Grizzled cynics of Washington have a tendency to be dismissive about rhetoric and symbolic gestures. But they are thoroughly wrong, as social innovators know, as evidenced so poignantly in President Obama’s declaration yesterday about human trafficking.
President Obama declared January “National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month” — as the month is bookended by the anniversaries of the Emancipation Proclamation and the dispatching of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution for ratification.
He stressed two important notions. One is human dignity. In the first line of the proclamation, Obama cites one of the most salient phrases in all of American political history and culture, captured in the Declaration of Independence – the unalienable right to freedom and the notion that every person has equal value. Every person. Human trafficking, the veritable slavery of today, is based on categories of people being dismissed (far worse yet than rhetoric being dismissed). Children, women, prostituted people, minorities, disadvantaged castes, and migrants are among groups vulnerable due to being devalued by their exploiters, by their consumers, by untrained authorities, and by society. They inherently have dignity which cannot be alienated from them. Indeed, undocumented “aliens” have unalienable rights, and can be trafficking victims under the law.
Which brings me to the second important implicit notion in this Presidential Proclamation: not just all people are of equal value, but all victims of human trafficking are of equal value. Not only does the President stress that both males and females, both adults and children, and both victims of sexual exploitation and of labor exploitation can be subject to human trafficking. He makes clear that victims include both those who cross borders and those who are victimized within their own country. From the Dalit man who is enslaved in a rice mill in India to the teenage girl pimped in the United States, human trafficking doesn’t require being “trafficked” across a border. The “traffic” is the trading in humans — selling and buying, leasing and renting a fellow human being.
The Proclamation really resonated with Polaris Project, given principles we are committed to advancing.
These notions — equal human dignity and multiple types of victims (including both migrants and U.S. citizens) — represent a strong continuity with the last Administration.
And yet, this is not just from a President, but from a special President. That this Proclamation on slavery should come from the first President of African heritage is especially powerful. A number of us in the anti-trafficking movement have been hoping for a moment like this for President Obama