Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says the fight against human trafficking, abroad and in the United States, is a critical part of the Obama administration's agenda. She spoke on the release of a State Department report that listed 17 countries as failing to make significant efforts to address the problem.
To underscore the priority the administration puts on the issue, Clinton made the release of the report a major event that included bipartisan Congressional leaders and activists from Albania and Costa Rica who were among nine people from around the world saluted in the report as anti-trafficking heroes.
Clinton called the trafficking of persons for forced labor, sexual exploitation and other illicit purposes "modern-day" slavery that spans the globe and affects every country including the United States.
She said the annual reports, mandated by an act of Congress in 2000, are intended to encourage nations to act where necessary with criticism and the threat of possible U.S. sanctions.
"We hope to shine the light brightly on the scope and scale of modern slavery so all governments can see where progress has been made and where more is needed," said Clinton. "Trafficking thrives in the shadows. And it can be easy to dismiss it as something that happens to someone else, somewhere else. But that is not the case. Trafficking is a crime that involves every nation on earth, and that includes our own."
The report based on information from U.S. embassies, international organizations and non-governmental groups assessed 175 countries and gave 17 of them the lowest possible rating for anti-trafficking efforts.
The so-called "Tier Three" countries included 10 holdovers from last year - Burma, Cuba, Fiji, Iran, Kuwait, North Korea, Papua-New Guinea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Syria.
Four countries with poor ratings last year were downgraded to the lowest category - Chad, Malaysia, Niger and Zimbabwe. Three that were not covered in the 2008 report, Eritrea, Mauritania and Swaziland, were also listed in Tier Three.
At the same time, four Tier-Three countries from last year were upgraded in recognition of their anti-trafficking efforts - Algeria, Moldova, Oman and Qatar.
The State Department's new anti-trafficking coordinator, Luis de Baca, stressed that encouraging improvement is the main point of the exercise.
"It has become a diagnostic tool that informs and guides our efforts as we seek to build a global partnership to combat modern slavery," said de Baca. "The successes are clear. Some former Tier-Two-Watch List countries are now Tier One. They have become models through their efforts for their regions and for the world. In this vein, I am particularly heartened for instance to see how Nigeria started a dedicated anti-trafficking police and prosecution unit.
Among several members of Congress at the event was the ranking Republican member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who stressed the fact that an estimated 80 percent of trafficking victims are women and half are children.
"The numbers however do not convey the human horrors that lay behind those statistics," said Ros-Lehtinen. "These crimes know no borders. In Iran, children are forced into sexual slavery, involuntary servitude, while Iranian girls are trafficked into Pakistan and numerous other countries. In Syria, women are trafficked from South and Southeast Asia and are forced to work as domestic servants. And women from Eastern Europe and Iraq are forced into prostitution."
Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban American, said Cuba has shamefully been promoting itself as a destination for sexual tourism that exploits large numbers of children.
Activists Vera Lesko of Albania and Mariliana Morales Barrios of Costa Rica represented the nine activists hailed in the 2009 report as anti-trafficking heroes.
Morales, who founded a rehabilitation center in San Jose that has helped more than 3,000 trafficking victims, made an emotional appeal for governments to finance organizations like hers, urging remembrance she said, "for all victims who have died without a voice to speak for them."