More on Trafficking: The axes of evil and the search for mass destruction

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John R Miller, former Bush Anti-Trafficking Czar at the State Department (2002-2006) has written a colourful Op-Ed in the New York Times, with the provocative title The Justice Department, Blind to Slavery.  The article stated that the US Department of Justice was subverting the course of justice by blocking passage of the highly controversial human trafficking legislation which would expand federal jurisdiction over prostitution, based on conflationary theory that the two are synonymous.  However Miller framed it in a way that portrayed Justice as being pro-slavery. Presumably his intention was to oil the Bill in the Senate and boost Republican votes in the forthcoming elections. Presumably his former boss would also smile favourably upon this effort. 

This predictably produced moral outrage amongst many NYT readers, who saw it as a call to arms to protect the innocent victims of violence. A few however saw it as yet another manifestation of the fruitless wars against axes of evil and searches for various sources of mass destruction that threaten the moral fabric of the world we live in.

Miller's claims therefore deserve closer examination.  Now admittedly this is an Op-Ed contribution, and Miller is entitled to his opinions. However he presents one side of a complex story, despite the fact that in his previous position he had access to all of the expert opinion that the Justice Department has, and which he chose to ignore then and now. Curiously his attack on Justice highlights all of the current Administration's moral panic apparatus, by portraying a heroic combat between Christian values and feminists on the one hand (that uneasy alliance) and three axes of evil, male lawyers (in Justice), sex workers (in the form of the Erotic Service Providers Union) and the American Civil Liberties Union. In addition to this interesting ideology he then proceeds to repeat many of the tired myths about commercial sexual exchange, citing as his main authority none other than Melissa Farley. 

We are naturally not told whether Justice is unique in posessing male lawyers, or whether this is an insidious plot that has contaminated all Departments other than his own State Department. Admittedly those who have pressed for the devotion of considerable federal resources to suppress human trafficking, and by extension commercial sex, have tried to couch it in terms claiming that this is a feminist position, this is a gross misrepresentation of feminisms. Prostitution has of course long been been a divisive issue in the women's movement but there is common ground, and the vast majority of people studying and writing in this field would identify themselves as feminists. That body of scholarship simply does not support the views expressed by Miller. 

While Miller was in office, Joel Brinkley, a NYT reporter made a close study of his rationale and methods. He recently wrote another article in the Sacramento Bee updating his analysis of Miller's legacy.  As Brinkley points out, no matter how appalling the crime of enslaving human beings may be, tackling this is not helped by an ideological driven diversion of resources into the suppression of commercial sex. 

Predictably Miller is only interested in information from 'abolitionist' sources, but as Brinkley also states,
even that (Farley) is not supportive. Over the last few years the human trafficking story, spiced with stories of sex-slaves has attracted moral righteousness, investigative journalism and scholarly activity. 

Jerry Markon at the Washington Post, found that despite enormous manpower and funding, like weapons of mass destruction, the millions of apparent victims of trafficking appear to vanish as soon as the search begins. Recent scholarly examination of both these claims and how the Adminstration got into the business of hunting for invisible victims, include Professor William McDonald of Georgetown University, and Professor Ron Weitzer of George Washington University. In the same vein are the studies of the International Organization for Migration , and the work of Bridget Anderson and Julia O'Connell Davidson for the Centre on Migration Policy and Society , at Oxford University.

However scholarly reports do not have the same mass appeal as anecdotes of victimisation. Government policy analysts have a duty to examine all available evidence before formulating pronouncements, but unfortunately sometimes policy, particularly ideologically driven policy, arrives pre-made before examination of evidence. In April 2005, Miller received a lengthy analysis of the policies of his department from a panel of experts with a request to remove misleading information on the website, but to no avail. Miller replied that the State Department had concluded that trafficking and prostitution were inextricably linked.

A further attempt was made by an even larger group earlier this year in a letter to Congress.  Fortunately we have empirical evidence for refuting this attempted nexus. New Zealand removed prostitution from the criminal code in 2003 without any effect on human trafficking, as demonstrated by a recent evaluation by the New Zealand Ministry of Justice. Human trafficking and prostitution are simply two very different things.

The State Department's zealous efforts have two-dimensionalised a very complex issue. People migrate for many different reasons, seek facilitation to different degrees, have varying expectations of their host country or region, and have varying control over their lives and working conditions when they arrive. Furthermore many migrants become the victims of exploitation, including sexual exploitation, such as mail-order brides and domestic labour, as well as sex workers. These often reflect structural defects in policy towards migrants in receiving countries, and it is to these factors and policies that efforts to improve the lot of migrant workers should be directed, not crusades against 'pimps'. This why major anti-trafficking groups such as Prevent Human Trafficking distance themselves from the State Department.

In summary, Miller's opinion is just that, and simply does not reflect the facts. Miller's assertion that the Justice Department is 'blind to slavery' is not established. Nobody supports human rights abuses, but Miller's legacy has been a serious distortion of both foreign and domestic policy that has harmed rather than helped international efforts to combat this by hitching it to another of the Administration's moralist causes, the prohibition of commercial sex.

Lessons learned from the prohibition of alcohol appear to have been forgotten, as has the principle that policy must always be based on sound evidence.