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Diplomacy in Action

Public Private Partnerships To End Modern Slavery

Luis CdeBaca
Ambassador-at-Large, Office To Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons
Building Bridges to Freedom Conference
Vatican City, Holy See
May 18, 2011


As prepared for delivery

Thank you all very much. And thank you Ambassador Diaz for working to put together this conference. Also, thanks to St. Thomas University for its leadership. I had the opportunity to speak at another conference on anti-trafficking partnerships that St. Thomas University hosted last fall at its campus in Miami. So I’ll make you a commitment that as long as you keep hosting trafficking conferences in warm and beautiful places, you can count on me as your keynote.

It’s truly remarkable for me to be in the Vatican ringing a call to action against one of the oldest and most heinous crimes history has known. I was raised in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, so the idea of faith for me has always meant “faith in the world,” or carrying out the church’s teachings and values in my daily life. Standing here so near to where the definitive document Gaudium et Spes was proclaimed, the history and the gravity of that message seems so urgent. That document says, “In our times a special obligation binds us to make ourselves the neighbor of every person without exception and of actively helping him when he comes across our path.” A special obligation. I don’t know how many of us have considered that phrase before, in the context of the fight against trafficking in persons.

I’m sure this audience understands that there have been some definitional debates that surround this issue, but a decade into this modern movement, it seems safe to say that trafficking in persons is a pretty misleading term. It implies that this is a crime of movement, when in fact this is a crime of exploitation. It’s about compelling a person, whether through force or fraud or coercion, to suffer in servitude or prostitution. It’s about the fisherman whose passport is taken away so he can’t escape the twenty-hour days or the beatings if he doesn’t meet his daily quota. It’s about the woman lured away from her home by the promise of good work only to find herself trapped as someone’s domestic servant with no avenue of escape, or ensnared in the sex trade. What we’re talking about is a modern form of slavery, and all the terminology that swirls around this unfortunate modern reality only serves to euphemize the fact that today there are by low estimates twelve and a half million, and by high estimates twenty-seven million men, women, and children living in a state of modern slavery.

So if you think about Article 4 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or the promise in the United States of the 13th Amendment to our Constitution, which decreed, “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude… shall exist,” I think Vatican II’s recognition of a special obligation is a very appropriate way of putting it.

And I thought of that special obligation yesterday, when a few of us in the U.S. delegation were touring the Vatican Museum. If you’ve been there, you know that at the end of the tour you find yourself in the Sistine Chapel. And I think most of us could draw an approximation of Michelangelo’s famous frescoes from memory, but what really struck me, given the purpose of my visit to Rome, wasn’t the ceiling, but the masterpieces adorning the chapel’s southern wall. It’s a series of frescoes depicting the life of Moses. And standing there looking at Biagio D’Antonio’s depiction of the crossing of the Red Sea—the liberated Israelites, relieved but cautious, looking back over the destruction of their oppressors—I couldn’t help but think about the relationship between faith and slavery.

Here I am standing in arguably the most significant, or at least most famous, building in Catholicism—beneath the Last Judgment and the Creation of Man, opposite another masterpiece by D’Antonio and Rosselli depicting the Last Supper—and right there in the middle of everything is Moses leading the enslaved Israelites to freedom. That story is a story of a people who were oppressed, put to hard labor, and made to suffer. And seeking relief from their suffering, they cried out to God, who sent Moses to lead them to freedom. It was their faith that sustained the Israelites and led to their liberation. This isn’t just a Bible teaching, this is a part of the history of enslaved populations.

Early Christianity thrived among those who had been enslaved under Roman rule. Though the laws of the time reinforced the divisions between slave and master, the early church told its followers that no matter their social position, all persons were equal. At a time when a life of compelled service was a reality for so many, this spiritual guidance took greater and greater hold, until Christianity was no longer seen as a slave religion, but the heart of the Empire. And over time, policies began to reflect those early Christian values, until massive liberalization occurred under the Christian emperors.

