WASHINGTON — “What changes do we expect to be implemented in Malaysia before a trade agreement is signed? Is there sufficient enforcement in the trade agreement that Malaysia won’t be a Tier III country and join a trade agreement with the United States? Can you give us that assurance?” Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) asked Sarah Sewall, the Under Secretary of State for Civil Security, Democracy, and Human Rights.
Though Senator Cardin’s questions concern the Trans-Pacific Partnership, they, both through their substance and the urgency in Cardin’s voice, highlight the central issues of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations’ second hearing on modern slavery: what policy decisions must America make in order to combat modern slavery? How can America ensure that there will be noticeable progress in the fight against modern slavery?
On Feb. 11, 2015, the Committee held a hearing to find answers to those questions[i].
The hearing was meant to complement the previous hearing held on Feb. 4, 2015, in which the Committee discussed the current state of modern slavery with speakers from various non-governmental organizations and activist groups. Building on the progress made in that hearing, the second hearing incorporated modern slavery into the larger conversations about workers’ rights and American foreign policy. The Committee invited Sarah Sewall, the Under Secretary of State for Civil Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, to testify and help guide these conversations.
In her testimony, Sewall described the “multi-pronged approach” America has utilized to “address the underlying causes” of modern slavery. In 2012, Congress established the President’s Interagency Task Force to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, which Secretary of State John Kerry currently chairs. Shortly after, the Obama administration published an action plan that would combat slavery through law enforcement, public awareness campaigns, diplomatic pressure, partnerships with businesses and non-governmental organizations and diplomatic pressure.
America has strengthened its own anti-slavery laws and its ability to enforce those laws. The following year, President Barack Obama issued Executive Order 13627. This order increased transparency in negotiations with federal contractors and subcontractors and held accountable those who might try to exploit slave labor. It also enabled the Obama administration to crack down on labor recruiters who would use “misleading or fraudulent practices” to trap potential employees to trap them into slavery. To increase the efficiency of law enforcement, Sewall has fostered interagency cooperation and advocated incorporating anti-trafficking measures in law enforcement raining.
By strengthening its laws and law enforcement, America would demonstrate its moral authority to lead the fight against slavery and serve as an example to the world, opined Senator Gardner and Senator Cardin. Failure to maintain its rigorous standards would jeopardize anti-slavery efforts because countries could use American hypocrisy to derail the discussion on slavery. Though those derailments would be disingenuous in their moral outrage, they would still prevent the conversation from focusing on some countries’ unwillingness to combat slavery.
Thus, supplementing laws and law enforcement, the federal government has attempted to increase public awareness of slavery and keep slavery in public discourse. The State Department seed-funded SlaveryFootprint.org, an 11-question online survey that tells citizens on how much slave labor is devoted to the everyday products they take for granted. The State Department has also funded Verité, a non-governmental organization that monitors the labor practices in the public and private sectors. It published its most recent findings in a report called “Strengthening Protections Against Trafficking in Persons in Federal and Corporate Supply Chains.”
Building on these efforts, the federal government has also forged partnerships with businesses, non-governmental organizations, and foreign governments. On Sept. 11, 2014, the Treasury Department issued an advisory that would help financial institutions with identifying instances of human trafficking and human smuggling and reporting them to federal authorities. The State Department has also allocated approximately $59 million to 98 projects around world. This sum not only funds various non-governmental organizations, but also helps countries draft anti-slavery legislation. In January 2014, The Bahamas secured its first conviction on human trafficking charges.
Having established its moral authority and built a network of organizations to assist it, America has attempted to apply diplomatic pressure on states to address modern slavery. The State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report organizes countries into a three-tier system based on their efforts to fight modern slavery and protect victims, with Tier I being the most desirable tier and Tier III the least desirable. According to Sewall, there is a correlation between “tier ranking downgrades” and “subsequent enactment” of anti-slavery legislation. America has also acted through allies such as Australia and the European Union to push anti-slavery legislation and directives.
Upon finishing her testimony, Sewall received questions and comments from Senator Corker, Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD), Senator Cory Gardner (R-CO), Senator Bob Menendez (R-NJ) and Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH).
Sen. Corker, Sen. Gardner and Sen. Cardin focused on diplomatic pressure. Sen. Corker was interested in how American diplomatic efforts have leveraged American influence to promote the implementation of substantive policies. Following Sen. Corker’s train of thought, Sen. Gardner made proposals for less subtle uses of diplomatic pressure. He argued for imposing sanctions on Tier III countries and withholding non-humanitarian aid from them.
Sen. Shaheen, Sen. Cardin and Senator Menendez focused on America’s role in raising awareness and increasing accountability. Concentrating on the international level, Sen. Shaheen advocating working more closely with European allies and including ethical treatment of workers in the negotiations around TPP and TTIP. Though interested in the international level, Senator Cardin also asked how the TIP Report could better convey the relevance of modern slavery to the lives of American citizens. Awareness and accountability were also major concerns for Senator Menendez, who realized that a lack of transparency in the supply chain means that America is- at least- unintentionally complicit in human trafficking.
Although Sewall was able to address each concern, she noted that the senators’ queries would sometimes go beyond the scope of her office. To prevent herself from misrepresenting the positions of other offices, Sewall restricted her response to increasing cooperation between governmental agencies and international allies, especially through interagency training, to ensure a constant and consistent application of diplomatic pressure on Tier III countries. In addition, Sewall recommended the federal government use a high level of caution in data compilation and dissemination.
In general, America must exercise a great deal of caution when combatting modern slavery. America must wisely use its resources to capitalize on recent successes, strengthen its numerous, multi-level partnerships and use its diplomatic influence to foster long-last institutional change in the governments of slave-holding countries.
– Dean Delasalas