Jean M. Geran, Ph.D., is Senior Fellow at the Legatum Institute in London and former Director for Democracy and Human Rights on the National Security Council.
WASHINGTON AND LONDON — We just finished a trip to four cities in Japan, laying the groundwork for increased dialogue between the US, UK, Japan and other industrialized democracies on best practices to attack their human trafficking problems. These are the trafficking-demand and migration-destination developed-world democracies , or the 4 D countries.
It’s an interesting time for Japan, not least because, with elections approaching, this time of political transition creates an important opportunity to tackle the scourge of human trafficking. The vast and entrenched commercial sex industry along with immigration and labor policies – too often manipulated to exploit workers – have trapped thousands of Chinese, Filipino, Korean, Brazilian or other foreign workers and increasingly young Japanese girls in slavery.
This blot on Japan’s otherwise stellar reputation has been ignored and denied for too long, but hope is on the horizon. Momentum on this issue is growing both within the Japanese government and among NGOs, including Polaris Project Japan, which are building capacity and organizing.
Human trafficking is by nature a complex challenge that crosses economic sectors, bureaucratic divisions, organization types and often, though not always, national borders. While there may be efforts underway to address pieces of the challenge, many countries, including industrialized ones, lack a unified and comprehensive approach necessary for real progress. Japan is no exception. Indeed, its traditional lack of a robust civil society, its often rigid political and social structures and cultural sensitivities to speaking openly about social problems have hindered its ability to combat trafficking.
Making real progress requires broad-based, public-private partnerships based on trust that allow vital information to flow freely and quickly to rescued victims, prosecute perpetrators and fix systemic problems to prevent enslavement in the first place. Japan needs a coordinating mechanism devoted specifically to combating human trafficking that can weave together all the players into a virtuous web to catch perpetrators and rescue victims.
Take the case of a 27-year-old Japanese man successfully prosecuted for coercing a child in Cambodia into pornography and commercial sex. In an art therapy program supported by a Japanese NGO, the victim’s desire for justice was clear in her drawings. After the man’s indictment, the Japanese government informed the Cambodian authorities of the result but never told the one who most needed to know, the victim. A simple communication of the acts of justice would have been easy and could have quickened her recovery.
In addition to the coordination challenge, Japan still has gaps in its legal framework. Increasingly, victims of trafficking in Japan are young Japanese girls lured into the sex industry through exploitative relationships and online matchmaking sites. As teenage minors, they can fall through cracks for protective services by being too old for child welfare and too young for assistance from the government-run “women’s consulting centers.”
As a previous post details, Japan is one of only two members of the G-8 group of industrialized nations (the other is Russia) that still does not criminalize possession of child pornography. Child porn creates demand for human trafficking. Under international legal standards, when sex and porn involve children it is by nature coercive and always considered trafficking. Legislation in the Japanese Diet on victim protection and child sexual exploitation would help address these and other gaps.
Both the scope of the problem and the challenges in Japan are huge, but now is the time to push for change. Emerging willingness on the part of the Japanese government to talk about this issue – both progress and deficiencies – is highlighted by the acceptance of a visit from the UN Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons, Dr. Joy Ngozi Ezeilo, who was in Japan last week and with whom we met at length.
Since the G-8 meeting hosted by Japan where commitments on development, the environment and human trafficking were made, there has been a budding relationship between the government and NGOs of all stripes. (We’d like to note that in the government, there is more commitment on the part of National Police Authority than in other quarters.)
While G-8 Summits often produce global-scope “deliverables” and benchmarks for assisting the developing world, it is critical that industrialized countries practice what they preach. There should be more dialogue on best practices in combating the human trafficking among developed countries. As a demand country, Japan has some ground to make up on this issue but the potential is there and the time is right. In parallel, the United States has more to do itself – starting with finding more victims.
Globalization, even in this current climate of economic crisis, brings both opportunities and challenges. To expand freedom and unleash the potential of individuals and society, a first priority must be strengthening the respect for the dignity of each individual that can unleash the power of human initiative, encourage social innovation and build a stronger Japan. Civil society offers governments like Japan’s vital assets in that cause.