At last – action on behalf of trafficked women in the UK

The government has finally taken action on behalf of trafficked women. Under the plan, the Home Office is planning to criminalise paying for sex with a woman “controlled for another person’s gain”. However, the move has already been undermined by cuts to the budget for human trafficking investigations and the closure of the leading unit.

Jacqui Smith came under considerable pressure this morning on Radio 4’s Today Programme, but, effectively, the presenter missed the point. Whatever the views of libertarians (a position which should not be confused with liberalism), the most important action to reduce human trafficking into the UK is to reduce the demand, and the only method open to legislators is the law. Pimps and traffickers have many ways of concealing their linkage with trafficked women. In previous generations, the women themselves have been penalised, often with scant regard for the possibility that they are trafficked or otherwise coerced. Penalising clients who knowingly make use of coerced prostitutes is by far the most reasonable, effective and intelligent approach.

Radio 4 made much of the suggestion that a man might unwittingly make use of the services of a coerced woman, believing that this was not the case. However, this is not legally dissimilar to any case of people who recklessly purchase stolen goods or profit by other illegal activity without making reasonable enquiries. There is a strong body of case law and police practice to prevent the innocent from facing charges.

Objections from the English Collective of Prostitutes are similarly misguided: women who choose prostitution will not be affected by this. In fact, this is progressive legislation, because, in the past, almost all legislation regarding prostitution has focused on penalising prostitutes themselves. It is not very long ago that the same government was introducing ASBOs and CRASBOs which, frequently, resulted in prostitutes facing fines which they could only pay by returning to prostitution — a vicious cycle which could have been anticipated, but was not.

At its most simple, we have to face the question: does any man ever have the right to sex with a woman who is coerced into doing so? There are few questions where the result is so clear cut. No human being has this right. It is a fundamental violation of the very basis of human rights. In that case, we are left asking: why has this not been illegal for some time? This is a much more difficult question to answer, and a much more promising line of attack which Radio 4 might have considered pursuing. Given that there is widespread awareness of the problem of human trafficking, most men who use prostitutes must have some inkling that there is a possibility that the people they are dealing with are either traffickers or trafficked women. In that case, why have men not banded together before to drive the traffickers out of business? A lot of work was done on this question in Belgium in the 1980s and 1990s, culminating in the publication of the seminal ‘Ze zijn zo lief, menheer’, by Chris de Stoop. In Belgium, where prostitution is effectively legal in all its forms (and therefore a counter example to those who argue that legalising and regulating prostitution will end people trafficking), 1/3 of men are estimated to use prostitutes, and, as de Stoop demonstrated, high numbers were aware of the status of the women they were using. De Stoop explored the reasons for which men engaged in activity which, when considered in the coldest light of morning, was utterly brutal and degrading, and was not (as it is often put) ‘equivalent to a modern form of slavery’, but is, in fact, with no qualifications, slavery itself. The most commonly occurring ‘reason’ became the title for the book “because they’re so nice”.

After many, many years of campaigns, the government is finally doing something. They should be applauded. But there is much work still to do, and, if they are serious, they must now reinstate cut funds for trafficking investigation.

Whether or not the police are ever funded to enforce the new laws — a serious issue, given the recent cuts — the fact that sex with trafficked women will become illegal is a massive step forward in itself. Far too often, the most compelling argument put forward by people engaged in activities of this type is “if it was that bad, it would be against the law”. At last, it will be.

Historic day for America – and the world

Barak Obama’s victory is historic for America, but also for the world. It is quite simply astonishing that the USA — the last major Western nation to abolish slavery, and a nation which has been traditionally the slowest to recognise and address its problems of racial segregation — has become the first major white-majority nation to elect a black president.

This is clearly historic for black Americans, and historic for everyone who has worked to combat racism where ever they are. The implications for the future cultural identity of the USA are profound. But the implications for the wider world are perhaps even greater. Obama’s presence in the White House has the potential to settle many of the fears of developing nations, and also of the Middle-East. Statesmen who have interpreted America’s every move as an attempt to re-establish white colonial power will look again. Even Obama’s middle-name, which was used so shamefully (and yet so ineffectively) against him during the campaign, will create bridges to communities which would have given no time to another white man in the White House.

In these days of polarisation, and ‘war on terror’, we might have expected the American people to choose the candidate who claimed to be toughest. This is, after all, how George W Bush got his second term. By some strange and wonderful metamorphosis, they have instead chosen the man most likely to work for peace, and most able to accomplish it.

Obama has a lot of work to do in this troubled world, but the American people have laid down a challenge to the rest of us: it is possible to choose change, it is possible to set aside long-held prejudice, it is possible to vote for the good of all.

Congratulations Barak. May your presidency spread peace across the world.

Back from Armenia, with the Georgian evacuees

I’m just back from eight days in Armenia with international development agency World Vision. Our flight back was overbooked by 40 places, on account of the large number of Britons who fled the conflict in Georgia.

I intend to post a full report shortly. The trip was remarkable: a fact-finding tour which transformed my view of former Soviet Asia (or, as some maintain, former Soviet Eastern Europe). Sadly, the already grim situation in many parts of Armenia, which has never fully recovered from the 1988 earthquake and the collapse of the Soviet Union three years later, is likely now to get significantly worse. Georgia is Armenia’s sole route — apart from ruinously expensive air transport — for imports and exports. What is more, Georgia announced on Monday that it would be abruptly reducing shipments of Russian gas to Armenia. The situation in Georgia and its aftermath are a tragedy which is still unfolding, and this must never be forgotten. But we must also not overlook the knock-on effect on a nation which desperately needs to become economically self-sustaining.

Have Tibet protesters gone too far?

Here’s an unpopular thought: how far should Free Tibet protesters be allowed to go? Should they, for example, have the right to clamp down on free speech in order to prevent their case being challenged?

Don’t get me wrong here. I believe Tibet ought to be free, and I believe that China should face up to world opinion. But that is not a blank cheque for protesters.

Here’s the story. According to PR Week, “Any PR agency that works for the Chinese government runs the risk of demonstrations outside its offices, campaigners have warned”. Apparently the Free Tibet Campaign has issued a warning, saying “Any PR agency that is trying to assist China in its twisted distortion of the truth would be potentially exposing itself to our protests outside its offices”.

If this really is true, and if this really what they meant, then I think that the Free Tibet Campaign has established that it is really not so different from the Chinese government it opposes. I sincerely hope that this is not what they meant.

In a free society, everyone must have the freedom to make their case to the media, to other people, and to opinion formers. Hiring a PR agency to help you make that case is legal, and it should remain so. There are lots of people, organisations and groups out there that I don’t agree with. But, in a free society, I must defend their right to make their case. As soon as I decide that one case is too heinous to be presented, then I have moved from being a free-speaker in a free-society, to a totalitarian advocating that only views which chime with my own should be expressed.

Twenty or so years ago, everybody thought that Robert Mugabe was marvellous, for the peaceful transition from Rhodesia to Zimbabwe. Events have shown that Mugabe was never interested in justice and fairness, but only in the promotion of his own interests and those of his own followers. This is by total contrast with the work of Nelson Mandela in South Africa.

I hope that China eventually gets the message that freeing Tibet is in its own interests — and, even more, that ceasing to support atrocities in Sudan is a must-do if it is to play a full role in the international community. But I hope also that the Free Tibet Campaign learns that making threats against free speech is neither helpful to their cause, nor appropriate to the society in which we, here in Britain, live.

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