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USA/UN: Progress on sex slaves

Publish Date: 30 Jan 2004

Source: The Washington Post, Editorial, page A20

IN HIS ADDRESS to the United Nations in September, President Bush spoke out against the enslavement of children in the international sex trade. His administration has since made progress against this blight, which holds millions of children captive across the world, condemning many to an early death from AIDS and all to misery in the meantime. In Cambodia this month, U.S. pressure on a thuggish government helped to secure the prosecution and imprisonment of a brothel keeper and her son who for years had offered children to pedophiles in broad daylight; six other ringleaders were sentenced last October. These victories matter, because although there is an almost infinite supply of vulnerable children and, distressingly, of would-be pedophiles, the latter need intermediaries to find the former. Lock up some brothel keepers and deter others, and you're making real progress.

Yet the progress poses a question for the administration. The Cambodian victory came because the country had been designated a "Tier 3" offender by the State Department; to avoid losing certain types of aid, Cambodia had to break through the usual corruption of its courts and show it could convict brothel keepers. Last year Greece and Turkey also took steps to clamp down on child prostitution after receiving a Tier 3 label. But India and Thailand -- two countries that are famous for condoning the sexual enslavement of minors -- have escaped the designation. The State Department says this is because both countries made an adequate effort to improve their performance, abysmal though it remains. The State Department's most recent report notes that as of last summer, 14 people associated with the slave trade had been sentenced.

The administration is right that Tier 3 designations should reflect progress against slavery, not just the amount of it; the point of sanctions is to improve the world, and you do that by rewarding incremental effort. But unless India and Thailand make considerably more progress by the time the next report appears in June, the State Department should label them Tier 3. Otherwise critics will reasonably suspect that it is ducking an awkward diplomatic fight. Unlike Cambodia, India and Thailand are important to U.S. commercial and strategic interests. More than Greece and Turkey, India and Thailand are limited in their ability to fight slavery by weak government institutions -- though both countries could do more if they make action a priority.

The law requiring the State Department to track sex slavery gives the president a waiver: If Mr. Bush decides not to pick a fight with India over child prostitution because he is more worried about its nuclear weapons program, he can do that. But the State Department should not pretend that India does not have a sex slavery problem. It must report the facts -- and leave Mr. Bush to decide what to do about them.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company