As prepared

It is a great honor to be here with you today to commemorate the 35th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the United States and the Holy See and to acknowledge the contributions of faith-based organizations in the pursuit of justice and the realization of human dignity.

I am grateful to Ambassador Gingrich, colleagues at U.S. Embassy Holy See, Secretary Pompeo, Ambassador Brownback, and partners at USAID. Thanks to Pope Francis and the Vatican for its renewed commitment to combating human trafficking.

When human traffickers commit their crime they strike a blow at something we all hold dear: freedom. Millions of people around the world today have the same problem. They do not get to make the most basic decisions about their lives. Someone else decides when they wake up, where they work, and who touches their bodies. These economically motivated criminals are treat people as a commodity. I am grateful that the United States and the Vatican have joined forces today to elevate the cause of freedom. This morning, I would like to highlight two ideas that frame governments’ partnerships with faith-based organizations. Faith communities are 1) foundational and 2) complementary.

Faith communities and their contributions to philosophy have contributed to the foundation of the modern human rights movement. They advanced the idea that all people have inherent value and intrinsic worth, regardless of race, creed, national origin, gender, or any other classification.

  • Indeed, it was upon this foundation that the United States’ Declaration of Independence claimed that government could not interfere with people’s inherent rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
  • It was upon this foundation that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights begins with, “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace . . .”
  • It is upon this foundation that governments partner with – and at times are held to account by – faith communities and community groups to seek to uphold individual freedom.

This foundation of human dignity animates the pursuit of freedom. It provides the “why” or the “purpose” behind the movement to combat human trafficking. It fuels our battle against individuals who choose to deny the value of their fellow brothers and sisters by coercing them to work or to engage in commercial sex acts. Today, we owe a great debt to faith communities and thought leaders who laid this firm foundation upon which we build.

We can recognize the hard work that has gone before us, while still being honest that people, including faith communities, and governments have not always been faithful to the values of dignity and intrinsic worth. The principle of human dignity has not been consistently adopted or equitably applied over the centuries. Simply put, the idea that all people matter is both a pivot point of philosophy and the ruler by which history measures. There are clear examples of our common shortcomings and outright failures to apply this natural law consistently, and it is through the glaring examples of our failures that we are assured that this measure does indeed exist.

If the first unique aspect of governments working with faith communities is foundational, the second is that faith-based organizations are complementary. We know that governments have an essential role to play. They need to enact comprehensive trafficking in persons laws, consistent with the agreed-upon international definition of trafficking in persons in the Palermo Protocol. They need consistently to identify victims, building effective delivery systems of justice to hold traffickers accountable, and provide trauma informed protection services for survivors. I am happy to report that we have made massive progress in the last 20 years as governments have improved their legal frameworks addressing the crime of human trafficking. This should be celebrated. Now is the time to call upon them to implement these laws equitably.

Yet, governments are limited. Governments are limited by borders, jurisdiction, election cycles, political will, and sometimes their own self-imposed structures. Faith communities, when they enjoy the basic freedoms the prior panel addressed, are not hemmed in by borders, time-bound, or limited by jurisdiction. Faith-based organizations serve in many different cities, states, provinces, districts, and countries. Faith communities span continents and have a powerful web of networked followers with tremendous reach – from tiny towns and remote villages to capital cities and the seats of government power. This unique non-government reach allows flexibility that governments cannot exercise. Indeed, many faith communities have outlasted constitutions, governments, and even empires. Faith communities are in this work for the long haul.

Faith-based organizations are also familiar with local threats, have a stake in keeping their communities safe, and can develop context, build trust, and establish relationships before a trafficker ever acts. They can issue calls to action that cut across borders, cultures, and ethnicities. These attributes make them powerful and necessary forces in the fight against modern slavery.

Thus, faith-based organizations and governments can complement each other’s strengths. Obviously, this will vary around the world depending on the specific government and the specific faith-based organization. However, governments can successfully partner with faith-based organizations and enhance their ability to operate effectively.

When I travel, I see the good work faith-based organizations do – work that, if it were not for them, too often would not be done at all. In the Philippines, with funds from the State Department, International Justice Mission works with the Philippine government to stop traffickers from subjecting children from the horrors of online child sexual exploitation.

World Vision in Guatemala supports the development of policies and programs to hold traffickers accountable. Without such policies and their effective implementation, officials are less likely to stop traffickers, identify victims, and provide access to comprehensive services.

Faith-based actors are critical to combating human trafficking. Without their advocacy, the support they provide to victims, and the work they do in communities both small and large, we never would have made the strides we have. And we need them every day going forward – they are a vital partner in this endeavor.

As we think about the foundational and complementary roles of faith-based organizations, we should also call upon them to view their own communities with a self-critical eye. We know that many traffickers use religion when devising their coercive schemes. They use the very faith intended to set people free to exploit their victims. For far too long traffickers have found safe harbor in justifying their crimes using aspects of their religious observance. I am so encouraged that in 2014, right here at the Vatican, leaders of all the world’s major religions gathered and proclaimed in unison that their sacred texts do not support human trafficking. This was a positive step forward.

As we head into 2020 – the year that marks the 20th anniversary of the United States’ Trafficking Victims Protection Act and the United Nations’ Trafficking in Persons Protocol – it is important to reflect on the many ways faith communities have helped advance the global fight for freedom: whether by working to stop traffickers, protect victims, and prevent traffickers from committing this crime in the first place. Next year, I look forward to celebrating the accomplishments and lessons learned over the last 20 years and looking to the future to improve our efforts to deliver hope and freedom alongside our faith-based partners.

In that vein, I would like to propose working with the Holy See in 2020 with the goal of hosting a joint conference to mark the contributions of faith-based organizations in advancing best practices in the delivery of individualized protections and comprehensive care for human trafficking around the world.

The cause of freedom demands more than just our good intentions, thoughtful convenings, and well-crafted laws. The world is not in desperate need of intelligent people explaining why things are hard. We need bright people willing to do the hard things. We need to make an impact through practical action, and we need to be in this fight to the end.

With that, I look forward to the panel’s discussion and learning how the United States can continue successful partnerships with people of faith.

U.S. Department of State

The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future