This history is even more familiar for those who study American history. Much of the indigenous African religions didn’t survive the passage with the earliest slaves in North America. But the story of the Hebrew children, of the love of God for everyone, for the possibility of Jubilee, carried into the slave cabins and fields. During the Great Awakening in the 18th century, slave churches began to emerge across the South as unique Christian congregations influenced by African traditions. In spite of their white masters' attempts to quell religious fervor, slaves practiced religion in secret. They adapted traditional hymns into spirituals, which were used in the fields to send messages and plan meetings. Religion has always thrived among populations who are treated as castaways; faith has always been a sustaining force for those who have nowhere else to turn. In a word, slaves.

The stories of how oppressed people survived and were saved by their faith have shaped the most basic beliefs we see across religions today. Thirty-five hundred years after the Exodus, those of the Jewish faith ask during the celebration of Passover, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” In the prayer book read at the Passover Seder, the Haggadah, the answers to that question explain that on that night, the Israelites passed from slavery to freedom. On that night, the liberation from slavery became one of the central traditions of the Jewish faith. Fast-forward fifteen hundred years, to the moments that defined Christianity, and we find in the first Eucharist the celebration of Passover. The symbolic commemoration by Christ and his disciples of the deliverance from slavery became for Christians the covenant of the Last Supper, the commemoration of their deliverance from sin.

In the Muslim tradition, the story of Moses leading his people to freedom is viewed as a parallel to the life of the prophet Muhammed, and we know that Muhammed himself was an emancipator. Muhammed’s friends and household freed nearly 40,000 slaves at his instruction, and Muhammed believed in the manumission of slaves—even if it meant purchasing a slave in order to set him or her free.

So the relationship between religion and slavery cuts across many faiths, slavery being something that has defined what we believe and shaped our traditions. Furthermore, our beliefs and traditions inform how we live our lives. The Vatican II Catholicism I was talking about earlier embraces the idea of faith in action. It isn’t enough just to espouse a belief system; you actually have to live those beliefs.

I was reminded shortly after I arrived here that about ten days ago, the Festa di San Nicola took place a few hundred kilometers southeast, in Bari. Now, most Americans celebrate Saint Nicholas in December, not in May. But Bari actually has St. Nicholas, his relics, which are part of the celebrations there, so I’ll defer to the experts. But why do we think that St. Nicholas brings anonymous gifts in the night? And why is that relevant in a conference on modern slavery? That question requires an understanding that St. Nicholas wasn’t a jolly old elf, but a hard-nosed early bishop who is not just one of the Church’s earliest stories exemplifying faith in action, but one of the first who took a stand against human trafficking. The story goes that a poor man with three daughters could not afford a dowry to see them married off, so they faced being sold into prostitution. Because of poverty. Because of a lack of opportunity. So, Nicholas threw three purses of gold into the poor man’s house, saving the daughters from their bleak prospects. He came by the cover of night so that he could bring these daughters hope without robbing the old man of his dignity. In one version of the story, the poor man finds Nicholas and thanks him -- Nicholas replies that it was God who deserved the thanks.

Faith propelling action against slavery. It’s as relevant against modern slavery as it was in ancient times, or in the early years of the American experiment. In the United States, the earliest abolitionist movements were rooted in faith communities. In 1688, as the first permanent settlements in North America were taking root, the Quakers of Germantown, Pennsylvania made some of the first arguments against slavery in the new colonies, circulating petitions and banning slavery as a matter of religious practice. Their ideas slowly took hold until Pennsylvania’s leaders codified those abolitionist beliefs into colonial law. Abolition as law spread north and east, eradicating slavery as an institution. Abolition as an idea trickled south, imbuing with inspiration the slave churches I mentioned before.

Those of us who continue the fight against modern slavery see faith in action around us every day. A few years ago, when I was still a federal prosecutor working on trafficking cases, I was investigating a trafficker who had moved a group of Guatemalan men across the country in the back of a van, which somewhere during the trip had broken down. These men were told that the driver had called the “Patron,” and that after the van was fixed they would be taken to Florida and forced to work in order to pay for the cost of the repair. And, when I reached them, the victims didn’t remember where they were when the van broke down, but they did remember that a group of Catholic nuns took them in for the night while they waited for the repairs. At this point, though, there was nothing to corroborate their story. So I decided to track down this group of nuns somewhere in the middle of the country. I could have made a phone call to the FBI or a handful of state police departments. But instead I called John Donaghy, the peace and justice coordinator at my home parish of St. Thomas Aquinas in Ames, Iowa, and told him what we needed. Sure enough, the next day I got a phone call from Beatrice Zavara, a sister of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Wichita, Kansas, who remembered taking in these two dozen men who were stranded for the night. When I asked her about the phone call that Miguel Flores’ henchman had made, Sister Beatrice walked over to her filing cabinet and pulled out the itemized long distance bill for that month years before. And of course she knew exactly where it was, because she was a sister of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. I put the trafficker in prison for a long time. Thanks to a lay minister in Ames, Iowa, and a woman in a religious community who remembered some Guatemalans and a broken-down truck, justice was done. That could only happen because of the commitment of the faithful to live their beliefs in their daily lives. Religion and faith, motivating individuals and communities to fight modern slavery. Dignity. Hope. Faith in action.

