A Call to Action: Joining the Fight Against Trafficking in Persons

Opening Remarks
As prepared for delivery by Ambassador Jim Nicholson
At a conference entitled

“ A Call to Action:  Joining the Fight Against Trafficking in Persons”

Sponsored by the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See
June 17, 2004
The Pontifical Gregorian University
Rome, Italy 

Your Eminence,
Your Excellencies,
Senator Andreotti,
Father Imoda,
Reverend Monsignors and Fathers,
Sisters and Brothers,
Ladies and Gentlemen.

Thank you for being with us this morning for this second conference in our series of conferences marking the twentieth anniversary of diplomatic relations between the United States of America and the Holy See.

“As unimaginable as it seems, slavery and bondage still persist in the early 21st century.  Millions of people around the world still suffer in silence in slave-like situations of forced labor and commercial sexual exploitation from which they cannot free themselves. Trafficking in persons is one of the greatest human rights challenges of our time.”  This is from the State Department’s just-released Report on Trafficking in Persons.

Two years ago many of you were here in this same hall at the Gregorian for our first conference on 21st century slavery — the human rights dimension of human trafficking.  We are back here today because there can be no let up in the fight against trafficking.  We must continue to build on the efforts of governments, religious groups, private organizations, and courageous individuals such as Sister Eugenia Bonetti, from whom we will be hearing, to confront this horrendous 21st century evil.

Free nations that respect human rights and defend human dignity must keep the scourge of trafficking in human beings high on the human rights agenda.   President Bush has made this one of his top priorities, which is why he spoke out strongly against human trafficking during his speech at the United Nations General Assembly last year.  Describing it as a humanitarian crisis, the President told the world that victims of trafficking see little of life before they see the very worst of life — an underground of brutality and lonely fear.  He insisted that those who create these victims and profit from their suffering must be severely punished, and warned that those who patronize this industry debase themselves and deepen the misery of others.  The President concluded that the world must now show “new energy in fighting back an old evil.”  “Nearly two centuries after the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, and more than a century after slavery was officially ended in its last strongholds, the trade in human beings for any purpose must not be allowed to thrive in our time,” he said.  Our gathering today is part of that international commitment to stop human slavery.

I’m glad so many of my colleagues from the diplomatic corps are here today.   U.S. Secretary of State, Colin Powell, spoke on Monday at the release of the State Department’s 2004 Report on Human Trafficking — a report that reviews the dimensions of this problem in over 140 countries.  The Secretary emphasized that trafficking in human beings is a global problem, and that no country is immune from its scourge.  Trafficked human beings either come from our home countries or end up enslaved in our home countries.  No one can say with honesty that his or her country is not tainted by this 21st century slavery.  Our time together today manifests our desire to free our countries of this blight.

A couple of weeks ago we celebrated the 60th anniversary of D-Day.  This event, along with other allied landings, marked the beginning of the liberation of Europe from the grip of Nascism.  As heirs of that freedom I think we have a moral obligation to remove the shackles that today keep hundreds of thousands – perhaps millions – of men, women and children from enjoying their freedom.  To quote from Secretary Powell again, “We fight trafficking in persons not just for the sake of the victims and potential victims of these crimes, we do it also for ourselves because we can’t fully embrace our own dignity as human beings unless we champion the dignity of others.”

I am especially pleased that we have with us today Monsignor Pietro Parolin from the Holy See’s Secretariat of State, Cardinal Martino from the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.  The Holy See has been a powerful and consistent voice against modern-day slavery in the international community.  Pope John Paul II’s message is clear.  He believes that “the trade in human persons constitutes a shocking offence against human dignity and a grave violation of fundamental human rights.”

Two years ago we concluded our conference here at the Gregorian by committing ourselves to action.   Since that time, my Embassy has been in contact with the Holy See’s nuncios around the world, providing them with the report of our 2002 conference and urging them to make contact with officials responsible for anti-trafficking at U.S. embassies in their host countries.  The responses we have received so far are encouraging – many have written to us expressing their eagerness to join this fight and some have taken up contact with our Embassies to explore potential collaboration.  We hope that they will also work with us to bring the commitment and resources of local Bishops Conferences to bear on this issue.

The United States has come to realize that faith-based communities are key agencies in the fight against trafficking.  President Bush, in particular, has recognized the value of strengthening the partnership between the government and those faith-based and community groups that provide compassionate care and produce impressive results.  He firmly believes that these organizations have an essential role to play in combating social evils such as human trafficking.  You will hear this morning some fine examples of how faith-based communities — communities of religious women, Bishops Conferences, and others — can become key players in anti-trafficking initiatives by working in partnership and with the guidance and support of international organizations and governments.

As a former businessman I know all about the elements of supply and demand.  It is useless to offer a service or a product that no one will pay for.  And that is why we wanted to explore the demand element of trafficking during our conference today.  The criminals responsible for trafficking in persons are not just those who recruit the victims and ship them overseas.  The criminals are also those whose demands make trafficking a lucrative business — the so-called entrepreneurs who want low-cost labor for their factories:  homeowners who want cheap maids and babysitters and gardeners; surgeons and their patients who do not care where a donor organ may come from; and, the men who willingly pay to sexually exploit women and children.  We’ll hear later from two experts in the area of demand, and ask ourselves how individuals can so willingly turn a blind eye to the inhuman slavery of their victims.

It would be too depressing if we looked at the evil of trafficking without hope.  Indeed, there are many good people committed to anti-trafficking work..  Many are here today.  There are also many good news stories about people who have been rescued from slavery and who enjoy their newfound freedom, and  have the hope of new job skills or the opportunity to own a small business.  Communities of religious women and men are taking victims into their facilities to offer them shelter, protection and hospitality.   Filmmakers and media organizations are also increasingly coming to grips with this issue and are taking risks to bring to international attention to the plight of trafficking victims and the nefarious ways of the traffickers.   Later today we will see and hear about how the media is working to raise awareness of this issue, exposing both its horrors and its heroes, and we will discuss how television, radio and print media can continue this work.

Again, I want to thank all of you for coming, it is a sign of your concern and it gives us further reason to be hopeful.

Now I would now like to introduce our first speaker: Monsignor Pietro Parolin, the Holy See’s Under Secretary for Relations with States.  Monsignor Parolin is known to many of you as a strong supporter of human rights.  My embassy worked closely with him during the crisis that led to East Timor’s independence and we have greatly benefited from his wisdom and insights on issues affecting human dignity in every corner of the world since he took on his role as Undersecretary.  Monsignor Parolin spoke out strongly against trafficking at last December’s OSCE meeting of Foreign Ministers in Holland describing it as a “shameful trade in slaves.”  We look forward to his reflections today as we begin to consider ways that religious communities, governments, media, and individuals can take action to defeat this scourge. Thank you for being here today Monsignor Parolin.