U.S. Policy and the Unjust Approach to Human Trafficking of the International Justice Mission


This article is part of a two-part series commissioned by RH Reality Check analyzing U.S. trafficking policy as outlined by President Obama at the Clinton Global Initiative.

When you picture a human rights defender, are they carrying handcuffs? Are they removing you from your home or workplace and directing you into a police van? This is, unfortunately, the face of some of the “human rights defenders” being funded by the United States government through “anti-trafficking” initiatives around the globe.

And this is the unfortunate picture President Obama invoked—in all likelihood, without intending to—in his remarks last Tuesday at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York. In the address, before heads of state, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and civil society representatives, the president elaborated his most detailed position on the United States’ commitment to ending human trafficking. He spoke at length about the issue of forced labor, whether performed by garment workers, agricultural workers, or child laborers. Obama also praised the work of faith-based NGOs, which would not itself be a problem but for the fact that many of the faith-based groups receiving U.S. funding bring their evangelism along with law enforcement into their anti-trafficking work, and in particular the work they do focusing on the sex trade.

We are especially honored to be joined today by advocates who dedicate their lives—and, at times, risk their lives—to liberate victims and help them recover,” the President said. “This includes men and women of faith, who, like the great abolitionists before them, are truly doing the Lord’s work—evangelicals, the Catholic Church, the International Justice Mission…

This is the same International Justice Mission whose reliance on headline-grabbing brothel raids conducted with police to “rescue” sex workers have drawn criticism from human rights advocates around the world.

As journalist Noy Thrupkaew reported for The Nation, International Justice Mission (IJM) became a global force after receiving millions of dollars in federal grants, made available for the first time under the Bush administration during its drive to shift large sums of U.S. international aid funding to fundamentalist evangelical Christian and Catholic groups. Also driving their growth was an expansion of federal trafficking law enabling the United States to suspend aid to countries that did not comply with US counter-trafficking efforts.

In 2002, at the same time as the United States demanded crackdowns on commercial sex work, which the State Department has erroneously claimed drives trafficking, IJM became a recipient of federal funds. In 2003, IJM took on more dramatic operations, such as embedding a television crew from Dateline NBC with a team of IJM staff and law enforcement to raid a brothel in Svay Pak, Cambodia. IJM stated they “rescued” 37 girls, but at least 12 of them ran away from the police-guarded “safe house” in which they were detained. In the wake of the raid, USAID found that the number of minors involved in prostitution actually went up.

Though some anti-trafficking activists believe that sex work is indistinguishable from trafficking, sex worker rights’ advocates stress that sex work is work, and that working conditions in the sex sector are the issue, not sex work itself. Indeed, working conditions in the sex sector are made worse for sex workers when, in order to avoid interference and harassment from law enforcement and would-be “rescuers,” sex workers must work alone or in isolated conditions.

Sex workers often face widespread abuse at the hands of corrupt police and government officials, including the confiscation and destruction of condoms (as documented by sex worker advocates in recent reports from both Open Society Foundations and Human Rights Watch), as well as systematic sexual harassment and sexual assault meant to repress and terrorize sex workers. In response, the Global Commission on HIV and the Law has recommended that in order to guarantee the health and rights of sex workers, police must stop targeting their workplaces and the criminalization of sex work must be ended.

When would-be “rescuers” take the role of cops, and enlist the cops as support in “rescue” operations, rather than restoring “rights,” they risk perpetuating these cycles of harassment and abuse, and they risk undermining health educators and organizers working for labor and human rights in these communities, whose success is utterly contingent on their ability to build trust and to strengthen peer networks.

When Thrupkaew asked IJM field office director Patrick Stayton how he balanced the needs of survivors with the potential disruption of community, services, and support that are critical to their health and well-being, as well as the rights of sex workers and others caught up in these raids, Stayton remarked:

I believe that God is all-powerful. He could do this, but I think it pleases him to let his creations be his hands and feet here. I have an opportunity to bring heaven on earth in places that are already hell on earth. I believe in a God who created us with the ability to feel this kind of pain, and to understand and recognize and see it, a heart to want to do something about it. I think the evil that happens here breaks his heart. Am I happy about the potential disruption? No. But I’m looking at the girl there, the 15-year-old girl who is nothing more than an organ for rent. That’s what we find unacceptable. And I think that IJM has weighed that cost—I have personally weighed that cost. I wouldn’t be working with IJM if I didn’t feel that cost was one I could take.

Is this the kind of human rights work President Obama supports? Can we even call this— the forcible removal and detention of young women in the sex trade, without regard for the consequences—human rights work?

If the United States wished to demonstrate a full commitment to ending trafficking for the purposes of forced labor, including in the sex sector, it would not rely primarily on law enforcement interventions, the efforts President Obama privileged in his remarks at CGI. Instead, the United States should look to the systemic legal and economic issues that drive trafficking—issues that the President only alluded to 18 minutes into his 25 minute address.

To their credit, the Obama administration has pushed back when anti-trafficking funds and programs have been compromised by religious ideology that puts survivors of trafficking at risk. In September 2011, the Obama administration refused to renew the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) contract with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), through which they received the majority of federal dollars meant to support trafficking survivors within the United States, a total of $19 million dollars from 2006 to 2011. The USCCB in turn re-granted funds to secular groups that support survivors of trafficking, but with strings attached: they would not fund organizations that provided or referred their clients for reproductive and sexual health care, including gynecological exams for survivors of rape, or HIV and AIDS care.

The Obama administration showed leadership on behalf of survivors of trafficking by withdrawing funds from the USCCB: it goes against any principles of survivor-centered advocacy or health and human rights practice to deny life-saving care. But it did not come without pressure: the ACLU brought a challenge against HHS in federal court in 2009 when HHS had allowed the USCCB to “prohibit the referral of victims of sexual assault for contraception and abortion services.” In 2012, the courts ruled in favor of the ACLU, on the grounds that the USCCB violated the establishment clause guaranteeing a separation of church and state.

This fight has incensed Republican representatives Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Chris Smith (R-NJ), both of whom take credit for passing misguided anti-trafficking legislation and who claim the Obama administration is attacking Catholics by ending the USCCB’s contract. Of course, when Issa and Smith aren’t seeking gold stars for “fighting trafficking” and making life harder for people in the sex trade, they’re hard at work restricting reproductive and sexual health care for all Americans. Smith is also the key defender of the anti-prostitution loyalty oath, which has—on parallel with the former global gag rule on abortion—severely limited access to reproductive and sexual health care for sex workers around the globe. (For a more detailed analysis of the anti-prostitution loyalty oath, see here.)

This is a toxic mix: Federally-funded Evangelicals and Catholics who drive their anti-trafficking work with religious principles to which we cannot hold them to account, who have used taxpayer funds to put the very people they aim to “rescue” (whatever that means) at risk. It is not going to be easy for President Obama and his administration to pursue evidence and rights-based policies in this climate, but they could do not much worse than Bush. Still, if they are willing to defund USCCB, why can’t they back off IJM?

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