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Human slavery is a difficult idea to comprehend. Treating another person as a piece of property is so fundamentally alien to every philosophical and legal tenet of our age that most people assume that slavery is a purely historical phenomenon. They are wrong. Slavery is very much alive. It continues to be a blight on humanity, an evil that every government and every individual must combat.

It is estimated that at least 700,000 people, and possibly as many as 4 million, were bought, sold, transported and held against their will — in other words, were treated like slaves — worldwide last year. More horrifying still, many of those individuals were children. These people are usually forced to work, either as menial laborers in sweatshops or in the sex trade. Some are conscripted into militaries. All are treated as chattel for the financial gain of the traffickers and their clients.

There are many reasons for the trade in human beings, but the usual one is desperation. In countries troubled by political and economic instability, traffickers promise higher wages and good working conditions to lure people into their networks. In cities, they advertise in newspapers. In rural settings, they offer parents hope that their children will have a better future. Every lie — including promises of marriage — is made. In societies that put less value on the life of a girl or woman, it does not take much to convince a family to turn her over to a trafficker. In some cases, kidnapping occurs.

Globalization has facilitated the trade in human beings. Transnational criminal organizations have been no less capable than multinational corporations when it comes to exploiting the opportunities offered by the new economy. They have linked up with like-minded groups and individuals to create truly global networks. Trafficking is cheap: Many of the people being moved (or their families) pay their own way. When they arrive at their final destination, they discover that they were not told the truth. At that point, they are in a foreign country, isolated and alone. They do not speak the local language. They have little legal protection — they travel on fake documents — and no one to turn to. Some individuals are sold from one group to another, used and reused.

Japan is a destination country for women trafficked for commercial sexual exploitation and for men trafficked for labor purposes. Female trafficking victims come mainly from Southeast Asia. There is no law against trafficking, although some traffickers have been prosecuted under related laws. Usually, however, the victims are viewed as illegal immigrants and deported. Some are given temporary shelter. The government has been trying to increase public awareness of the problem and has sponsored international conferences and antitrafficking information campaigns in other countries. Police and immigration officials have received special training to assist victims of trafficking. There is much more to be done, however. Providing more protection for victims is a start, but the authorities must be more aggressive about going after the traffickers themselves.

There are legal conventions to halt the trade in human beings. Slavery violates the U.N. Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The U.N. Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, was adopted by the General Assembly in November 2000. The protocol requires governments to criminalize trafficking, protect its many victims and prevent future trafficking. To date, 105 countries have signed it. In addition, there is International Labor Organization Convention 182 concerning the Prohibition and Immediate Action for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labor and the Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography. The mandates of the former are self-evident; the latter requires that states criminalize prostitution and pornography with respect to children under the age of 18.

Those conventions are useless without active law enforcement. Unfortunately, many countries do not have the capacity to fight the traffickers. A society that puts little value on the life of a girl is not going to spend too much time trying to protect her — especially when she has been “entrusted” to traffickers by her family. The poverty that inspires many people to throw in their lot with traffickers also affects policing. Payoffs can encourage police to look the other way. Moreover, the transnational nature of the networks requires international cooperation by law enforcement agencies: That, too, is affected by institutional limitations — when those agencies get around to such matters after dealing with other matters, such as terrorism. Those priorities are understandable — but only if we mistakenly believe slavery is a historical phenomenon.

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