Monthly Archives: June 2002

21st century slavery must end

The Denver Post
June 23, 2002


Caption: PHOTO: Associated Press/Hidajet Delic Moldavian and Romanian women found during a raid of a night club are seen in Busovaca, Bosnia, in March. Police raided the club in the early morning hours looking for victims of human trafficking and forced prostitution.

“There was this elevated platform with naked women standing on it and older men circling around negotiating to buy their favorite girl to add to their sex slave string, It went on for hours.”

his was not a scene from ancient Africa, but the description given by National Public Radio’s Silvia Poggioli during a USA sponsored conference in Rome last month where she told of an event she witnessed recently in Eastern Europe.

This conference was on the subject of modern day slavery. Slavery should be a thing of the past. It’s not. An ugly chapter in our world’s history is repeating itself – a rerun right under our noses in this, the Third Millenium. More than 700,000 people this year alone will be taken across international borders and held against their will (trafficked). This number could be as high as four million, according to the International Labor Organization in Geneva. Most are women and children. It is little different than when they flung rope nets over men, women and children in Africa and dragged them to ports before selling them off to traders from distant continents and a life deprived of identity and humanity.

Some 50,000 people are trafficked annually into the United States alone. These modern-day slaves end up on the streets, in brothels, in sweatshops, construction sites and farm fields. They are all victims of trafficking – human commodities shipped across national borders and held against their will. Trafficking in human beings is now the third most profitable business for organized crime worldwide, after drugs and guns, and it is catching up fast.

The stories of these people who have been kidnapped, sold, traded, lured and beaten into human bondage are not getting out. Like most of the large human tragedies of history, they won’t until enough people become aware and collectively outraged (witness AIDS, cholera, tuberculosis, slavery).

Toward that end – enhancing awareness – our team at the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See and other members of the Diplomatic Corps accredited to the Holy See decided to start fighting trafficking. Joined by the Vatican’s agencies for justice and migration, we held an international conference in Rome on May 15 and 16 on the human rights dimension of trafficking in people.

The Conference was an unprecedented collaboration between the victims of trafficking and those seeking to help them. It occurred in the unique forum of the Pontifical Gregorian University, which is better known for scholarship in theology and philosophy than the witnessing of horror stories by victims of the slave trade.

Our Rome conference had more than 70 speakers and 400 attendees from 35 different countries and was well covered by the European media, which added to the accomplishment of our principle goal: to enhance awareness leading to action. There was also a surprise: An Italian priest, whose ministry is trying to rescue these girls and restore their humanity, came into the conference hall with 70 of these former prostitutes. The girls sang a song of love and hope. Two of them spoke and told their story while many of the attendees, seasoned in their field, wept.

Our motto for this conference was “Stop Trafficking in Human Beings – Together, It’s Possible.” But it won’t be easy.

Trafficking in persons is lucrative, and organized crime now controls it, making involvement at the working level far more dangerous and corruption far more prevalent. Thus there is no reason to be Pollyannish about this 21st century cloud on our collective conscience. It is going to take resolve, leadership, and international cooperation to eliminate.

One of the prevalent themes that surfaced during the conference was the need to address the demand side of the equation: the customers or “clients.” One of the speakers told me that in her country, which is a sophisticated, developed European country, one out of every two married men frequent prostitutes. They do this, she said, because the girls are young, beautiful, plentiful and cheap. Instead of stopping for a drink on the way home, they stop for a “servicing.”

On the outskirts of Rome, these girls line the streets at dusk. There is obviously a growing demand for this trade, which is being supplied by women held against their will who are beaten and raped into submission and treated as humanely as a dispensing machine.

The United States is slowly waking up to the problem, with both Congress and the Bush administration now moving in the right direction.

The U.S. Congress, to its credit, has passed the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, which enhances pre-existing U.S. criminal penalties, affords new protections to trafficking victims, and makes available certain benefits and services to victims of severe forms of trafficking. It also establishes a Cabinet-level federal interagency task force to investigate and prosecute trafficking, and establishes a federal pilot program to provide services to trafficking victims.

It is a good start and a model for other countries. However, until the people of America become more aware of how prevalent and pervasive this is in our country and the world that the political will needed to end this phenomenon will manifest itself. Trafficking robs the heart, soul and hope from these unwilling fellow human beings.

Today’s trafficking in persons is the 21st century version of slave trading, plain and simple. More than a century ago, civilized countries, including ours, fought hard and long to abolish this. It’s time again for civilized countries to unite their efforts to stop this horrific denigration of human beings and promote dignity and freedom.

While many of the worthy anti-trafficking efforts thus far have focused on law enforcement, we need to do more for the victims, especially the hapless young women and innocent kids. We need to spread the “bad news” of trafficking in order for change to come about. We need to reach a critical mass of compassion and outrage.

This first-of-its-kind conference, with strong U.S. financial support and Vatican moral support, was intended to help do that by raising international consciousness. We expect, too, that it was a catalyst for action, action that will break the chains of this slavery by protecting future victims and procuring freedom for current victims.

Jim Nicholson is U.S. ambassador to the Holy See and was the chairman of the recent Rome Conference on Trafficking. Information on the Anti-trafficking Conference can be found at