Since its creation by Congress in 2000, the U.S. State Department’s Office to Combat Trafficking in Persons has called out governments for allowing the prostitution of minors, the confinement of domestic workers by employers and the recruitment of child soldiers. It has highlighted governments’ failure to liberate bonded laborers from disadvantaged castes or protect migrant women from being coerced into sex trafficking. It has helped eliminate the captivity of tiny children starved to remain light enough to be jockeys in the popular sport of camel racing in the Middle East.
In a recent survey of more than 400 nongovernmental organizations around the world, more than 60 percent said the U.S. had been an important – or the most important actor – in their country in the effort to fight trafficking.
Unfortunately, on Monday, the United States will lose its chief advocate in the fight against this scourge. That is when Luis CdeBaca, the ambassador-at-large to Combat Trafficking in Persons, will step down. His departure leaves a dangerous void that jeopardizes continued U.S. leadership. It is crucial that President Obama replace him right away with a respected and committed individual, someone able to speak truth to power.
TIP monitors how countries around the world perform in their fight against human trafficking, and its annual report is the world’s most comprehensive resource of governmental anti-human trafficking efforts. The report, which ranks countries on different “tiers,” is so important because governments, NGOs and intergovernmental organizations worldwide pay close attention to its findings. Low rankings can trigger sanctions; perhaps more importantly, they can shame countries into action. Countries dislike being known for failing to fight appalling violations of human rights and loathe being grouped with other low performers. The reporting and tier-placement help TIP and embassies around the world engage local officials in dialogues about how to improve. It creates leverage.
Argentina, Armenia and even an ally unused to its criticism – Israel – have felt the pressure from the U.S. office. In the face of criticism from the office, Switzerland closed loopholes that allowed the prostitution of minors. Most recently, Thailand has paid notice to the office’s criticism of its human trafficking in its fishing industry, criticism that prompted delegations of Thai officials and business people to lobby Congress extensively. Although the president has often waived the sanctions on those with the lowest tier rankings, the pressure is still on: Bad publicity hurts business, and countries are taking notice.
It is very easy for an issue like trafficking to take a back seat to other more visible U.S. priorities. In the past, the office has experienced significant pressures to downplay criticisms. Some who see trafficking issues as getting in the way of other top U.S. priorities might like to see the president appoint someone who will keep a low profile. That would be a mistake.
This spring the office will draft its next annual trafficking report, and without strong leadership the report will be watered down. This will irreparably harm the valuable leverage the U.S. has built. The office needs authoritative leadership that can negotiate within the U.S. government and assert the importance Congress gave the office in legislation in 2000. Failing to appoint someone quickly, or appointing a weak figure, would undermine a decade of progress.
Moreover, the office needs someone who will focus on trafficking in all its guises, who will stress both labor- and sex- trafficking without forsaking one or the other. The right candidate should be a career-long specialist on human rights who works in the world of NGOs and international organizations, a person of stature, with bipartisan and international political coalition-building acumen.
U.S. efforts have real consequences for the 21 million women, men and children that the International Labor Organization minimally estimates are suffering in forced labor and human trafficking. In 2012, the president called human trafficking “a debasement of our common humanity” and committed himself to fight it.
Rather than let this appointment linger or choose a weak replacement, the president now has a chance to make good on his pledge. He must make it a top priority to appoint a respected and influential leader for the office now. The victims whose basic dignity is being violated cannot wait.
Judith Kelley is senior associate dean at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. Mark P. Lagon was U.S. ambassador-at-large to Combat Trafficking in Persons 2007-2009 and will become president of Freedom House in January.