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Rubio: Treat people who've been trafficked as victims and not perpetrators

WASHINGTON -- More than a century after abolition, slavery is still a problem in the United States, actress Jada Pinkett Smith told a Senate committee that is deciding whether to renew a law designed to combat human trafficking.

In a hearing Tuesday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Pinkett Smith and other witnesses urged members of Congress to reauthorize a 2000 law – the Trafficking Victims Protection Act – that seeks to curtail the buying and selling of humans. The law expired in 2011.

Pinkett Smith, on hand with her actor husband Will Smith, said she was motivated by her 11-year-old daughter, Willow, who had researched child slavery. That inspired her to found an organization this year called Don’t Sell Bodies.

"Let it be our legacy to deliver on emancipation’s promise – making freedom a reality for all who have been victimized," Pinkett Smith said.

Between 200,000 and 300,000 U.S. children are at risk of being trafficked into commercial sex, David Abramowitz, vice president of policy and government relations at the human rights group Humanity United, told the committee. The United Nations has reported that human trafficking yields $32 billion a year worldwide, he said.

Pinkett Smith said her interactions with former victims of trafficking showed her the importance of renewing the protection act. She introduced three American victims of human trafficking: Monica, who was kidnapped by seven men at age 15 and forced into prostitution; Jamm, who was arrested at the same age after she stole the phone of her aunt in an attempt to get out of forced prostitution; and Minh, whose parents sold her body to men starting at age 11 even as she continued to attend public school and receive straight As.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., emphasized the importance of treating people who have been trafficked as victims and not perpetrators. "When you interact with a victim, they’ve been so battered that they act like a willing participant," he said.

After hearing the stories of the three women, committee chairman Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., called for “a little more naming and shaming” of people who contribute to human trafficking. Any attempt to fight trafficking must begin by addressing the underlying economic issues that make many victims vulnerable, he said.

“It’s not a new issue, and not one Americans come to without bearing our share of responsibility,” Kerry said.

The protection act has already spawned teamwork between international governments, such as a joint Cambodian-American campaign against sex trafficking, Abramowitz said. The act mandates an annual State Department ranking of countries based on their efforts to eliminate trafficking. The ranking has motivated other countries to cooperate with the United States, Abramowitz said.

Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., however, disagreed with Abramowitz’s assessment of the ranking system. Rating countries based on the progress they have made in the past year rather than comparing them to each other generates misleading results, Webb said.

He worried that Japan and Singapore’s relatively poor rankings do not reflect their performance and could strain their relationships with the United States.

Holly Burkhalter, vice president for government relations at International Justice Mission, said she believes Japan and Singapore’s rankings are accurate, and that any rating system would likely leave some governments unhappy.

“I’ve never once in my life experienced that a government enjoys being criticized for its human rights efforts,” Burkhalter said.