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Midyear Meeting Preview: Understanding the Issue and Exploring Solutions to End Human Trafficking

Midyear Meeting Preview: Understanding the Issue and Exploring Solutions to End Human Trafficking

By Edward McEneely

As a young college student in the South Bronx, Norma Ramos observed arraignments of women charged with prostitution. She listened to the jokes and comments made by judges and lawyers at the expense of the woman brought before them. After learning that some of these women were actually victims of human trafficking, Ramos made a promise to herself that one day she would work to help raise awareness in the legal system about an issue that often goes unrecognized.

Like Ramos, now a member of the American Bar Association Task Force on Human Trafficking and executive director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, ABA President Laurel Bellows was moved by her early experiences as a lawyer to ensure that a legal system founded on the promise of justice for all extends that promise to victims of human trafficking.

“The American Bar Association is marshaling the considerable energy and resources of our nation’s lawyers to change the way our legal system approaches human trafficking,” Bellows said.  “Together, we must become the eyes and ears that give these victims a voice.”

President Bellows and Norma Ramos will be participating in the ABA Justice Center event “Human Trafficking 101 for Lawyers and Judges” at the ABA 2013 Midyear Meeting in Dallas. The event will build crucial awareness of the issue and help legal professionals learn what they can do to better assist victims and effectively go after traffickers.  Panelists will explore federal and state policies, discuss the business community’s involvement, and introduce pro bono opportunities for attorneys. In addition, panelists will review what state-level task forces are doing to educate and provide resources while giving every member of the audience ways to get involved now.

As ABA president, Bellows has made combatting human trafficking one of her key priorities — creating the ABA’s Task Force on Human Trafficking to address modern-day slavery through public awareness, advocacy, training and education.

According to the U.S. State Department, 27 million people around the world, predominantly women and children, are, day in and day out, denied basic rights such as sleep, food, compensation or free interaction with others, while being forced to work or engage in sexual acts under threats of violence, abuse or death.  Experienced legal professionals like Ramos and Bellows are committed to changing the public and legal perceptions of human trafficking. For them, raising awareness about how to identify and help trafficking victims is paramount to getting at the crux of the problem.

“Human trafficking is a growing human rights catastrophe,” Ramos said. “It is time to focus law professionals’ attention in a more concerted way.”

Judge Pamila Brown of Maryland’s Howard County District Court will serve as the panel’s moderator. Brown sees human trafficking as “a horrific problem that is under the radar screen in many places.” She notes that those “places” are often misconstrued as large metropolitan areas, but human trafficking happens in every jurisdiction. “Victims are becoming younger and younger,” Judge Brown said. “Children who run away from home or have substance abuse problems are prime targets for trade.”

Panelist Markus Funk, who also is a member of the ABA’s Task Force on Human Trafficking, began working on human trafficking in Kosovo as a young lawyer. He is now helping to spearhead the ABA’s efforts to develop standards for companies to vet and screen suppliers and prevent the use of trafficked labor. (For every Fortune 500 company, there is an average of 300 suppliers.) New laws aimed at eliminating slave-labor from business supply chains (such as the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act of 2010 and the “Strengthening Protections Against Trafficking In Persons In Federal Contracts” executive order) will “require a fundamental retooling and re-education in compliance departments and among lawyers who advise compliance departments to get people to understand the new reality.” Funk believes that the combination of corporate transparency and empowered customers will help change the mindset from the bottom up and ensure that supply chains in all industries are free of slave labor.

“Consumers want to know what they are buying, and no one wants to buy a product made from forced labor,” Funk said.

The Obama administration is paving the way for businesses and corporations. A September 2012 executive order states: “As the largest single purchaser of goods and services in the world, the United States government bears a responsibility to ensure that taxpayer dollars do not contribute to trafficking in persons.” As a result, the federal government now regulates federal contractors, contractor employees, subcontractors and subcontractor employees to prevent or stop them from engaging in any trafficking-related activities.

“Getting law enforcement involved is not enough,” Funk said. “American government has led the way in bringing the business community into the fight.”

To find out more about the “Human Trafficking 101 for Lawyers and Judges” program at the Midyear Meeting in Dallas, please click here.

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