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U.S. Department of State

Department Seal Harold Hongju Koh, Assistant Secretary of State for
Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

Remarks, Tahirih Justice Center
Washington, DC, May 25, 2000

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Thank you for that kind introduction and my sincere thanks to everyone at the Tahirih Justice Center for inviting me to speak here tonight. When I think of all that you have gone through, Fauziya Kassindja, it makes me realize, yet again, just how far we have still to go before the dream of universal human rights can become a reality for everyone on this planet. But at the same time, the enormous courage that you have displayed and which you and Layli Miller Bashir describe so poignantly in your book, Do They Hear You When You Cry, is a testimony to the indomitable nature of the human spirit. When people like you and Layli fight for justice, you fight for countless others, too. You and the Tahirih Justice Center should take tremendous pride in what you have been able to achieve in just a few short years.

By our presence here, we all testify to the sad truth: that around the world women are too often denied the most basic elements of human rights and justice. All of us can cite too many examples. But this is nowhere clearer than in the story of the 115 to 130 million women worldwide who have been forced to undergo genital mutilation, and the 2 million who risk this harmful practice every single year. For years the international community thought of female genital mutilation (FGM) as just another unpleasant tribal custom, somebody else's problem, if they thought of it at all. But over time, as women and their advocates have found their voices, awareness of the human rights implications of this practice has grown. In 1982, the World Health Organization finally spoke out against FGM at the UN Commission on Human Rights. In 1994, the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo condemned it. The following year, 5 years ago, the historic UN Women's Conference in Beijing again recognized FGM as a harmful practice, and the Beijing Platform of Action called on governments and other organizations to work to end the practice once and for all. In 1996, the same year that Fauziya Kassindja was finally granted asylum in our country, the United States made FGM a crime, and now, some 15 states have similar laws as well.

But for all of these efforts, the practice continues. According to a recent State Department study, the percentage of married women who have been subjected to some form of FGM remains staggering -- ranging from 60% to 70% in Burkina Faso; to 80% to 90% in Sierra Leone; to a stunning 97% in Egypt; and 98% in Somalia. The suffering that lies behind these figures is almost incomprehensible. But as long as we think of it as somebody else's problem, the practice will probably continue. That is Fauziya's and Layli's greatest achievement. They took a human rights problem that affected millions of faceless women behind closed doors, brought it under public scrutiny, addressed an individual case, and turned it into not just an international cause celebre but now an institution, the Tahirih Justice Center. When we read Fauziya's book, we can finally put a face on the problem and understand it not as an abstraction, but as a fundamental invasion of a real person's most basic human rights. It is not too late to fight for others who are still at risk.

That's where this Center comes in, as do all of us in the audience. Working together, we can put an end to this practice worldwide. We can support the NGOs that are on the ground in Africa in their efforts to educate both women and men about the physical, mental, and social harm that genital mutilation causes. And we can keep hammering away at the truth that we all know -- that so long as women are denied the most basic right: to control what happens to their own bodies -- they will continue to be denied the right to determine their own lives.

The same goes for another traditional practice: so-called "honor killings," where family members take it upon themselves to kill their sisters or cousins because they suspect them of bringing shame upon the family. It is hard to think of a practice that is more inaptly named. For where is the "honor" in honor-killing? Last month in Geneva at the UN Human Rights Commission, the U.S. delegation finally called these acts by their proper name: "arbitrary killings." We see no honor, but only shame in the fact that so many countries refuse to prosecute these crimes and to take responsibility for giving the equal protection of the laws to the lives of their citizens.

The story Maryam Shams just told us also puts a human face on the repression and prejudice that, tragically, is the daily lot of almost every woman in Afghanistan. We all know the broad outlines of the Taliban's harsh treatment of women. Most are unable to leave their homes without a male relative and when they do so they must be completely contained within a burqa. Few are allowed to work, even if they are their families' sole breadwinner. Girls, once they reach a certain age, are not allowed to go to school. It is hard to imagine a better recipe for national failure than for a government to prevent half of its population from working or improving itself through education. Thank you, Maryam, for giving this problem a human face.

There is yet another global plague that has occupied a large part of my time and energy as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, namely, today's slave trade -- the trafficking in persons, particularly women and children. Trafficking represents one of the most brutal forms of evil that the international human rights community faces today. Like honor killing and female genital mutilation, all too often we think of trafficking as a faceless problem. But it also has a human face, not just the face of millions of women and girls, but of the countless men and boys as well.

Trafficking is an issue that has touched my life professionally and personally, both in my work as a private human rights attorney and now as Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights. As a professor at Yale, I represented thousands of Haitians, Cuban, and Chinese boat people, many of whom were victims of traffickers who promised them safe passage in exchange for outrageous fees. Just before I came to the U.S. Government, I served as co-counsel in New York in a federal case involving a group of hearing-impaired Mexican workers. They were lured to this country, terrorized by their captors, and forced to peddle wares on the streets by day, deprived of food and sleep, robbed of their money, their livelihood, and most important, their dignity.

