The US Senate recently endorsed the nomination of long-standing civil rights prosecutor, John Cotton Richmond, as new Ambassador-at-Large to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. This statutory post, created under the Clinton administration, has been critical in shaping the outsize role that the US has occupied in pushing the rest of the world to do something about what is now commonly termed ‘modern slavery’. But the position comes with heavy baggage. As the ambassador takes the helm, he should not underestimate the formidable task ahead of him.

The office of the ambassador was established in 2000 under the same federal law that also requires the State Department to produce an annual report documenting and assessing the response of every country (including its own, since 2010) to trafficking. Countries that receive a fail or near-fail grade are liable to a range of political and economic sanctions. While the report is subject to the approval of the Secretary of State, the ambassador is its author and public face.

Image: 2018 Trafficking in Persons Report, US Department of State

Not surprisingly, this unilateral appraisal has been a source of great irritation to many countries. But few doubt its contribution to the global transformation that has taken place in our understanding of, and response to, trafficking. Put simply, the leverage created by the report has led to drastic changes in laws, policies and practices in every region of the world.

It has also helped improve our information position. Today it is would be impossible for any country or corporation to deny the epic scale of human exploitation, from abused Asian construction workers in the Gulf to forced labourers on Thai fishing boats and Greek strawberry farms, forced marriage in the UK and forced prostitution in Italy. Estimates on modern slavery are notoriously unreliable. But there can be no doubt that millions of men, women and children are trapped in situations of exploitation from which they cannot escape.

The incoming ambassador faces multiple challenges. Here are the big four.

1. Rebuild US credibility and influence

American influence in this area has been steadily eroding, coinciding with the post of ambassador being underoccupied for several years. While the report has continued to be produced, there is evidence to suggest an increased ‘gaming’ of the assessment system: that countries under scrutiny and their defenders are becoming ever more adept at presenting an illusion of progress, without undertaking the root and branch reforms necessary to address exploitation meaningfully. The ambassador and his team will need to reassert proactively the integrity of the assessment process.

This will also require attention to the perception that the process has become increasingly politicized. The report’s function as a diplomatic tool makes reasonable the expectation that there will be some correlation between the attitude of the US towards a particular country and the ranking allocated to it. But when a ranking seems more instrumental than based on fact, as has been alleged in respect of a number of countries in recent years, including China, Cuba and Malaysia, the report risks losing credibility and thereby its power to influence change.

2. Maintain focus on all forms of trafficking

It is now well-understood that trafficking is an umbrella term, covering a wide range of exploitative practices. But for many reasons, including the historical roots of the anti-trafficking movement, there has always been a disproportionate focus on trafficking for sexual exploitation. This is true at the international level and in most countries’ responses. In the US itself, the political and rhetorical space has narrowed even further, with child sex trafficking emerging as the dominant priority. With some occasional missteps, particularly in its early years, the report has remained true to the broader understanding of what exploitation in the context of trafficking actually means. A continuation and consolidation of that position is critical.

In its outreach, the ambassador’s office needs to hold firm against a dangerous slippage that conflates vice crimes (pimping, etc.) with trafficking, and to resist being drawn into disputes about local prostitution policies. The office also needs to demonstrate a firm commitment to confronting the many forms of exploitation, from forced labour to the global organ trade, that are still not receiving the attention and response they deserve. John Cotton Richmond’s own words and his impressive track record prosecuting a wide range of trafficking crimes give cause for optimism.

3. Affirm government responsibility for corporate complicity

The frustratingly slow pace of change has encouraged those involved in the movement against human exploitation to broaden their horizons. Corporate leadership and supply chain transparency are increasingly seen to be the magic bullets in dealing with trafficking, especially in respect of forced and exploited labour. The UK and California have both legislated to require companies of a certain size to lodge a ‘compliance statement’ detailing their efforts to uncover and deal with exploitation in their supply chains. The idea has caught on and others are likely to follow suit soon.

In key sectors including fisheries and manufacturing, business groups are taking the initiative, developing standards and codes of conduct to guard against complicity in exploitation. The new ambassador should strongly support efforts to bring the private sector in as key partners. But he also needs to be clear that the recent wave of action is nowhere near enough.

For example, legislatively imposed reporting requirements will be of limited value unless and until they are attached to a meaningful, government-administered monitoring and sanctioning mechanism. And experience has taught us the hard lesson that voluntary or self-regulation is unlikely to make a long-term positive impact.

The ambassador must make clear the legal and ethical responsibility of all governments to structure an effective response through appropriate regulation and adequately resourced monitoring. That responsibility cannot be displaced to business. His office has been at the forefront in fighting for maximum transparency in both corporate supply chains and government procurement. US leadership will continue to be critical in ensuring this becomes the global standard.

4. Prioritize prosecution and justice for victims

The record of just about every country when it comes to prosecuting traffickers is shocking. According to the most recent Trafficking in Persons report, just over 7,000 convictions for trafficking offences were reported in 2017 - worldwide. More than 90% of these cases related to just one single form: trafficking for sexual exploitation. Only 332 convictions for labour trafficking were recorded across the globe over that same period. With some studies placing the number of victims of trafficking upwards of 40 million, these figures are truly astonishing, confirming both virtual impunity for offenders at a scale unmatched by any other crime, and an unconscionable lack of justice for victims.

Not everyone is in favour of prioritizing prosecutions and it is true that a rigid focus on this aspect of the anti-trafficking response can cause real harm, especially in countries with dysfunctional or poorly developed criminal justice systems. But the ambassador and his office must be clear on the point that trafficking is a serious crime and that failure to prosecute and punish offenders makes a government complicit in the harm. It is hard to make the criminal justice process work well for victims, but our professional experience confirms that measures can be put in place to minimize trauma and support trafficked persons to cooperate in the prosecution of their exploiters.

Countries should also be pushed to institute effective labour inspections; provide protection for those who come forward or seek protection through collective action; compensate victims; and enact robust measures to seize and impound slave-made goods in international commerce. While advocating technical responses to inadequate prosecution efforts, the new ambassador must be prepared to expose the stark disconnect between what governments say and what they do. Like so many other crimes that predominantly affect women, the marginalized and the powerless, trafficking is just not a high priority in the criminal justice system of any country. Until that uncomfortable truth is openly acknowledged and addressed, meaningful change will be impossible.

The role of the US as 'global sheriff' in the battle against human exploitation has been an unlikely one, the product of a unique set of circumstances that could never have been scripted. The appointment of an experienced and committed civil rights prosecutor to the top job gives some weight to recent indications that the Trump administration takes the issue seriously and is committed to a newly invigorated anti-trafficking effort. But there are also reasons for caution. The ambassador must be prepared for resistance to a rigorous, principled approach to trafficking that inevitably requires strong commitment to universal human rights and the rule of law.