First, the ambassador should commit unequivocally to a comprehensive approach rooted in a combination of prevention efforts, protection of survivors, and prosecution of perpetrators. In particular, the new ambassador should increase the office’s focus on prevention. These efforts must tackle the root causes that make people more vulnerable to exploitation and incorporate a systemic lens that addresses issues like racism, misogyny, and economic inequality. Equally critical is the protection of survivors of human trafficking. In developing these efforts, the new ambassador must draw from the insights of survivors, including those on the U.S. Advisory Council for Human Trafficking. Additionally, the new ambassador should advocate domestically and internationally for more vigorous criminal enforcement, while forcefully pushing for improvements in how trafficking investigations and prosecutions are conducted. As documented in the annual Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP Report), there are still too few prosecutions of traffickers, particularly in labor trafficking cases, but reforms are also needed, including ensuring victims are never prosecuted.
Second, the incoming ambassador should ensure the annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report remains an indispensable tool in the fight against human trafficking. The TIP Report has long been the standard for analyzing global efforts to address trafficking, but it is only effective if it is credible. While most of the report is noncontroversial, there have been several high-profile cases in which non-trafficking considerations, such as trade or national security, have impacted the report. These other factors are certainly important considerations to U.S. foreign policy, but the report must remain strictly a straightforward analysis of global counter-trafficking efforts. There should never be a question about the report being unduly influenced by political pressures. Any doubt around the report’s reliability undermines the data, the office’s credibility, and most importantly the ability to combat trafficking globally.
Third, as the most senior government leader on counter-trafficking efforts, the incoming ambassador must build broad consensus on solutions. Addressing human trafficking has long been a bipartisan issue; that approach must continue. Additionally, the ambassador should prioritize efforts to foster greater unity within civil society. Unfortunately, our movement too often focuses on the points of divergence rather than the many places of consensus. We have seen clearly through coalitions like the Alliance to End Slavery & Trafficking that intentional efforts to bring together diverse perspectives to identify shared solutions can result in meaningful impact. The ambassador should use their position to identify those places of common ground.
Whoever is confirmed as the new J/TIP ambassador will have the privilege of working with an exceptionally talented and committed staff, and the responsibility of carrying forward a legacy of fighting worldwide on behalf of trafficking survivors. The Biden administration should act swiftly to fill this position and ensure the United States continues to make anti-trafficking efforts a priority.
Kristen Leanderson Abrams is Senior Director of Combatting Human Trafficking at the McCain Institute and Corban Teague is Senior Advisor of Policy & Government Relations at Humanity United.