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Freeing Human Chattel

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Each year, some 700,000 people, mostly women and children, are ensnared in a global trade in prostitution and forced labor. Organized crime-rings run much of this "business," and governments often do relatively little to curb it.

Any step to stop this affront to human decency and dignity should be strongly encouraged.

The State Department just took such a step with the release of its first annual report on the worldwide traffic in persons. The report is required under a law passed last year by Congress.

Although activists who have followed the issue for years say the report isn't tough enough on some countries, it's sure to heighten awareness of the problem. It might even generate some useful action.

Among the countries given a low rating for doing little to stop the traffic in people are a number of US friends. Israel, for instance, was identified as a destination point for Eastern European women sold into prostitution. South Korea was identified as both a source and a transit country. Other friendly nations with poor records of combating such trade include Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

Constructive action against these crimes won't be advanced if the State Department exercise is seen as self-righteous finger-pointing. The report notes that an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 people are trafficked into the United States yearly. Washington needs to show it can mobilize its own law enforcement and other resources to stop that flow and deal humanely with its victims.

The same US law that requires yearly reports also holds out the prospect of eventual economic sanctions against countries that don't make an effort to stop the trafficking in people. That "stick" is unlikely to be used against allies (since the law allows for "national security" waivers of sanctions), and could cause more resentment than improvement in any case.

The better course for the US is to help keep attention focused on the problem, and set a good example by responding effectively to that part of it found in its own backyard.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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