Congress takes aim at modern-day slavery

Traffickers in human cargo for sex trade or sweatshops will face tougher penalties.

Bipartisan coalitions have not been a feature of the fiercely partisan 106th Congress. But lawmakers on both sides of the aisle came together last week with nearly unanimous votes to curb the global scourge of trafficking in persons.

From Burmese girls lured to brothels in Thailand, Ukrainians to Bosnia, or Nepalese to India - recent estimates range from hundreds of thousands to millions of people forced into prostitution and sweatshops worldwide. That includes as many as 50,000 people, mainly women and children, trafficked into the United States each year.

"This is the most significant human rights legislation this Congress," says Sen. Sam Brownback (R) of Kansas, a sponsor. "We're the first nation in the world to go after sex trafficking aggressively and openly, both domestically and internationally."

Until now, law enforcement efforts in the US and abroad have largely punished the victims of trafficking, who are targeted as illegal aliens or prostitutes. Those who go to the police for help are often deported without further assistance, while traffickers escape or face only minor charges.

The new law gives the president and US law enforcement tools to go after traffickers and governments that allow them to operate with impunity. These include:

* Tough penalties for traffickers, including life imprisonment for sex-trafficking in children.

* Visas for trafficking victims who cooperate with law enforcement, capped at 5,000 a year.

* Assistance for victims, regardless of their immigration status.

* Data collection and reporting on trafficking in the US and abroad.

* A requirement to withhold some forms of US foreign assistance from countries that do not make significant efforts to address the problem.

For activists, who waited outside the Senate chambers during the historic vote, the 95-to-0 tally signifies how far public thought has come toward respecting the rights of women and children.

"Violence against women is not personal. It's not about culture or ethnicity. It's a violation of basic human rights, and it should be protected both nationally and internationally," says Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, an advocacy group based in Arlington, Va.

But lawmakers who sponsored this legislation say the unanimous vote belies how difficult it was to move these issues forward.

"It took hundreds of hours of negotiation to get us here," said Sen. Paul Wellstone (D) of Minnesota, who began working on international trafficking three years ago, at the urging of his wife.

The trafficking bill was bundled with four others, including a ban on the sale of alcohol over the Internet, compensation for victims of international terrorism, "Aimee's Law" (which imposes sanctions on states that grant early release to sexual predators who subsequently repeat the crime), and the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.

House sponsors had to guide the bill in and out of four committees. Some committee members balked at elements such as the new visa, which could increase the level of US immigration. Others worried that mandatory US sanctions on governments that turn a blind eye to trafficking within their borders could undermine other foreign-policy goals. (The final version limited sanctions to "nonhumanitarian" and "nontrade" US assistance, and the president will be able to waive the requirement for national-security reasons.)

"We wrote [this bill] to give the president maximum flexibility. He now has many arrows in his quiver," says Rep. Christopher Smith (R) of New Jersey, a lead sponsor.

The House passed the measure 371-to-1, and the president is expected to sign it soon.

The problem of trafficking and forced labor has surged in recent years, along with growth in the global economy. And experts say that it will take a concerted effort from the Western world to roll it back.

"For all the lip service and good intentions, it is clear that most Western governments are more concerned about the pirating of computer software or the importing of counterfeit designer watches than about the modern slave trade," says Kevin Bales, author of "Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy."

Sponsors say US resolve on this issue could change that pattern. "Overall, globalization is a good thing. It leads to greater understanding," says Senator Brownback. "But with everything, there are dark aspects. Trafficking is one of the darkest, and we're beginning to deal with it."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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