Standing in the Sistine Chapel, contemplating the relationship between slavery and religion, it occurred to me that there’s this inextricable link from the very beginnings of religions all the way through to how faith translates to action in contemporary society. Enslaved populations have been throughout history where religions incubate and develop, and where faith traditions are born—the Israelites, the early Christians. The struggles of the early faithful to escape their slavery in turn inform the values and belief systems of the formed religious institutions. At last, the translation of faith into action moves the faithful to live lives that reject slavery. In a sense, and this is a simplification, slavery creates religion and informs religious beliefs, and eventually, religion becomes the natural enemy of slavery, and the tool by which it will be destroyed.

The culmination of all that history and all those values prescribes that special obligation. The genius of Vatican II isn’t that it throws out a generalized do-gooder dragnet. It’s that it tells the faithful specifically that their special obligation in these times is to work against, and I’m quoting, “whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; […] disgraceful working conditions, where men are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; […]. They poison human society […].”

The Haggadah does more than tell the story of the Israelites escape from Pharaoh. It tells the Jewish faithful that they must live their lives as though they themselves had been freed from enslavement. The group Rabbis for Human Rights North America, which is represented at this conference today, published a Haggadah Supplement a few years ago that focuses on modern slavery. They drive that teaching home with a clear call to action:  “Today it is we who must become the redeemers. Our freedom comes with the responsibility for liberating others who remain enslaved now, at Passover, and throughout the year, until every human being can enjoy the dignity of freedom.”

So how is faith in action going to make a difference? How are the lessons of our enslaved religious and historical forbears going to help us meet the challenge of bringing the dignity of freedom to the tens of millions enslaved?

Well, first of all, we have an approach to this problem, an approach I’m sure you’re all familiar with. The 3P Paradigm of Prevention, Prosecution and Protection was adopted near here in Palermo a little more than ten years ago, and those principles are now, fortunately, enshrined in the laws of more than 120 countries that have worked in the last decade to bring their anti-slavery efforts in line with a modern understanding of this crime.

And we’ve seen what a tremendous role the faith-based community plays in working toward those 3Ps, both in the United States and around the world. My office in the State Department works with numerous faith-based organizations distributing millions of dollars for programs that bring survivors support and resources, that train those in criminal justice and law enforcement to identify victims of trafficking and get them the help they need, rather than treating them as criminals. In the United States, the Conference of Catholic Bishops is responsible for administering a sadly inadequate sum designated to care for trafficking victims, and at the end of the year kicks in about half a million dollars of its own money just to try to get the job done. That’s faith in action.

But whether it’s the Conference of Catholic Bishops or a group of nuns in the middle of Kansas, I think one of the notions that has unfortunately arisen in the modern anti-slavery movement is that the role of the faith-based community is at the trailing edge of this crime. Cleaning up the mess after it has happened. Protection for those who have been victimized. Advocating and training to make prosecution efforts more effective. And I think, in terms of what we hope to get out of this conference, and what course we hope to chart for the future of this movement, that notion is something we all need to try to change. More than protection. More than prosecution. How do we make prevention work?

Don’t forget, the Saint Nicholas story is a story about prevention. He saw that poverty, that a lack of opportunity was condemning the three daughters to a life of despair, and that’s when he acted.

