WASHINGTON — Critics think John Miller is a zealot. Supporters view the State Department official as a hero. Both sides agree that he is leading a crusade to abolish slavery worldwide.
Backed by an unlikely coalition of conservative Evangelical Christian and liberal human rights advocates, Miller, who is Jewish, unabashedly has infused religious fervor into his position as the director of the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. The office follows slavery worldwide, country by country, and issues an annual report that is used as a basis for sanctions if countries do not take actions to combat the enslavement and trafficking of people.
According to State Department estimates, as many as 800,000 to 900,000 people are trafficked annually across international borders worldwide, some for forced labor, some for prostitution. Some are children forced to serve as combatants.
“I really believe that anybody fighting to free victims, to abolish slavery, is doing God’s work,” said the former Republican congressman from Seattle in an interview in his Washington office, which is not housed in the State Department’s main building at Foggy Bottom. Faith-based groups, he said, can play a “key role” in advancing the modern-day cause of abolitionism.
Evangelical Christian groups were the driving force behind the creation of the office. But it was another Jew, conservative scholar and religious-freedom advocate Michael Horowitz, who pushed the coalition of mainly Christian organizations and activists to lobby for the cause. The coalition, Horowitz said, for years has focused on defending the rights of Christian minorities and Western missionaries in developing countries. Six years ago it started fighting slavery around the globe.
In 1998, after reading a New York Times front-page story on the sex trafficking of women from the former Soviet Union in Israel, Horowitz decided to harness his coalition in fighting sex slavery worldwide. “The second I saw the story, I knew what to do,” said Horowitz, a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute and a former general counsel for the Office of Management and Budget in the Reagan administration. “It was so powerful to me that Israel was so awful (as a) destination for women, that I immediately brought this to the coalition, and we started drafting legislation.”
The chief organization in the coalition is the Wilberforce Forum, a division of the Prison Fellowship, headed by Chuck Colson, the former Nixon White House counsel who spent seven months in prison for his part in the Watergate affair. After his release from prison, Colson founded his group, which operates an Evangelical Christian rehabilitation program for inmates in several states. The Wilberforce Forum, named after 18th century British abolitionist William Wilberforce, strives “to help Christians approach life with a biblical worldview so that they can in turn shape culture from a biblical perspective,” according to a mission statement posted on its Web site.
The evangelical activists reached out to the feminist community and found divisions, Horowitz said. “Some agreed with us. Others argued that prostitution was a legitimate career choice and that what these women need are ergonomic mattresses and a minimum wage.”
In the Senate, the coalition of extremes found its parallels: conservative Republican Sam Brownback of Kansas and liberal Democrat Paul Wellstone, the late senator from Minnesota. The two senators sponsored the bill that became the Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000.
The law requires that the State Department report on human trafficking in foreign countries, including whether authorities participate in, facilitate or condone trafficking, and what steps governments have taken to prohibit, investigate, prosecute and convict individuals for severe forms of trafficking.
The office’s annual report ranks countries involved in trafficking in one of three “tiers.” Tier 1 represents those countries in which the government complies with the act’s minimum standards. Tier 2 represents those with governments that do not fully comply with the standards but “are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance.” Tier 3 is for those countries not making significant efforts to meet minimum standards. Countries in tier 3 lose their non-humanitarian foreign assistance if they remain in that category the following year.
Does the threat of sanctions and humiliation work? “You’d better believe it,” replied Miller. Israel, he said, is a good example. The 2002 Report on Trafficking in Persons classified Israel as a tier 3 violator because of the government’s nonchalant attitude in the face of a booming sex trade of women from the former Soviet Union, and its indifference to the exploitation of foreign low-skilled workers. Last year’s report noted that although “the government of Israel does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking it is making significant efforts to do so.”
His first report, Miller said, shamed Israel into action. “No country wants to be seen as supporting slavery,” he said, noting that Israel has improved its performance further since the report was issued last June. The government there has passed tighter legislation, is collaborating with human rights groups and is focusing on stricter law enforcement, Miller said.
“That’s what I am looking for: Prosecute! Arrest! Convict!,” Miller said, raising his voice. “If a country has the will to arrest, prosecute and convict; if the country has the will to set up a referral system for victims — from police to NGOs, that is a lot.”
Miller, 65, who says he is “revved up” after traveling overseas and meeting with former slaves, wasn’t initially enthusiastic about the job.
In 1992, after eight years in Congress, Miller retired, promising his wife not to leave Washington State for Washington, D.C. again. In his hometown, he served as chairman of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, a think tank that focuses on international affairs, trade, defense and science. He also taught English at Seattle’s Jewish high school.
Less than two years ago, after the abolitionist coalition and its supporters in Congress convinced State Department chiefs to replace Nancy Ely-Raphael, the career diplomat who was appointed to head the office, members of the coalition tapped Miller for the job. Ely-Raphael was accused by the coalition of being too much of a bureaucrat and not aggressive enough, sources said. With the help of powerful conservative legislators, she was booted out.
In Seattle, Miller received a bundle of papers, sent by members of the coalition, documenting the scope of modern slavery. He was shocked, and convinced that he should take the job.
“I had no idea of the dimensions of this problem. I realized that it is the primary human-rights issue in the 21st century,” he said.
Miller was a “perfect choice” for the job, Horowitz said. In addition to his conservative credentials, Miller had gained respect on both sides of the political aisle when he fought against granting China a “Most Favored Nation” status during the first Bush administration, snubbing a Republican administration and risking a confrontation with the biggest employer in his district, Boeing, which sold jets to the Chinese.
While his office still focuses mainly on “finding the victims” to liberate and rehabilitate them, it has also recently increased its efforts to tackle the demand for coerced prostitution. America is not immune to the phenomenon. Some 20,000 people, according to conservative estimates — Miller thinks the number is much higher — are trafficked annually into the United States. Many of them are young women — often girls in their early teens, who are brought by networks of pimps for forced prostitution.
The United States and other Western countries, are stepping up measures against the child-sex tourism industry. His office, Miller said, is also trying to facilitate tighter law-enforcement coordination between the countries in which people are being enslaved and those to which they are trafficked.
Asked if he sees himself as performing a mission akin to that of Moses, Miller burst out laughing, noting that he is just a civil servant. He did say, however, that Passover has a special personal appeal to him. It reinforces the notion, he said, “that God has told us that slavery is wrong and that we have a moral mission” to abolish it.
The Passover Seder, he said, “always reminds me that when God tells Moses, in Exodus, to demand of Pharaoh: ‘let my people go,’ he adds: “let my people go, so they may serve me.” The message, he said, is that “you cannot be a slave to man if you want to have a full relationship with God.”
This story "U.S. Official Does ‘God’s Work’: Eradicating Slavery" was written by Ori Nir.