Remarks at the Annual Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP) Release

By:  John Kerry
Date: June 19, 2013
Location: Washington, DC

Thank you very much, and welcome, all of you, to this remarkable room, a room named after a Founding Father who was a lonely voice against slavery long before there was a United States of America. And it is called the Franklin Room, and you can see Ben Franklin looking over us from the wall over there above the fireplace. It's fitting that we gather here today in this room in order to mark the importance of our country remaining committed to this message that we send to all of the world today.
Thank you, Ambassador. Thank you, Lou, for your kind words. Thank you most importantly, I think everybody here would join me in agreeing, you are a TIP hero and we thank you for everything you've done these past years. (Applause.) And I want to thank you and your team and everybody who works in the Trafficking in Persons Office. Thank you, all of you who are part of this effort today and those of you around the world who helped produce this report. There's a lot of hard work that goes into this. This is a year-long effort. We're already working on the next one and we will make measurements that are based in fact and common sense.

To our TIP Report heroes who have made a very long journey on very short notice, we welcome you here and we're very grateful for your efforts. And everybody here will get to share in the remarkable individual, personal journeys that they represent.

When we think of the scale of modern-day slavery -- literally tens of millions who live in exploitation -- this whole effort can seem daunting. But it's the right effort. And there are countless voiceless people, countless nameless people except to their families or perhaps a phony name by which they are being exploited, who look to us for their freedom and for the possibility of life itself. It's no understatement to say that we are working to tackle an issue that millions of people assumed had been dealt with a long time ago.

But the problem unfortunately persists, and I hate to say in some places can grow, and the challenge continues. And that is why the inspiring examples that are here today remind us not just that we have work to do, but that the actions of a single person can make all the difference in the world and they can actually bring so many lives out of bondage, out of the shadows, out of darkness. So I thank our TIP heroes for their very personal individual commitment, for the example that they set. And I thank all of you, those here and millions of others who are out there waging this battle. I thank them all for their commitment.

I want to acknowledge Somaly Mam, who is a survivor, who was a TIP Report hero in 2005, and who is a hero every single day in helping women and girls who have been abused to try to get their lives back.

I'm also particularly happy to be joined here today by Congressman Chris Smith. I've worked with Chris on this stuff. There's nobody more committed or dedicated. So thank you, Chris, for your strong voice and leadership in these efforts. (Applause.) Trafficking in persons is one of those rare issues that can bring people together across the aisles without regard to ideology and without regard to politics, and that's the way it ought to be. I appreciate Chris's advocacy on this issue. For years together in Congress, we were able to work on this and some other issues. And it's no understatement to say that he was banging the drum on this long before many in Congress even knew the term "trafficking in persons" or understood what it really meant.

Lou mentioned a number of great American diplomats, but he left one out, and that was one of our first African-American ambassadors, Frederick Douglass. A century later, the Douglass family continues to fight against all forms of slavery. And his direct descendant, Kenneth Morris, who is the head of the family's foundation, is here with us today. He just came from the Capitol, where today Douglass was honored at long last in our National Statuary Collection. And we welcome Ken here. Thank you for being here with us today. Appreciate it. (Applause.)

I want to thank you, all of you, who are partners and stakeholders from civil society who are here from government, from the private sector. You are literally what keeps this effort moving forward, and you're making a difference for the victims of this crime.

As we look at the challenge of modern-day slavery, regrettably, our focus has to begin with the victims. Long before the TIP Report or the UN's Palermo Protocol, or even the term "trafficking in persons" was coined as we use it today, long before that -- I hate to say how long -- I served as a prosecutor in one of the 10 largest counties in America, in Middlesex County in Massachusetts. And back then, we were one -- I'm proud to say one of the very first jurisdictions in America to set up a victim-witness program. And it was a time, sadly, when the concepts of trafficking and sexual crimes, abuse of women, still hadn't registered fully on much of modern law enforcement. And I remember, starkly, I tried a number of rape cases, a number of abuse cases. I even tried one case which was the rape of a prostitute. And everybody said to me you can never win that, that's impossible. Well, they were wrong. It is possible.

There is abuse that can take place in even the most improbable places in the most probable ways. And I learned then, looking in the eyes of young women who had been the victims of these crimes, that they were terrified of being victimized again, by the process, by the system. And nobody quite understood what it meant to a victim or the ways you could help victims through the system. Only when we started focusing on victims, not just as potential witnesses but as survivors, human beings entitled to respect and dignity, that's when we started to provide people with a greater measure of justice. And that's when we were able to give people a better chance at rebuilding the future.

Today those are the same values that guide us in this effort: justice, dignity, and the rights of all people. They should guide our work in fighting against human trafficking. These are probably quintessentially American values. They're not unique to us, though; they are also universal values. And American leadership, I believe, is required so that we protect those values and advance them, not just here at home but all around the world.

When we help countries to prosecute traffickers, we are strengthening the rule of law. When we bring victims out of exploitation, we are helping to create more stable and productive communities. When we stop this crime from happening in the first place, we are preventing the abuse of those who are victimized as well as the ripple effect that caused damage throughout communities into our broader environment and which corrupt our global supply chains. We all have an interest in stopping this crime.

That's why President Obama is so focused on this issue. And that's why, as Secretary of State, I will continue to make the fight against modern-day slavery a priority for this Department and for the country. (Applause.) We are going to keep working with our partners across government and across the world in order to improve our response at home, and we're doing this not just to pass judgment on other people but because we know that we can advance this cause. We can make a difference. We're going to keep working with those partners around the world in order to develop new approaches and new practices. And we're going to keep engaging with governments on this issue because modern-day slavery affects every country in the world, including the United States. And every government is responsible for dealing with it, and no government is yet doing enough.

So a major part of this engagement is this annual report. Now, obviously this report pulls no punches. And it's not because the United States is better than anybody else, or because the United States thinks it has an automatic right to make this judgment, or because we want to point our finger at another country, because we know that that can make things difficult, because we all know the history that we have to overcome to overcome slavery ourselves. Slavery was written into our Constitution before we built up the support to write it out. We remember that. So we don't do this because we think we have all the answers, because we don't. And when you pick up the paper and read about police dismantling a sex-trafficking ring that operated from Boston to Sacramento, we are reminded that even with our tough laws in this country, tough abuses of those laws still arise.

So this report is tough, because this is a tough issue, and it demands serious attention. And that's precisely what we intend to provide. It's tough because in the last year roughly 46,000 victims of trafficking were brought to light worldwide, compared to the 27 million that we know are enslaved. It's tough because when the world faces with honesty the thoroughness of this report, it hopefully initiates a more productive dialogue. A recent study tells us that countries are twice as likely to take some kind of action to respond to this crime once they are listed in this report on Tier 3 or on the Tier 3 Watch List.

So, my friends, we have to be tough. We have to be tough to keep faith with everything that this institution and our country stands for. We have to keep -- be tough in order to keep faith with our own standards and sense of morality and right and wrong. We have to be tough to galvanize the commitment of all of us in this room to bolster the political will that exists all over the world. From heads of state and justice ministers to police officers and labor inspectors, we have to be tough in order to at last end modern slavery once and for all.

Thank you very much. (Applause.)