Since coming to the State Department in November 1998, I have worked with many colleagues throughout the U.S. Government to help formulate the Administration's response to this problem. Last March, I traveled to Chiang Mai, Thailand, with Secretary of State Albright to visit the Hill Tribes Institute, which has worked diligently to educate indigenous people throughout Southeast Asia about the economic alternatives to the dangers of sex trafficking. Some of the young and bright-eyed girls at the Institute were no older than my own 13-year old daughter, Emily. That experience brought home to me again that the exploitation of innocents for personal and monetary gain must be regarded as one of the most brutal forms of human rights abuse rampant today.

All too often, we hear of trafficking, like FGM, and honor killing, discussed as a faceless problem that happens to faceless women -- a criminal problem, an economic problem, an immigration problem, a health problem -- leaving the false impression that trafficking is a "victimless" crime. But nothing could be further from the truth. It is a global problem of transnational scope that require a global solution. What I ask you is not to think about trafficking as a multi-billion dollar industry -- although it is -- nor as an immigration or health problem -- although it is also that -- but as the very antithesis of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Trafficking represents one of the most comprehensive challenges to human rights in the world today, for it involves the very denial of the humanity of its victims.

Traffickers abuse virtually the entire spectrum of rights protected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. By their acts, traffickers deny that all persons are born free and equal in dignity and rights; they deny their victims freedom of movement, freedom of association, or even the most basic freedom -- to have a childhood. Traffickers profit from arbitrary detention, slavery, rape, and cruel, inhuman, and degrading punishment. They violate any human right that gets in the way of a profit. Most fundamentally, traffickers do not respect human rights because they view their victims as objects, chattel to be bought and sold as needed.

Trafficking is a truly global plague, one that may appear in Denver as well as in Delhi, in London as in Lagos. It takes many forms -- from prostitution to alien smuggling, to bonded labor; from participation in sporting events to the sewing together of sporting goods. It involves victims from every walk of life, every culture, every religion. The most recent edition of our annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, which I presented to the Congress last February, identified at least 60 countries in which trafficking takes place. That represents nearly one-third of the countries in the world. Trafficking takes many forms -- from forced prostitution to bonded domestic servitude; from the coerced work of sweatshops to the impressment of child soldiers. While there are many variations, there are always victims, forced or lured from their homes to be taken elsewhere in the country or shuttled across international borders and kept as virtual slaves, with human rights violations occurring every step along the way. In "source countries", where trafficking originates, most victims of trafficking are girls and women under the age 25. Some are taken by force, but many fall prey to trafficking because they seek a better life because they are runaways, some because their families cannot afford to take care of them, or some because their families have sold them to better their own lives. In almost every situation the traffickers prey on the hopes and fears of their victims. Once someone is in their hands, typically traffickers move their victims to "transit countries" and make it clear that they have no choice but to accept prostitution, debt bondage, or other forms of involuntary servitude. If their victims have identity papers, they confiscate them. Drugs, violence, sexual assault, threats to family members -- all is fair game to traffickers.

Once victims of trafficking arrive in so-called "receiving countries," they are usually kept in squalid conditions in a state of virtual house arrest. In the victims' world, violence, drugs, and threats about the authorities form part of the brutal daily routine. So, too, are long hours of forced servitude -- whether in a brothel as a prostitute, at gunpoint as a child soldier, or in a sweatshop at a sewing machine. In cases involving prostitution and pornography, victims are forced to continue working regardless of disease, meaning that many work throughout their pregnancies and despite having contracted sexually-transmitted diseases, including HIV. Typically, the HIV crisis has only fueled the expansion of sex trafficking, with pimps seeking increasingly younger girls and boys in order to market them to customers as "clean." Health care is non-existent or provided only by fellow victims. This leaves most victims at high risk of further health complications, and ensures that many children born to trafficking victims while in captivity will themselves be trafficked through adoption rings, ensuring that this horrible, vicious cycle will continue.

How do we break this vicious cycle? I am proud of the fact that, under Secretary Albright's leadership, this Administration has taken an active role in combating this global plague and developed a comprehensive three-pronged strategy to attack all three facets of the problem: prevent trafficking; protect its victims; and prosecute those who profit from it. Let me describe what I mean by prevention, protection, and prosecution.

First, prevention. This Administration is committed to attacking the root causes of trafficking worldwide, by fighting poverty and social inquality that leave populations vulnerable to traffickers, and by educating potential victims so that they do not fall victim to traffickers' deceitful schemes. So, for example, among the many prevention initiatives we've launched is a USAID program which funds a consortium of NGOs in Ukraine to provide job skills, education, and mentoring for at-risk women. The State Department has produced a brochure describing common trafficking techniques and ways for potential victims to protect themselves. These are being distributed by NGOs and are available in various consular offices around the world.

