We need an updated approach to combat human trafficking

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The role of the United States as a leader in combating human trafficking since the late 1990s has been rightly praised as both bipartisan and noteworthy. Now, with U.S. leadership on human rights in serious
decline, it’s essential to rethink traditional approaches and to broaden constituencies devoted to this issue.

The work combating human trafficking of both Republican and Democratic administrations, going back to the Clinton White House, has dramatically shaped how the world has tackled this horrendous international crime where children, women, and men, through force, fraud or coercion, are exploited.

Among many highlights, it has included:

  1.  Working with Congress to legislate the creation of an office in the State Department led by an Ambassador to rate the efforts of countries around the world prohibiting human trafficking and punishing traffickers
  2. Helping shape an internationally agreed definition of human trafficking that has been ratified by over 170 countries
  3. Coordinating the interagency including the largest government-funded efforts in the world to combat trafficking overseen by among others the State Department, the Departments of Labor and Justice, and USAID, where between 2010 and 2014 I helped shape the Agency’s policy and strategy.

But even if Hillary Clinton, a long-time advocate on the issue, were president, there would be reason to consider a 2.0 approach to combating trafficking. As first lady, she was a guiding force behind the current paradigm: a focus on prevention of human trafficking, protection of victims, prosecution of traffickers, and a fourth P she elevated as Secretary of State, partnership. These four p’s have gotten us far, but they all need a boost — especially given the inclinations of the current president who is famously derisive of anything involving partnership.

The numbers of human trafficking victims are staggering (even if the methodology generating them is, well, squishy). For many years, the U.S. government used the number 20.1 million. Recently, that has been upped to 40 million.

Even if the number of victims were 10 million, and even if the amount of money was half the $150 billion trafficking is estimated to generate annually, these pale compared to the prosecutions annually which in 2016 were less than 15,000 with just over 9000 convictions. Investing more to get prosecutions up and more traffickers convicted makes sense.

We need, however, to look beyond governments, lawyers, and law enforcement to radically grow and shift how this movement operates. As consumers and citizens, we need to increase our knowledge, and change our attitudes and behavior.

Fortunately, we have a mechanism already in place, agreed to by the international community that might help nudge us.

One could be forgiven for not knowing or having forgotten about our global commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals (the SDGs), made in what was a radically different political era-September 2015.

These goals are universal; they apply to all of us and should be thought of not as “UN goals,” but as “our goals.” They represent a paradigm shift in development; rights are firmly embedded. In several goals, we have committed to eradicate human trafficking by 2030, including sex trafficking, labor trafficking, and the use of child soldiers.

The SDGs should be particularly appealing to young people, or what I call Cohort 2030 — those born between 1980 and 2000. This Cohort in the United States has been online practically from birth, is concerned about ethically-sourced goods, appalled by corruption, and intolerant of gender disparity.

As a recent Ford Foundation blog notes “… more than 90 percent of millennials want to use their skills for good, and more than half of those surveyed say they would take a pay cut for work that fits with their values.” Cohort 2030 should be challenged to use their skills and values to become the generation that works together to end this human rights abuse. Teaching and training Cohort 2030 about the SDGs is a first step.

Other steps include standard human rights advocacy: Cohort 2030 should call Congress and urge representatives to continue to work together to reauthorize the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. They should also demand that the White House fill the Ambassador’s position to monitor and combat trafficking.

These young consumers should also become familiar with KnowTheChain which benchmarks the supply chains of some of the largest companies in the world and then vote with their wallets.

They can donate to the many important NGOs that support survivors such as the Human Trafficking Legal Center (run by an attorney who previously worked with me pro-bono) or the Freedom Fund that works in some of the most affected regions of the world.

Of course one doesn’t have to be in Cohort 2030 to do any of this. And no one should be surprised if the President denigrates or walks back from the SDGs as he has done with the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. Yet as with climate change, leadership is shifting bit by bit to citizens, to the private sector, and to mayors, who all over the country have recently pledged to implement the SDGs.

In a cynical age, it’s tempting to be skeptical and apathetic. Even devotees of the United Nations are wary that the SDGs could be smothered by the behemoth that is the UN system.

But this agenda, when locally owned, is precisely what is needed for this era: the SDGs can serve as a call-to-action to citizens around the world, especially young people, who want a more prosperous, peaceful, and progressive planet.

Those four p’s can help strengthen the trafficking four p’s and leave the next generation with a world where slavery is truly a thing of the past.

Sarah E. Mendelson served in the Obama administration as U.S. Ambassador to the UN’s ECOSOC and as a deputy at USAID. Currently, she is a distinguished service professor of public policy and the head of Carnegie Mellon’s Heinz College in Washington D.C.

Tags economy Hillary Clinton Human trafficking Sex crimes sex trafficking Violence against women World

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