from Women Around the World, Women and Foreign Policy Program, and Human Trafficking

Combating Human Trafficking and the Biden Administration

This post is part of the Council on Foreign Relations’ blog series on human trafficking, in which CFR fellows and other leading experts assess new approaches to improve U.S. and global efforts to curb trafficking and modern slavery. This post was authored by Sarah E. Mendelson.
A suspected victim of human trafficking to India who returned to Kenya with the help of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), is seen in Nairobi, Kenya.
A suspected victim of human trafficking to India who returned to Kenya with the help of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), is seen in Nairobi, Kenya. Jackson Njehia/Reuters

This piece was authored by Sarah E. Mendelson, Distinguished Service Professor of Public Policy, Carnegie Mellon University and Head of CMU’s Heinz in DC.

As the United States marks the twentieth anniversary of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act and the Palermo Protocol, and as the Joe Biden administration takes office, it is an appropriate time to consider new approaches to combat human trafficking. Perhaps not surprisingly, given early and important roles played by the Justice Department (and the UN Office of Drugs and Crime), the prosecution of traffickers has dominated U.S. strategies, trailed by efforts to prevent trafficking and protect victims, collectively known as the “three Ps” approach. What should be done more, or differently?

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The vast repair work to be undertaken by the Biden administration offers an opportunity to build forward in new ways, including changes to how and where combating human trafficking is operationalized—both in terms of diplomacy and development. A relatively easy first step would be to reinstitute the fourth “P” abandoned by the Donald J. Trump administration (in more ways than one): partnership. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton introduced the concept of partnership in recognition of the collaboration needed to reduce and then eradicate human trafficking and modern slavery. Another obvious step will be to quickly nominate the candidate for the ambassador-at-large position at the State Department so that she or he can get confirmed and help oversee the annual report.

Beyond those uncontroversial suggestions, new approaches should guide work over the next ten years—well beyond the Biden administration—to help broaden constituencies involved in combating trafficking within the U.S. government and around the world using the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  

Trafficking as a Sustainable Development Challenge

The SDGs were adopted by all UN member states in 2015, run through 2030, and involve seventeen objectives to create a more equitable and viable planet. These goals came together over a three-year period following the input of millions of people around the world, especially younger generations. The broadened twenty-first century conception of sustainable development stems in part from the role played by several female ambassadors from countries that had recently emerged from war. During the end stages of negotiations at the UN, these ambassadors argued forcefully that issues related to peaceful, just, and inclusive societies (including combating trafficking) be part of the SDGs, or else they (and their countries) would not sign on.

The Global Goals represent a paradigm shift in how we think about sustainability—sustainability refers to climate issues, but also conceptions of equality and governance. As important, the SDGs represent a paradigm shift in how we think about development—development happens everywhere and not just the Global South. The SDGs apply to all of us. To be realized, they need to live well beyond the United Nations and be implemented by countries, cities, NGOs, universities, the private sector, and even at the individual level.

These paradigm shifts thus have implications (and should have an impact) on how to think about both sustainability and development. For the United States today, the SDGs are both timely and in need of a lot more awareness, explanation, and discussion. Specifically in an era of a global pandemic and multiple crises, the SDGs are even more of a “north star” for recovery than before the virus struck. Yet to date, the movement to combat human trafficking has been largely absent from action on the SDGs.

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That could change now—and not just because of the new Biden administration—thanks in part to a new, detailed, and compelling report. In Developing Freedom: The Sustainable Development Case for Ending Modern Slavery, Forced Labour and Human Trafficking, the UN University authors argue “the development sector has a slavery blind-spot.” This eighteen-month study, examining two million project records in sixteen countries from 2000 to 2017, finds that a majority of bilateral donors and development banks do not regard combating human trafficking through the lens of development but rather as a criminal justice problem. The report then makes a powerful case for why this perspective should change and argues that the development community should participate robustly in combating human trafficking.

My own experience at USAID suggests much work is needed to reverse this trend. Counter trafficking work, as with other human rights work, is often siloed despite efforts to the contrary, including the 2012 USAID Combating Trafficking in Persons (CTIP) Policy [PDF] (coauthored by Dr. Caren Grown and me) which argued for better integration. Note also the extensive work that went in to creating the SDGs—where combating trafficking appears as a target across three different goals—a rare and hard-fought feature.

To the extent that public messaging regarding trafficking and the SDGs has existed to date, it has been through the lens of “decent work” (SDG goal 8, with its target 8.7 on forced labor, child labor, modern slavery, and human trafficking). The focus on labor trafficking is of course needed and welcome. It is worth considering, however, whether prioritizing target 8.7 through “Alliance 8.7,” a global partnership launched in 2016, has had the unintended consequence of reinforcing silos, possibly reducing attention to the other trafficking-related SDG targets (5.2, on reducing violence against women and girls and 16.2, on reducing all forms of violence), as well as downplaying the integrated nature of the SDGs. Indeed, the UNU report found that “anti-slavery efforts…can contribute to 113 of the 179 Sustainable Development Goal Targets, especially 1 (Ending Poverty), 4 (Quality Education), 8 (Decent Work), 13 (Climate Action), and 16 (Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions).”

