Hillary Clinton chairs a presidential task force that is lobbying the United Nations to redefine prostitution in a way that would effectively legalize it - and make it impossible to fight the "sexual slave trade."
As estimated in a CIA report, up to 2 million women and children worldwide are "trafficked" by criminals each year - bought and traded for sexual purposes. As many as 50,000 are brought into the United States and forced into sexual bondage.
U.S. victims include Mexican girls as young as 14 made to work as prostitutes serving migrant workers and Latvian women coerced into dancing nude in Chicago. Girls from Asia and Africa, some 9 years old, are sold by their parents "for less than the price of a toaster."
Such trafficking constitutes "the biggest violation of human rights in the world," says Pino Arlacchi, the director general of the United Nations Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention. He estimates that in the last decade more than 30 million women and children have been trafficked within and from Southeast Asia for sexual purposes and sweatshop labor. Rates of this "sexual slave trade" are also high in the countries of the former Soviet bloc.
Religious and feminist leaders have forged an unusual alliance to fight the traffickers. In the ongoing negotiations in Vienna over the definition of trafficking and prostitution for the U.N. Convention on Transnational Organized Crime, they defend long-standing U.N. language outlawing the trafficking of human beings for any reason, voluntary or coerced.
To be exact, the 1949 convention requires punishment of any person who "exploits the prostitution of another person, even with the consent of that person."
Yet the President's Interagency Council on Women - a group Clinton leads - supports qualifying the word "trafficking" to apply only to "forced" prostitution, that is, prostitution involving use of force, fraud or deception. Joined by some Europeans, this faction claims that women have the right to sell their sexual favors as they see fit and should be protected in this by labor laws and local governments.
Feminist leaders including Gloria Steinem and Patricia Ireland wrote the president that the change would fail to "cover some of the most common methods of sex trafficking which prey on and profit from the economic desperation of women, girls and their families by securing their 'consent' to sale in prostitution."
From a legal standpoint, the new U.N. wording would be "a virtual bar to prosecution," warns J. Robert Flores, a former prosecutor with both the New York District Attorney and the U.S. Department of Justice. That is, the phrase "forced prostitution" would place the traffickers' victims - typically poor women displaced in a foreign land - in the impossible situation of having to prove their prostitution was coerced.
Marie-Jose Ragab, former international director of the National Organization of Women, has followed this issue for a decade. "What a bizarre paradox," she says, "that the many high-placed women leaders who sit on the Council" - including Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Audrey Tayse Haynes, chief of staff to Tipper Gore and special counsel to the vice president - "have not spoken out against this hideously anti-woman proposal."
Ragab finds it "blatantly inconsistent that women of such stature ... back a measure that would swell even further the already estimated $17 billion a year in profits that crime syndicates pocket as a result of trading in humans."
Clinton and her Interagency Council won't budge. On Jan. 19, in her syndicated column, she didn't even mention the proposed new treaty language. Instead, she sought to cast suspicion on "those who would distort the truth about this treaty," implying that it's the critics who oppose "international efforts to deal with trafficking."
Senate candidate Clinton owes New York voters a full explanation of her strange stance on sex trafficking. If she's simply made a judgment error, she can show leadership by repudiating her view and moving her committee to amend its proposal. Otherwise, one is forced to conclude that the Interagency Council and its chair support legalized prostitution and its brutal consequences for women.
Note: Candace de Russy is a member of the State University of New York SUNY's Board of Trustees. She chairs the board's Academic Standard Committee