How U.S. Budget Cuts Prolong Global Slavery

By E. Benjamin Skinner
NY Times

Three days before the U.S. congressional elections last fall, Hillary Clinton stood halfway around the world from Washington, pledging to young victims of human trafficking at Cambodia’s Siem Reap Center that they would continue to enjoy the support of the U.S. State Department, which then provided some $336,000 to the shelter. The acclaimed center, situated near the magnificent temples of Angkor Wat, was an oasis of peace for some 50 survivors who, before they were rescued or escaped, had endured slavery in brothels, where they were forced to have sex with as many as 30 men a day. At the shelter, they received counseling, studied hairdressing, learned to sew, and otherwise worked to rebuild their lives and reclaim their humanity. In the evenings, they did aerobics together.

On Monday afternoon, some eight months after that visit, as she unveiled the State Department’s 11th annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report to a packed room in the department’s ornate Benjamin Franklin Room, Clinton only hinted that the result of the congressional elections had left in doubt the long-term value of her pledge to the survivors. “Even in these tight economic times, we need to find ways to do better,” Clinton told the overflowing crowd. (Watch “Nepal: Escaped from the Sex Trade, Unable to Go Home.”)

Clinton’s confidence belied the fact that in April, Congress slashed the grant-making capacity of the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. When the Republicans won the House last November, the office’s $21.2 million annual budget to fight the war on slavery was already microscopic. At the time, it was barely equal to the U.S. government’s daily budget to fight the war on drugs. For fiscal year 2012, Congress sliced away nearly a quarter of those antislavery funds, as part of its broader $8 billion State Department budget cuts.

For Mark Lagon, a former Republican staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who headed the TIP office during the Bush Administration’s second term, the budget cuts are “a sign that all programs are evenly hit, even those with broad nonpartisan support.” But Lagon was troubled that shoestring yet lifesaving overseas antislavery programs would feel those cuts most dearly. “We need to spend 10 times as much on fighting human trafficking and ending slavery,” said Lagon, “and it would still be a bargain even at that price.”

In this year’s trafficking report, the constraints on the TIP office are not limited to the budget. Annually, the report ranks countries based on how well they fought slavery in the previous year. Countries demonstrating the most effective antitrafficking efforts are placed in Tier 1; recalcitrant nations are placed in Tier 3, where they could face nontrade sanctions, including prohibitions on development assistance. While the 2011 report ranks most of the 184 countries in the middle, the State Department ranked 42 nations just above those threatened with sanctions, on the watch list of Tier 2. Antislavery activists claim that ranking a country in the watch list for some consecutive years amounts to a cop-out. In congressional testimony last year, Holly Burkhalter, vice president for government relations at the International Justice Mission, decried the misuse of the list as a “parking lot for U.S. allies that actually belonged in Tier 3.” (See Middle America’s crime.)

Three years ago, when Congress reauthorized the 2000 Trafficking Victims Protection Act, the law that created the TIP office, it moved to clear out the “parking lot.” The new law mandated that any country that had been on the watch list for two consecutive years would be downgraded to Tier 3, unless that country presented a written plan and a demonstrated capacity to improve its slavery record. This year, all but five of the 19 “parking lot” occupants avoided the automatic downgrade. Of those five that were dropped under the law, Libya and Venezuela join Cuba, North Korea, Sudan, Zimbabwe and other Tier 3 countries already facing U.S. sanctions. (Others in Tier 3 include Middle East allies such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.)

Antislavery activists were quietly furious that most of the longtime watch-list inhabitants stayed off of Tier 3 again this year. The State Department included India among six countries that it upgraded to Tier 2, citing the country’s implementation of a national identity-card program, which could help prevent human trafficking. But India did little to address the slavery of millions who are trapped in debt bondage. China, Russia and Uzbekistan were among seven countries granted waivers as they had offered written plans to improve their trafficking records. (See “Human Trafficking Rises in a Recession.”)

But according to this year’s report, Uzbekistan still uses slave labor to pick cotton, which then finds its way into clothes made and shipped across the world. Remarking on Uzbekistan’s continued watch-list status, Lagon said, “A waiver is outrageous given the regime’s refusals to allow in inspectors, and even Walmart is spurning [Uzbek cotton].”

In the 2011 report, the State Department also used diplomatic contortions to dodge another congressional mandate. Last year, members of Congress, outraged by allegations of unpunished trafficking cases perpetrated on U.S. soil by officials of foreign missions, used an appropriations bill to require that “the Secretary should include all trafficking cases involving [servants of diplomats] in the Trafficking in Persons annual report where a final civil judgment has been issued.” At least one such case is missing from this year’s report. There is no mention of the case of Zipora Mazengo, a Tanzanian woman who had been held as a slave by her country’s Minister of Consular Affairs in Washington for four years. To date, the $1 million judgment against the diplomat in that case remains unpaid. This year, while the report mentions diplomatic abuses in nine countries, it fails to name the diplomatic missions whose employees abused domestic workers in the U.S.

Interspersed in the report are images of the long struggle against slavery. On page 21, the writers include an example of slave-free labeling on a bowl of British sugar from the 1820s. Two pages later, the report hails the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act of 2010, which will require companies that do business in the state and have gross global receipts over $100 million to make similar slavery disclosures on their websites. Throughout the report and its release, State Department officials highlighted the need to address slavery in the supply chains of consumer products.

The report concludes with an arresting image: the remains of an indentured child servant whose master had bludgeoned him to death before throwing him under a pile of garbage in a cellar. The child, approximately the age of the youngest of the freed slaves with whom Clinton spoke in Siem Reap, was killed in 1665. But his skeleton and his story serve as reminders that governments must do much more than “pass laws or discuss human trafficking as a diplomatic issue.” — With reporting by Sophie Elsner

Skinner is a senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism of Brandeis University.