The politics of human trafficking

06/26/2008 07:38 PM | By Joseph A. Kechichian, Special to Gulf News

When Ronald Reagan was president of the United States, the US Department of Defence published a series of glossy annual reports titled Soviet Military Power, which annotated thousands of minute details about the USSR’s armed capabilities.

They were impressive documents but full of exaggerations and, over time, Moscow engaged in a similar exercise, either to refute American assertions or engage in its own propaganda efforts.

At the State Department, and about the same time, modest programmes launched the annual Patterns of Global Terrorism, although the latter were far more descriptive.

Only the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices preceded these publications, going back to the early 1970s, when President Jimmy Carter elevated human rights concerns to the policy level.

In all of these reports, including the ones that displayed blatant misinformation, an effort was made to let facts speak for themselves. Starting in the late 1990s, a slew of new areas of concern emerged, including religion – with the Annual Report on International Religious Freedom -and now human trafficking.

The June 2008 Trafficking in Persons Report, a 295 pages document available at, is in its eight edition and seeks to address a deadly serious issue.

Human trafficking means the actual trade in persons, which is akin to modern-day slavery, as its victims are clearly forced into labour or sexual exploitation.

The detailed report estimates that approximately 600,000 to 800,000 individuals are made to involuntarily cross national borders to satisfy criminal gangs each year.

To be sure, trafficking in people is wrong, and using physical force is neither pleasant nor victimless. Whenever someone is enslaved – readers are encouraged to consult the original to better understand heart-breaking cases – we all lose part of our humanity.

The extremely detailed report clusters countries in four categories.

Using a unique methodology, the manuscript seeks to determine whether a nation is a “country of origin, transit, or destination for severe forms of trafficking,” the extent to which a particular government complies with international standards, as well as capabilities “to address and eliminate severe forms of trafficking in persons”.

Those that comply are in Tier 1 (29 States) and include such impeccable powerhouses as France and Britain.

Those that are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance are placed in Tier 2 (70 States), including Israel, Lebanon, Morocco, the UAE and Yemen.

Governments that do not fully comply with minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to correct their behaviours are placed in Tier 3 (14 States).

This is the shortest list and includes Algeria, Burma, Cuba, Fiji, Iran, Kuwait, Moldova, North Korea, Oman, Papua New Guinea, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Syria. Remarkably, 40 countries, including Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, and Libya, are grouped under a special Watch List because of mixed results.

Besides its infantile classification bordering on a high-school grading system, what is troubling in this latest study, is the sense of misplaced proportionality.

Undeniably, they are abuses in many spots around the world, including in rich countries such as the United States where modern-day slavery and prostitution rings are notorious.

While the US is not listed (an involuntary lapse that will hopefully be corrected in the 2009 edition), frequent news reports surface -when they do – of smuggled Chinese workers brought into the country in shipping containers, or Latin American garment workers illegally held in miserable sweatshops not far from Beverly Hills.

Thousands of former East European women work on the streets of London or Rome or any number of capitals. While these countries have strict laws, how often are they actually enforced? How many of those forced to travel to wealthy nations are apprehended?

Although most of the individuals who are arrested are eventually deported, what happens to their smugglers when these cases surface, and what about the corruption that exists within law enforcement communities?

Foreign ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) issued a rare declaration, which “deeply regretted” that the information on their countries were wrong, and called on the State Department to “revise its unfriendly policy towards” them.

Ministers further concluded that such data intended to place “unjustified pressure for political ends” that must have come as a shock.

In the event, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia were on the Tier 3 blacklist, allegedly because many domestic servants or other low-skilled labourers faced “conditions of involuntary servitude”.

Bahrain and the UAE graduated to Tier 2 status for noticeable progress and, in the words of Ambassador Mark Lagon, US State Secretary Condoleezza Rice’s senior adviser on the human trafficking problem, the two countries “continued to make significant improvements”.


If the GCC ministers were disturbed by the tone of this latest report, their unusual call for revisions insisted on a fairer appraisal of whatever cases existed within the region.

Indisputably, there were cases of abuse among the 20 million expatriate workers that toiled on the Arabian Peninsula, but these needed to be placed in their proper perspectives.

Absent such attention, governments around the world will ignore or criticise well-thought-out and clearly well intentioned reports, just as so few paid attention to the old propaganda bulletins that entertained so many.

Human trafficking is a terrible tragedy and the result of man’s insatiable and universal appetite to accumulate wealth fast.

Its gradual disappearance will occur when honest work is once again valued far more than get rich schemes and, towards that end, it behooves those who pride themselves of living in “perfect societies” not to throw stones in haphazard fashion.

Everyone must remain vigilant but one should also be careful not to crumble under one’s own weight in hypocrisy.

Dr Joseph A. Kechichian is a commentator and author of several books on Gulf affairs.


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