Ambassador John Miller is head of the State Department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. But he has a simpler word for what he is combating: "slavery." Trafficking, or "modern-day slavery," as Miller calls it, is fast becoming one of the early 21st century's foremost human-rights issues.
The U.S. intelligence community's most recent estimate is that 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders every year. Estimates of the number held against their will within individual countries run much higher. "There are probably millions of victims worldwide," says Miller, a former Republican congressman who bounces with energy and leads the U.S. anti-trafficking effort from a nondescript office a few blocks from the White House.
People are trafficked and coerced into prostitution (probably the largest category), domestic servitude, factory or farm labor, or even bizarre niche categories, such as child camel jockeys in the Persian Gulf states. The FBI estimates that trafficking in drugs, arms and people makes billions of dollars a year for organized crime.
But the forces of decency have begun to fight back. An extraordinary cross-ideological coalition, spanning from Christian Right groups to feminist organizations, pushed the 2000 anti-trafficking legislation that created Miller's office. The coalition is still strong. Referring to the feminist writer and the evangelical Christian activist respectively, Hudson Institute scholar and anti-trafficking stalwart Michael Horowitz says, "Within the same week, I had Catharine MacKinnon and Richard Land call me and say, 'I love John Miller.'"
The Bush administration has energetically led on the issue. The president's critics tend to dismiss the moral content of his foreign policy as mostly an ex post facto justification for the Iraq War, i.e., "No WMD? Let's spread democracy instead." But the moral fiber of President Bush's foreign policy runs deep. He devoted several paragraphs in his September 2003 U.N. General Assembly speech to denouncing sex trafficking.
Miller's impassioned advocacy in particular has helped push the issue near the top of U.S. diplomatic priorities. His office releases an annual report. "Tier 3 countries" are those nations not even making a minimal effort to combat trafficking. Mere inclusion in that list can be enough to shame countries into action. Ten nations labeled Tier 3 immediately took steps in 2003 against trafficking. When his African country was included on the list in 2004, the president of Guyana flew to the United States to talk to Miller about what he could improve.
The United States urges countries to get serious about prosecuting traffickers, to provide shelters for victims and to crack down on prostitution. Sweden and Korea have instituted legislation imposing stiff penalties on pimps and johns. Japan is cracking down on the abuse of "entertainer visas," which have long been an excuse to import women into the country to work in brothels. And a bipartisan coalition is forming in Congress to foster tough "demand side" enforcement of U.S. anti-prostitution laws by ensuring that male perpetrators such as johns and pimps are as systematically prosecuted as are female victims.
An obstacle to the anti-trafficking cause is the fact that the cultural image of prostitution in the United States is generally a gauzy one --think of Julia Roberts in "Pretty Woman." But prostitutes around the world -- and even here in the United States -- are frequently forced into it against their will. Poor, often very young women are tricked by traffickers into leaving home, then are forced into brothels. If they are in a foreign country, their passports will probably be stolen, and they won't know where to turn for help. They will likely be threatened, beaten or raped, or perhaps all three -- all in the cause of coercing them into selling their bodies.
It is an intolerable affront to human dignity. "The methods are the same as from the slave trade -- kidnappings, deception, beatings, sexual exploitation," says Miller. "You talk to these faith-based groups, and they think they are following in the footsteps of their ancestors in this country who led the abolition movement." Twenty-first-century slavery calls for 21st-century abolitionism.