President Obama made his first post-election visit abroad two weeks ago to three countries in Southeast Asia. He spent November 18th in Thailand and held a joint press conference with Thai Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra. On November 19th, he journeyed to Burma and met with Burmese President Thein Sein and Member of Parliament who was formerly under political house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi. He then attended the East Asia summit in Cambodia on November 20th and met with leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). This trip was significant not only because President Obama was the first U.S. president to visit Burma and Cambodia, but also because he raised the priority human rights issue of human trafficking in his conversations with leaders in each of the three countries.
This visit echoes in action the address that President Obama gave at the Clinton Global Initiative in September, which he focused entirely on human trafficking in the form labor and sex services, both in the United States and globally. He began describing human trafficking as such:
“It ought to concern every person, because it is a debasement of our common humanity. It ought to concern every community, because it tears at our social fabric. It ought to concern every business, because it distorts markets. It ought to concern every nation, because it endangers public health and fuels violence and organized crime. I’m talking about the injustice, the outrage, of human trafficking, which must be called by its true name -- modern slavery. “
Recognizing that it is a tragedy that “modern slavery” should exist in the U.S. but acknowledging that the U.S. has resources and technical knowledge to be a leader in the anti-trafficking movement, the president called to attention these anti-trafficking initiatives that his Administration has designed:
· Executive order strengthening protections in federal contracts: The U.S. is strengthening adherence to its zero-tolerance policy on human trafficking within government contracts in the U.S. and overseas.
· Tools and training to identify and assist trafficking victims: Government employed professionals from the local to federal levels who are most likely to cross paths with trafficking victims will be provided human trafficking training.
· Increased resources for victims of human trafficking: Social services and legal assistance for trafficking victims will be expanded so they will have increased access to help. The T-visa application and prosecution of the victims’ traffickers are being streamlined to expedite processing times.
· Comprehensive plan for future action: The first strategic action plan to strengthen services for victims of trafficking and the first domestic human trafficking assessment tool to track trafficking trends in the U.S. is being developed by federal intelligence agencies.
President Obama's speech at the CGI
The President calls upon members of every community to be educated on human trafficking and join in on the existing efforts to combat this worldwide epidemic. In the same address, he urges Congress to renew the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which he says, is “something we should all agree on”, whether Democrat or Republican.
On his visit, President Obama commended Burma on the extensive progress made toward its transition to democracy and addressing sex and labor trafficking in the last two years. Burma has repealed the 1907 Towns and Villages Act, which condoned government use of forced labor and has enacted the 2012 Wards and Village Tracts Administration Act, which criminalizes all forms of forced labor. It has also signed a child soldiers action plan with the UN to release child soldiers from the Burmese military. These are just a few signs of evidence for Burma’s advance in human rights.
President Obama meets Aung San Suu Kyi (Official White House photo)
In his subsequent conversations with the Thai and Cambodian leaders, President Obama affirms that the technical knowledge and practices developed by the U.S. and its partners in anti-trafficking efforts will be shared with all three countries. The bilateral partnerships between the U.S. and these countries signify cooperative efforts to share ideas and learn from each other how to tackle this issue. However, human trafficking is not a standalone issue; therefore, the U.S. will work with the Thai, Burmese, and Cambodian leaders to improve education, revamp public health systems, and focus on human development from childhood.
This visit seems to have provided added momentum for the anti-trafficking movement in Asia. With such a huge focus on trafficking as President Obama begins his second term, those already engaged in anti-trafficking work are looking forward to greater development in advocacy and services for victims as well as abusers being held accountable to their crimes. It is a tremendous sign of progress as the covert operations of human trafficking are being exposed and awareness of the issue has gained prominence in the last decade.