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Helsinki Commissioners Hail Passage of Legislation to Combat Trafficking in Human Beings

WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives today adopted the “Trafficking Victim’s Protection Act”, a bill sponsored by Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ), aimed at combating the buying and selling of human beings into the commercial sex industry, slavery, or slavery-like conditions.

The bill had 37 cosponsors, including Rep. Sam Gejdenson (D-CT) and Commissioner Reps. Frank R. Wolf (R-VA), Joseph R. Pitts (R-PA), and Louise McIntosh Slaughter (D-NY).

Last July, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) unanimously adopted a resolution calling for the OSCE participating States to adopt or strengthen legislation and enforcement mechanisms which would punish those who forcibly or fraudulently recruit and transport individuals within or across borders in order to force them into the commercial sex industry. At a November 1999 Summit meeting, the OSCE participating States also pledged in the Charter for European Security to “undertake measures to…[end] all forms of trafficking in human beings” including “the adoption or strengthening of legislation to hold accountable persons responsible for these acts and strengthen[ing] the protection of victims.”

“Trafficking in human beings is a form of modern day slavery,” said Smith. “The international community has made it clear that lawmakers must declare war on those that commit these crimes. The House of Representatives today recognized that U.S. prosecutors need greater tools to convict and imprison criminals who traffic in human beings. The central principle behind this legislation is that anyone who knowingly profits from the most severe forms of trafficking should receive punishment commensurate with that given to those who commit other serious crimes, such as kidnaping or rape.”

“The Trafficking Victims Protection Act will strengthen U.S. laws and penalties against trafficking so that the United States will become the last place that traffickers want to commit their crimes. Enactment of the Trafficking Victim’s Protection Act into law will represent a direct fulfillment of the OSCE human rights commitment made last November in Istanbul,” said Smith.

“This legislation…will be helpful for those who are seeking a way out of situations that seem bleak, dark and hopeless,” said Rep. Wolf.

“Developing this initiative has been a long and arduous process, ” said Rep. Slaughter, a member of the Helsinki Commission who has worked on the trafficking problem for six years. “But this is an issue that is important enough to cross both partisan and personality divides. It is also an issue that is not limited to one particular region of the world. In fact, in the wake of the discovery of a prostitution ring of trafficked women in Florida and the Carolinas, as well as a group of Thai garment workers held captive in California, we now know this is a problem that must also be dealt with in our own back yard. This legislation does that and more.”

“It is time we stopped punishing the victims and wrist-slapping the real criminals,” said Rep. Pitts. “Sex traffickers destroy lives and it’s time we punished them accordingly.”

The Trafficking Victim’s Protection Act allocates $95 million over two years to combat trafficking. In addition to authorizing severe punishment for persons convicted of operating trafficking enterprises in the United States, the legislation provides the possibility of severe economic penalties against traffickers located in other countries.

The legislation also addresses the need to assist and protect victims of trafficking. Specifically, it authorizes initiatives to create economic opportunities for potential victims abroad—thereby decreasing their need to migrate in search of employment—and to increase public awareness of trafficking schemes. The legislation provides for the creation of shelters and rehabilitation programs for victims and limited provision of relief from deportation for victims who expose their traffickers to law enforcement officials and who would face retribution or other hardship if removed from the United States.

The legislation authorizes foreign aid to assist other countries in legal reform related to trafficking, but prohibits non-humanitarian U.S. assistance to foreign governments that tolerate or condone severe forms of trafficking, unless the prohibition is waived by the President.

According to Smith, “The Trafficking Victim’s Protection Act will make important and necessary changes to U.S. law designed to help end this brutal, inhumane, and horrific exploitation of human beings, especially women and children. Every year, millions of women and children are forced, coerced, or fraudulently trafficked into modern day slavery around the world with no way out. This legislation will put human traffickers behind bars while protecting their victims.”

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