Talking a Good Game


In his UN speech last week, Bush sounded as if he were taking up the cudgel against sex trafficking in women and children. “The trade in human beings for any purpose must not be allowed to thrive in our time,” said the president.

And he added, “The victims of this industry also need help from members of the United Nations. And this begins with clear standards and the certainty of punishment under the laws of every country.” These bold statements were welcomed as steps forward. Bush is “one of the few leaders who understands the problems of slavery,” said Laura Barrett, CEO of the American Anti-Slavery Group, going on to argue that in subtle ways the president has been fighting slavery every since he was elected.

In large part, Bush’s expressions of interest are thought to be inspired by religious zeal. “You can see it in his eyes,” Christopher H. Smith, the New Jersey Republican congressman who is the author of legislation against human trafficking, told The Washington Post. “I pray daily,” Bush told Fox News. “I pray in bed. I pray in the Oval Office.” But, Bush added, “I would never use God to promote foreign policy decisions. I recognize that in the eyes of an Almighty, I am a lowly sinner, and I ask for strength and wisdom, and I pray for calmness when the seas are storming.”

Christian principles, however, haven’t gone very far in moderating the embarrassing U.S. opposition to international codicils aimed at protecting women and children. The U.S. and Somalia are the only two governments in the world that have not ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which basically seeks to guarantee people below the age of 18 a right to life, an identity, and a nationality, as well as to advance their health, welfare, and protection—in short, to cut off the conditions that make for slavery. Sounds good. However, the international pact also bans the death penalty for children, and the U.S. supports the death penalty and has sentenced to death 22 people age 17 and under since 1973, the most recent in Oklahoma in April. A total of 78 juveniles are awaiting execution, and the U.S. Supreme Court has held it’s OK to kill kids over 15.

Along with two other nations in the world—Afghanistan and São Tomé and Principe—the U.S. has not ratified the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. And, of course, the U.S. is well-known for reinstating the global gag rule, which holds that any country receiving aid from the U.S. cannot use any money—whether its own or the U.S.’s—to offer abortions and many kinds of contraceptive devices at hospitals or clinics. Tommy Thompson, secretary of Health and Human Services, led the U.S. delegation at the UN Special Session on Children last year in joining with Iran, Syria, Libya, Sudan, Iraq, and the Vatican in efforts to block kids from receiving comprehensive sex education, to redefine health services to exclude abortion, and to restrict to married couples any information on condoms and preventive measures against sexually transmitted diseases.

War breeds prostitution, and the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Iraq all have experienced frightful progress there. The sexual trade in women and girls in the Balkans is well documented. In occupied Iraq, women and girls are scared to death to venture out of their homes for fear of being abducted, raped, or sold.

“More than 400 women have endured the pain and suffering of being kidnapped, raped, and sometimes sold,” Yanar Mohammad, director of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq, said during an August demonstration in Baghdad. “This violence is still a daily occurrence, especially on the streets of Baghdad, without attracting the least attention of the [U.S.] soldiers.”

Help from Iraq’s new “leaders” is doubtful. Only one Iraqi woman was chosen to be on the nation’s occupation-led government: Nisrin Barwari, a Kurd, who will be minister of public works. Akila al-Hashimi, one of three women on the Governing Council, was assassinated nearly two weeks ago. The attack on her scared Iraqi women. Lack of security and the emergence of religious fundamentalism, driven by agitators from abroad, have made women even more fearful of speaking up. “They do not want to be featured because they have seen what has happened to Akila al-Hashimi,” Noeleen Heyzer, executive director of the U.N. Development Fund for Women, told reporters. “Many women are forced by their husbands to go under the veil for their safety.”

Additional reporting: Ashley Glacel and Phoebe St John

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