Sarah E. Mendelson / San Francisco Chronicle – 2007-11-14 22:58:31
(November 12, 2007) — Accounts of Blackwater personnel allegedly gunning down civilians in Iraq have thrust contractor accountability before the American public. Iraq is not the only place where the US government has insufficient oversight of contractors and Blackwater is by no means the only company that might have trouble surviving public scrutiny. The State Department is not the only government agency that should be part of the solution. Congress needs to act now to address a particular aspect of contractor impunity that it has ducked for years: links to human trafficking.
In 2004, partly in response to credible evidence, the Department of Defense, NATO and the United Nations adopted anti-trafficking policies and defined trafficking as the movement of people either through coercion, fraud, deception or force, for the express purposes of enslavement. In such circumstances, people are sold as chattel, stripped of their passports and forced to pay off a bogus “debt” to their traffickers. Nearly four years after these policies were adopted, they have not been adequately implemented and abuse continues.
Today, numerous sources suggest that scores of “Chinese restaurants” in Kabul are fronts for trafficked females and international personnel are the “clients.” One source, a U.S. contractor, claimed that it was “the worst kept secret in Kabul.”
Another source, a staff member of an international organization, reported that their organization had interviewed more than 80 Chinese women in the spring of 2006 that had been found in brothel raids. They all had been forced into prostitution. These women found themselves in Kabul after thinking they were going to Dubai to work as waitresses.
Recently, the country director of the non-governmental organization Global Rights also confirmed that “the ‘Chinese restaurant’ business in Afghanistan is well known to both internationals and nationals.
The tragedy here is that the toxic combination of a large international military and contractor presence, women and girls from third-world countries, an illegal sex industry and organized crime syndicates are all familiar signs from other multinational deployments, such as Bosnia and Kosovo.
Equally familiar is the tendency of policymakers to deny the situation. These “clients” are viewed as someone else’s employees and the women are someone else’s problem. The local population, however, does not distinguish between civilian contractors and uniformed service members.
Consider also the situation in Iraq. A memorandum I obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, written in March 2006, from the Multi-National Force Inspector General to the commander in Iraq reveals horrendous labor conditions for workers brought from impoverished regions of the world illegally into Iraq.
The memorandum claims that “many contractors/subcontractors [to the DOD] are routinely circumventing Iraqi law … by routing ‘prohibited’ employees into Iraq through U.S. military bases….” Some workers were living in spaces as small as 17 square feet, and most worked “seven days a week, 12 hours a day for more than two years without break.”
To get out of debt bondage in some “extreme cases” required “between nine to 12 months of labor.” The majority of service members stationed in Iraq interviewed, according to the memorandum, had not received training on human trafficking prior to deployment.
In fact, the Department of Defense has been reluctant to implement its trafficking policy. According to a November 2006 Inspector General report, it acknowledges the department’s efforts have been” ad hoc” with “no dedicated funds” to implement the policy.
The Department of Defense’s lackluster effort has been aided and abetted by some members of Congress. In summer 2005, the House Armed Services Committee, under U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine (San Diego County), successfully blocked the original draft of the Trafficking Victims Protection bill, routinely reauthorized every two years. Why? It specifically addressed the role of the Department of Defense and contractors in human trafficking. When these provisions were removed from the draft, the trafficking bill went forward. The Department of Defense and the contractors were let off the hook.
Aiding and abetting continues. The 2007 trafficking bill is making its way through the House now. While it has many important new pieces, it is silent on the issue of contractors and the Department of Defense.
The U.S. government — whatever branch — needs to enforce contactor accountability for human rights abuses. This bill is an important place to begin. It should get bipartisan support in Congress because it is critical to the mission – wherever our uniformed service members are in harm’s way.
For the Record
Human trafficking linked to U.S. contractors operating overseas should concern us all. Here are links to the documents cited in this commentary.
Documents from the U.S. government reveal labor conditions for workers in Iraq: www.csis.org/images/stories/hrs/071109_dod_report_response.pdf
• Sarah E. Mendelson’s report on links between U.S. military operations and human trafficking is at:
Sarah E. Mendelson is the director of the Human Rights and Security Initiative at the Center for Strategic International Studies, and the author of Barracks and Brothels: Peacekeepers and Human Trafficking in the Balkans.
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