Second, protection. The Clinton Administration is committed to helping trafficking victims around the world by freeing them from slavery, providing them with shelter, health services and resettlement options, and by ensuring that they are not punished for what their captors have done. So, for example, in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos, the U.S. is providing funds to help trafficking victims return to their homes and rejoin society. In Russia, the U.S. has allocated more than $500,000 to outreach and training programs for law enforcement authorities and victim assistance programs. In Ukraine, the U.S. government has committed more than $5 million for programs to combat trafficking in women. Another program, funded by the Department of Labor, is helping the International Labor Organization work with children in rural Ghana, where they are sometimes sold as domestic or agricultural laborers. And to promote protection, my own bureau will again expand its reporting on trafficking next year for each of the 194 countries we cover in our annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices.

Third, the price of a comprehensive response to these global plagues is prosecution. We are dedicated to bringing traffickers to justice both at home and abroad by ensuring that tough laws are on the books and that prosecutors, police, and immigration officials have the skills to enforce them. So, for example, my own bureau is funding a program through the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) that will help legislators in Central and Eastern Europe draft laws that will not let traffickers escape punishment. And that same program will train law enforcement officials so that they can better detect and capture traffickers and then bring them to justice without exposing the victims to danger.

But more than these bilateral assistance programs are needed. Because trafficking in persons is a transnational problem, it requires multilateral solutions and the cooperative efforts of many countries to stamp it out. That is why we have worked so hard -- not just to fight trafficking unilaterly -- but to build an international regime to fight it. That is why we are actively working on a UN Protocol Against Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children as part of a larger UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime. This protocol would require all signatories to cooperate with each other to catch traffickers and bring them to justice without penalizing the victims. Moreover, the U.S. expects that the proposed Organized Crime Convention will include some mutual assessment mechanism, under which parties will assess their own and each other's progress in implementing the Convention and its supplemental protocols.

In another effort to build a strong international regime against trafficking in one of the most difficult regions of the world, the United States joined with the Philippines this March in hosting a special Asian Regional Initiative to Combat Trafficking of Women and Children in Manila. There government officials and NGO representatives launched a comprehensive East Asia and Pacific Region plan. Next month, a conference hosted by the OSCE will address similar issues. Frankly, as I speak, the U.S. Congress is also considering legislation that would strengthen our laws against trafficking and add new protections for those who fall victim to it. There are some features of the legislation the Administration opposes -- notably sanctions that would target some of the very governments that are key to solving this problem and jeopardize the very multilateral regime that is the real answer to this problem. Still, we remain committed to working with the Congress to get the strongest and most effective anti-trafficking bill we can.

Of course, it's one thing for me to stand here tonight and preach to you in the choir, condemning all of these practices which have exploited so many millions of women. But how do we get our message through to the places where these practices persist?

The answer, I think, lies with all of us tonight. It's you, and people like you, with interests and contacts throughout the world. Whether you are businessmen, lawyers, diplomats, human rights activists, students, or scholars, you are part of something vastly larger than the organization you work for. In every country of the world there are institutions and organizations, private citizens, businesses, media, and government officials who are being drawn together by the common set of values that we know as universal human rights. You are all part of a system of transnational networks an emerging international civil society that is dedicated to the promotion of women's rights as human rights.

In the 21st century, there are now at least three global languages: money, the Internet, and human rights. These three global revolutions are tied to one another in a synergistic way. Thanks to the Internet, satellite, phones, and faxes, we all have the tools now to reach out to almost every place on earth. We have the means to get our message through and batter down the walls of custom. We who care about women's rights and human rights can now participate in the formation of transnational networks; people and institutions, governments, businesses, and NGOs can and do unite around issues with unprecedented speed and bring unprecedented international pressure to bear on government policies. Transnational networks are transforming the way we do business because they bring NGOs closer to policymakers and policymakers closer to the people. They fly across governmental boundaries on optic fiber. No nation can stop the information revolution nor keep our message completely from their people.

What this means is that all of us who work in human rights -- in places like the State Department or the Tahirih Justice Center -- need to recognize the power that lies in these networks. We need constantly to look for new allies, and not just in old familiar places, but in new ones, too. Within these networks, we can find a new way of doing human rights work for the 21st century with governments, NGOs, intergovernmental organizations, and the media, coming as partners, not as adversaries, in a common struggle for human rights.

In concluding I would like to quote Robert Kennedy and what he said in South Africa some 25 years before apartheid ended: "Each time a person stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, these ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance."

So, as you go home tonight, please think of yourself, not as atomized, isolated individuals, but as center of energy and daring, vital links in a large and rapidly growing transnational network of shared interests, ideas and human values. For it was a series of individual acts that ultimately brought Fauziya and Miryam to freedom. Martin Luther King once said: "The moral arc of the universe is long, but it arcs toward justice." Let us commit ourselves again to that moral arc to build new transnational networks in defense of universal human rights.

Thank you.

[end of document]

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