Alaska to join slavery fight

Bill would discourage companies from doing business in slave-trade countries

Posted: Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Each year, an estimated 600,000 to 800,000 men, women and children around the world are spirited across international borders and into involuntary servitude and sexual slavery.

Millions more become victims of illegal human trafficking within their own countries, which has included forced conscription of children into military units, according to a report issued last year by the U.S. Department of State called the 2004 Trafficking in Persons Report.

Even the United States is not immune. The report said estimates of people trafficked into this country over the past year ranged from 14,500 to 17,500, most for sexual exploitation.

A federal law adopted in 2000 called the Trafficking Victims Protection Act sought to counter this $7 billion-a-year, modern-day slave trade, by authorizing funding for activities by foreign governments combating trafficking, the termination of non-humanitarian aid to nations that tolerate or condone "severe forms" of trafficking, the termination of contracts and grants to entities engaged in "severe forms" of trafficking, criminal punishment for traffickers in the U.S. and a new immigration status and advocacy program for victims, among other things.

Now a bill introduced in the Alaska Legislature by Sen. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River, called Senate Bill 12 seeks to enhance the federal anti-slavery efforts at the state level by making it possible for the branches of the Alaska government to adopt provisions prohibiting or eliminating financial relationships with organizations that conduct business in so-called "Tier 3" countries.

The 2004 trafficking report lists 131 of the world's 193 countries in three tiers, ranking them by the level of illegal trafficking within their borders and on the efforts by their governments to combat the scourge. Report writers lacked sufficient data to list all the world's countries, the report said.

The 10 nations listed in Tier 3 represent the worst offenders with regard to this kind of human rights abuse. They are Bangladesh, Burma (Myanmar), Cuba, Ecuador, Equatorial Guinea, Guyana, North Korea, Sierra Leone, Sudan and Venezuela.

"Driven by criminal elements, economic hardship, corrupt governments, social disruption, political instability, natural disasters and armed conflict, the 21st Century slave trade feeds a global demand for cheap and vulnerable labor," the 2004 report said.

Dyson, backed by a bipartisan group of senators, including Sen. Tom Wagoner, R-Kenai, wants Alaska to join the fight against the international slave trade by bringing pressure on companies that do business in Tier 3 countries.

However, should SB 12 become law and actually result in provisions prohibiting state agencies from engaging in such financial relationships, Alaska could find itself at odds with the very oil and gas companies that feed its economy, because those companies also have large-scale investments in and do business with Tier 3 nations.

For instance, ConocoPhillips does business in Venezuela. BP explores and produces in Venezuela, and sells lubricants in Bangladesh. ExxonMobile, meanwhile, has operations in Equatorial Guinea, Guyana and Venezuela.

Unocal, which also has a long history of business in Alaska, has gas operations in Myanmar and Bangladesh. The company currently faces a human rights lawsuit, first filed in 1996, alleging its subsidiaries turned a blind eye when Myanmar soldiers enslaved villagers to clear a path for a $1.2 billion pipeline, according to a September story in the Los Angeles Times reporting on a recent court decision denying a Unocal motion to dismiss the suit. Unocal has denied the charges.

Just how far Dyson's bill would go to push for reforms is unclear. Its current language lacks teeth.

Alaska law requires the legislative, judicial and administrative branches to adopt procedures for procuring supplies, services (including professional) and construction. Senate Bill 12 would permit the various branches to voluntarily add language preventing or ending financial relationships with groups doing business with Tier 3 nations. Nothing in the bill now requires such action.

However, Jason Hooley, legislative aide to Sen. Dyson, said upcoming committee hearings are likely to include discussion on whether to make prohibitive provisions mandatory. The bill has, so far, been assigned to the Senate State Affairs and Senate Judiciary committees.

Hooley said Dyson drafted the bill after doing a lot of reading lately regarding the worldwide trafficking in people, calling the practice "an international disgrace."

Passing the bill wouldn't necessarily result in immediate termination of business relationships with any company, Hooley said.

"We'd just make sure they are doing what they can to combat it (trafficking), or at least are not contributing to the problem."

Sen. Wagoner said the slave trade was "a blight on society." He couldn't say just which countries or which companies with associations to Alaska might fall under the bill's provisions should it become law, but said it was a bill worth considering.

"It doesn't cost the state anything," he said. "The point is, how many children have been abducted? It's pretty frightening."

When asked if the bill was likely to have any real teeth should it became law, Wagoner said probably not, but it might provide some moral high ground.

"It would mean we'd bring as much pressure on them as we can to cease doing business there," he said. "It would get people's attention. That would be the most powerful part of the statement."

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