WASHINGTON — More than a century after abolition, slavery is still a problem in the United States, actress Jada Pinkett Smith told a Senate committee Tuesday that’s deciding whether to renew a law designed to combat human trafficking.
In a hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Pinkett Smith and other witnesses urged members of Congress to reauthorize a 2000 law – the Trafficking Victims Protection Act – that seeks to curtail the buying and selling of humans. The law expired last year.
Pinkett Smith, on hand with her actor husband, Will Smith, said she was motivated by her 11-year-old daughter, Willow, who’d researched child slavery. That inspired her to found an organization this year called Don’t Sell Bodies.
“Let it be our legacy to deliver on emancipation’s promise: making freedom a reality for all who have been victimized,” Pinkett Smith said.
Some 200,000 to 300,000 U.S. children are at risk of being trafficked into commercial sex, David Abramowitz, the vice president of policy and government relations at the human rights group Humanity United, told the committee. The United Nations has reported that human trafficking yields $32 billion a year worldwide, he said.
Pinkett Smith said her interactions with former victims showed her the importance of renewing the protection act. She introduced three American victims of human trafficking: Monica, who was kidnapped by seven men at age 15 and forced into prostitution; Jamm, who was arrested at the same age after she stole her aunt’s phone in an attempt to get out of forced prostitution; and Minh, whose parents starting selling her body to men when she was 11, even as she continued to attend public school and receive straight A’s.
After hearing their stories, committee Chairman Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., called for “a little more naming and shaming” of people who contribute to human trafficking. Any attempt to fight trafficking must begin by addressing the underlying economic issues that make many victims vulnerable, he said.
“It’s not a new issue, and not one Americans come to without bearing our share of responsibility,” Kerry said.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., emphasized the importance of treating people who’ve been trafficked as victims and not perpetrators. “When you interact with a victim, they’ve been so battered that they act like a willing participant,” he said.
The protection act already has spawned teamwork between international governments, such as a Cambodian-American campaign against sex trafficking, Abramowitz said.
The act mandates an annual State Department ranking of countries based on their efforts to eliminate trafficking, which Abramowitz said had motivated other countries to cooperate with the United States.
Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., disagreed with Abramowitz’s assessment of the ranking system, however. Rating countries based on the progress they’ve made in the past year rather than comparing them with one another generates misleading results, Webb said.
He worried that Japan and Singapore’s relatively poor rankings don’t reflect their performance and could strain their relationships with the United States.
Holly Burkhalter, the vice president for government relations at International Justice Mission, said she thought that Japan’s and Singapore’s rankings were accurate, and that any rating system probably would leave some governments unhappy.
“I’ve never once in my life experienced that a government enjoys being criticized for its human rights efforts,” Burkhalter said.