New U.S. Anti-Trafficking Chief Emphasizes Partnerships

By Lea Terhune
USINFO Staff Writer

Washington – When the United States asks other countries to cooperate in improving human trafficking law enforcement, victim assistance, and public awareness, those countries should know the U.S. government is working on the same problems at home and that recommendations are made “in the spirit of partnership,” Mark Lagon, the new head of the State Department’s anti-trafficking office, says.

“We have a serious effort at home that’s victim-centered to help those who have been caught in human trafficking,” he told USINFO June 5.

Lagon has worked on human rights issues before. So when the U.S. Congress confirmed him as the new director of the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat of Trafficking in Persons in May, he already had priorities in mind.

Emphasizing U.S. leadership responsibility, Lagon said, “We need to look at how products that are important in the United States might in fact be the result of slave labor,” he said. Forced labor is an important issue “whether it’s child labor, bonded labor, [or] labor explained away by caste.”

“Because democratization is so much about women’s empowerment worldwide, we have to grapple with the situation of trafficking in persons, which is perhaps the most acute form of the disempowerment of women,” he said. The rule of law must be strengthened wherever human trafficking is a problem, and where “complicit officials in governments … are, through their corruption, advancing degradation of people,” he said.

Correct perception of victims is the first step – and trafficked persons are victims, Lagon said. Under U.S. law, “they have legal rights, they are not going to be treated as criminals, or as illegal aliens, and, in fact, will have visa status and social services.” Several U.S. agencies coordinate anti-trafficking efforts, committing significant time and resources. The State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report defines what the United States wants to accomplish. “The annual report is the best tool that the U.S. government has,” Lagon said, “because it helps assess the record of countries on protection of victims, on prevention of trafficking and on prosecution of those who are the exploiters.”

The report and the TIPS office were mandated by Congress in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000, which enhanced government agencies’ ability to protect victims, prosecute criminals and prevent human trafficking. Additional resources were created by several reauthorizations, the latest in 2005. Grants assist law enforcement and victim aid programs. Annual self-critiques help improve anti-trafficking strategies. To Lagon, sharing knowledge and partnering with other countries to combat trafficking is a priority.

Lagon wants to engage the private sector in the fight against trafficking. “Businesses can be intimately involved in an industry that might be touching on human trafficking.  For instance the travel industry - airlines - they have been helpful in taking steps to make public service announcements and consciousness-raising about the most horrendous form of abuse, which is child-sex tourism.”


The 2005 TVPA reauthorization requires an annual Department of Labor report tracking the nature and extent of child labor around the world, and publication of a list of goods associated with forced labor. Businesses can play a role here, according to Lagon. The U.S. government will work with companies that “work with their colleagues within the business community to set the highest standards.”

An example is software giant Microsoft, which has information-technology centers in India. India has a serious human trafficking problem, and Microsoft “is looking at ways in which there is mistreatment of people that is in fact human trafficking, such as children who are involved in taking apart old computers,” Lagon said.  “India is a priority, if only because of the sheer size of its population and the extent of trafficking,” he added. 

“We need to work multilaterally as well as bilaterally,” he said, which means changing institutions that unwittingly may abet human trafficking. He cited as an example some United Nations peacekeepers who engaged in sexual abuse in the Democratic Republic of Congo. “U.N. peacekeepers must be in the business of reducing human suffering rather than extending human suffering,” Lagon said.

“We are sincerely interested in promoting human dignity,” he said, “to tangibly help individual people who have been degraded by other human beings.”  He said the United States is “eager” to partner with nongovernmental organizations, governments and international organizations, “to end what is, in effect, modern day slavery.”

Lagon said the United States has its own history of slavery and “terrible discrimination and leftovers of segregation.”

“We should be able to talk frankly with a fellow substantial democracy about how we need to take steps to improve the situation.”  If people are treated as subhuman because of ethnicity or social status, wherever they are, the perpetrators “have violated the basic values - and I don’t mean United States values, I mean universal values.”

Lagon’s career long has had a strong human rights focus. As deputy assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs, Lagon was responsible for international human rights and humanitarian issues. Before that, he was a policy adviser to the secretary of state on international organizations, democracy and human rights.

The State Department is scheduled to release the 2007 Trafficking in Persons Report on June 12.