Bills would punish countries
involved in sex trafficking
___By Ira Rifkin
___Religion News Service
___WASHINGTON (RNS)--In straightfoward graphic detail, the two young women told their stories of sexual slavery and degradation to a Capitol Hill audience that listened in stunned silence.
___One was from Nepal, the other Mexico. Both were kidnapped and sold to brothels; one in India, the other in Texas.
___"We were at their mercy," said the Mexican woman, wearing dark glasses and a black shawl to hide her identity. She spoke of those who kept her and others captive in Houston. Her interpreter dabbed at her eyes with a tissue as she translated from Spanish to English.
___The two women, both eventually freed by police, spoke Sept. 13 at a forum designed to spotlight an issue that has emerged as one of this year's prime legislative issues for Washington's religious activists--stopping the international sex trade in women and children.
___As with last year's battle over religious freedom abroad, the question of possible U.S. sanctions against nations deemed unwilling to combat the sex trade has prompted White House concerns and divided religious activists.
___Richard Cizik, Washington director of the National Association of Evangelicals, said the issue's sexual content also is making some religious leaders squirm. About 100 Washington-area leaders were invited to the Sept. 13 forum, but not one came, he said.
___"Quite frankly, I don't think many pastors want to put the words 'sex' and 'child' in the same sentence. But we can't hide from the issue," Cizik said.
___According to the United Nations, 2 million people--the vast majority of them women and children, both boys and girl--are forced into the international sex trade each year. The State Department has estimated about 50,000 are brought into the United States annually, most of them unsuspecting girls and young women from Russia and other Soviet republics, Asia and Latin America.
___"The numbers may soon be on par with the African slave trade of the 1700s," said Laura Lederer, director of the Protection Project at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.
___Competing bills have been introduced in the Senate and House reflecting opposing religious and political views on the issue, particularly the sanctions question.
___In the House, a bill introduced by Reps. Christopher Smith, R-N.J., and Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, has garnered the support of a coalition of mostly conservative religious activists and social policy specialists. Most of the coalition members also worked for passage of the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, which made religious persecution abroad a U.S. foreign policy concern.
___They see the sexual trafficking measure as a continuation of a larger moral crusade.
___The Smith-Kaptur bill provides for up to life in prison for those convicted in the United States of sexual trafficking, establishes a State Department office to report annually to Congress on what other nations are doing about the problem, provides $20 million for victim assistance and protection over two years and a similar amount to train police in foreign nations to better root out sexual traffickers.
___The measure would prohibit non-humanitarian U.S. financial aid to countries identified as not trying hard enough to stop the trade, with the president having the power to waive the provision.
___A Senate proposal introduced by Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., contains a more narrow sanctions threat, confining it to depriving assistance to police agencies in offending nations on the assumption sexual trafficking exists only with law enforcement complicity.
___However, the Wellstone bill expands the definition of trafficking to include individuals not sexually abused but kept in economic bondage--such as the recent high-profile cases of Chinese and Latin American immigrants kept as indentured workers in New York and elsewhere in the United States.
___At a House International Relations subcommittee hearing on the bill Sept. 14, Assistant Secretary of State Harold Koh said the Clinton administration opposed the Smith-Kaptur measure, in large part because its sanctions provisions targeted governments "even when private traffickers bear major responsibility for the problem."
___The National Council of Churches, which represents more than 30 mainline Protestant and Orthodox denominations, backs the administration's view.
___"Sanctions, even when they can be waived, is the wrong place to start," said Jay Lintner, an NCC Washington representative.
___Lintner said that because poverty often spurs the sex trade, any action that threatens to cut aid, and presumably increase poverty, is "mean-spirited" and counter-productive.
___Koh also argued for the Wellstone bill's expanded view of the trafficking problem, saying all forms of trafficking violate international human rights standards.
___However, Michael Horowitz, a former Reagan administration policy adviser and a driving force behind both the religious persecution act and the Smith bill, said broadening the definition of trafficking was designed to undercut the chances of congressional action on the issue.
___"The White House doesn't want anything passed that could complicate their relationships with foreign governments," said Horowitz, currently with the Hudson Institute in Washington.
___"They know you can't apply the same standards to economic trafficking, which can involve free will on the part of those being moved across borders, with the sex trade, which is just commercial rape. Mixing apples and oranges guarantees congressional stalemate," he said.
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