In part due to the absence of the Trump administration advocating the SDG agenda, the American global development community, not to mention the movement to combat trafficking and modern slavery, has been largely missing in action on the SDGs. Accenture’s recent survey of ninety-eight member organizations of the Society for International Development – Washington Chapter, most of which are USAID implementers, found that “only one-third of respondents indicated that their organization has a strategy to advance the SDGs through their programs and operations.” If and when USAID pivots to supporting the SDGs, so will this development community.

Given the last four years, even the most conscientious foreign policy experts could reasonably think that there has not been much uptake of the SDGs around the world. This conclusion would be inaccurate. The world communicates about the SDGs through Voluntary Reviews. One indication of SDG uptake therefore is the fact that to date, 168 countries have reported out their progress on the SDGs—some multiple times. Over two hundred Voluntary National Reviews have been presented. The United States is the only OECD country that has not done a single one. Cities around the world (including in the United States) are also aligning with the SDGs and reporting out their progress through Voluntary Local Reviews. Universities increasingly see the SDGs as important, and this past fall, at Carnegie Mellon, we published the world’s first Voluntary University Review [PDF] to see how our education, research, and practice align with the SDGs. These reviews are an opportunity to both elevate the agenda across the goals, and at the national level, to drive needed resources toward combating trafficking and measuring impact. The United States, under the Biden administration, needs to join its peers and start implementing the SDGs. The movement to combat trafficking would get a big lift from such a pivot.

Reduce Bureaucratic Silos to Increase Impact

Even if and when this occurs, however, the administration has additional bureaucratic silos to tackle. To repeat, issues related to human rights are often viewed as distinct and secondary by many regional and thematic bureaus at both the State Department and USAID. Many political appointees across multiple administrations have scars from bureaucratic battles trying to elevate trafficking. Among the most contentious have been debates between bureaus on the congressionally mandated Trafficking in Persons tier rankings of countries, on occasion spilling into public view. More shocking but largely unknown were instances of appeals denied by the State Department to halt U.S. visa programs for household staff serving foreign diplomats from countries with a pattern of convictions on human trafficking in U.S. courts. Some of these diplomats, after fleeing the country, failed to pay compensation to survivors.

If leadership in the White House, the National Security Council, the State Department, USAID, and any number of other departments views sustainable development as core to the mission of U.S. foreign and domestic policy—linked to the robustness of our own democracy, human rights, and governance—then the elevation of policies in support of sustainable development (and the tackling of bureaucratic silos) could occur. Trafficking, like atrocities, would be categorized as the opposite of sustainable development. Rather than being considered as nice to have, a niche issue, or someone else’s job, combating human trafficking could be considered essential. New annual awards for diplomats and development experts who advance the SDGs in the service of combating trafficking could help signal elevation and commitment.  

Given the new administration, the community dedicated to combating trafficking no doubt is thinking about how to link the anti-slavery agenda to the campaign promises about elevating democracy and human rights. Notwithstanding the pandemic, the 2021 calendar has a number of important UN meetings that should be a focus of attention. The Special Session on Corruption, for example, scheduled for June 2021, the High Level Political Forum in July 2021 where SDG 8, SDG 16, and SDG 17 are all on the agenda, and, of course, UNGA 76 are occasions for the Biden administration to work with the movement to elevate and advance new approaches to combat human trafficking. These would also be opportunities to convene high-level donor and diplomatic dialogues on how to collaborate on combating trafficking in the context of the SDGs, including how to incentivize countries that end up repeatedly, some year after year, ranked as Tier III by the State Department.

Perhaps most important, the Summit for Democracy proposed by Biden provides an exceptional opportunity to make new commitments that include combating human trafficking at home and around the world. After all, our very democracy, our country, nearly came apart as a result of slavery. Today’s movement addressing racial injustice is connected to that past and this issue. And the Summit should be viewed not as a coffee klatch, but rather as an opportunity where governments and civil society, after much consultation and with humility and confidence, show up ready to deliver solid commitments  and be held accountable for them in follow-up and review sessions in the years to come.

In such a cynical era, and given our multiple crises, it’s tempting to be skeptical. But this agenda is precisely what is needed today: the SDGs can serve as a call to action in this decade of action to citizens around the world, especially young people, who yearn for a more prosperous, peaceful, and progressive planet. Those four Ps can help strengthen and reinforce the trafficking four Ps and leave the next generation with a world where trafficking and slavery are truly crimes of the past.