It can start in very small and simple ways. This Haggadah supplement. A call to action that brings our oldest traditions to bear on our daily lives. “It is we who must become the redeemers.” Recalling what arose from Vatican II in terms of the “practical and particularly urgent consequences” of the Catholic faith: the “special obligation” to act. It has to start simply, because the fight against this crime has to start at the individual level. For instance, and to put it bluntly: if there were no demand for commercial sex, the trade of trafficked women for sexual exploitation would not exist. But it takes a leader—a moral leader, a spiritual leader, a faith leader—to say, “The days of ‘boys will be boys’ are over. Buying sex is wrong.” It takes a leader to ask, “What child suffered to pick the cotton in the shirt I’m wearing?” and “Were the hands free that harvested the coffee that I’m drinking?”

That can be an individual voice—and must—but when that message is a spiritual leader saying from the pulpit that it is all of our responsibility to fight this crime—when that message that rings from the pulpit reverberates up to the dais of lawmakers and into the boardrooms of executives—that this is something my constituents and my customers care about, then the ideas of how to prevent and fight this crime start to radiate outward.

That’s a simplification, but that’s where we can really see this fight take off, and that’s where, I feel, the future of the new abolitionist struggle is going to thrive.

We’re about a decade into this movement, and I tend to look on things with an historical lens. In the roughly century and a half since it has been U.S. policy to eradicate slavery, we’ve seen these peaks and troughs in terms of how aggressive our effort has been. In the aftermath of our Civil War, the Grant Administration did great work combating the debt bondage that continued to exist throughout the American South. And then those successes dropped off until the Theodore Roosevelt Administration, which took a renewed interest, and then the Franklin Roosevelt Administration, the Carter Administration, and finally again toward the end of the Clinton Administration.

Based on those historical trends, after a decade of success is typically where our efforts would drop off. Over the last decade, more than 130 countries have updated their slavery laws to reflect the modern wisdom of the Palermo Protocol. The legal infrastructure is in place; prosecutions are on the rise; governments have made tremendous commitments to combat this crime. This has been a decade of development. But those structures, alone, will save no-one, punish no-one. Those structures without energy and political will and funding will just be another temporary success. And people will continue to suffer in bondage.

On the one hand, we could say, “The pieces are in place; let’s let this thing run its course.” But I think the reason we’re all here is to make sure, a decade into this fight, that doesn’t happen. I think we’re here to ask, “What are the next steps?”

In about a month, the State Department will release the 2011 Trafficking in Persons Report, which will rank more than 180 countries on their efforts to combat modern slavery. In addition to that, it will ask the question, “What are the next steps?” and it will point to the places and the people in the world that are already setting an example for the rest of the global community.

The idea is that we have to move forward in earnest on all that was accomplished during the decade of development, and usher in a decade of delivery. The framework of the 3Ps is in place. The promise has been made. And now that we’re at this crossroads, we need to continue to act to see that promise fulfilled. The best way to deliver on that promise is for what we’ve termed the fourth P—partnership—to guide the way.

Laws are on the books. But for those laws to work, it will take governments partnering with civil society to ensure that law enforcement and criminal justice officials understand the complexities of trafficking and are trained to identify and protect victims. It will take private-sector corporations collaborating with countries across regions to trace the supply chain of cheap goods and figure out where trafficking exists and how to fight it. It will take faith-based leaders to bring moral guidance and leadership to a culture too willing to exploit victims or too complacent to act against this crime. To deliver on the promise of the last ten years, it will take everyone in this room working with one another so that this movement against the scourge of modern slavery does not become just another chapter of history.

This conference is bringing together not only individuals from a wide array of faith traditions, but also lawmakers, business leaders, advocates, and survivors. Regardless of our backgrounds, I believe we all feel some sort of a special obligation. Whether the leadership you bring to this issue is in religion, policy, advocacy, business or politics, I challenge you all to leave here today with a clearer understanding on how to deliver on this promise.

Through your work, by your attendance, you have bound yourself to your neighbors, to actively help when you see suffering, to fight the traffickers as they exact their inhumane profits. You have honored the liberation of the Israelites, the suffering of the slaves throughout history by living as though each day is a day in which you can and will end this scourge once and for all. And you have, like St. Nicholas, labored anonymously ensuring the dignity on whose behalf you work.

So why is this day different? Because across our identities—various faiths, governments, NGOs, and businesses, we come together to rededicate ourselves to this cause, in the name of all who have suffered in servitude. We can, and we must, win this fight.

Thank you all very much.

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