Liberia: U.S. Govt Hints At 'Consequence' If Liberia Fails to Improve On Trafficking-in-Persons Index

Monrovia — US Ambassador Christine Elder has called for concerted efforts by all branches of the Liberian government to improve the country's status on the Watch List ranking of the State Department's annual Trafficking in Persons (TIPs) Report.

Liberia has remained on the second tier of the US report for the past three years which means the country has not improved its efforts to tackle TIPs.

The 2019 report, which was released in June, had cautioned that Liberia was not doing enough.

Nevertheless, the US Government says it is investing globally to end human trafficking but emphasizes the importance of "political will" that should be exercised by governments like Liberia's to deal with a menace that is also termed as modern day slavery.

This week, U.S. Ambassador-at-Large to Monitor and Combat TIP John Cotton Richmond arrived in Monrovia to meet with government officials and other stakeholders to discuss the fight against human trafficking.

Ambassador Richmond heads the State Department's global efforts to combat modern slavery through the prosecution of traffickers, the protection of victims, and the prevention of human trafficking otherwise known as the 3 Ps.

His office "objectively" analyzes government's efforts and identifies global trends, engage and support strategic bilateral and multilateral diplomacy and target foreign assistance to build sustainable capacity of governments and civil society organizations amongst several other objectives.

While in Liberia, the top US diplomat along with Ambassador Elder held talks with President George Weah and key members of his cabinet as well as heads of civilian security agencies, a US Embassy press release disclosed.

The release added that Ambassador Richmond also met with civil society organizations actively working to monitor trafficking cases, help victims of trafficking, and to bring perpetrators to justice, met with government's interagency TIP Task Force, led by Minister of Labor Moses Kollie and Liberian prosecutors.

At an event held on Tuesday, September 10 on the Capitol Hill Campus of the University of Liberia, Ambassador Elder said the engagements with the Liberian government focused on plans of action to deal with human trafficking.

But she stressed that it will require "political will across the board of various actors" including the cooperation of the judiciary and legislature.

She added that international partners and support cannot do without domestic political will.

"I think the political will is there, now it has to come through reports as well and all pieces are connected - if the LNP (police) or the LIS (Liberia Immigration Service) are not able to have evidence and have testimonies of witnesses, it's hard to prosecute a case," the US Ambassador said of challenges dogging the prosecution of alleged traffickers in Liberia.

Asked what it means for Liberia when the country falls in third tier of the report, Ambassador elder responded, "Because the importance that we, as US congress and [have] globally [have] placed on these issues, it can have consequence of assistance to Liberia more broadly if we don't see that political will and that progress."

She said it is possible for Liberia to move up the layer but this will require 'work".

Earlier, Ambassador Richmond, who spoke as a guest on LUX Talk - a regular lecture series at the state-run university, described trafficking as a crime of coercion and not a crime a movement, and warned that Liberia's time on second tier of the watch list is the longest a country can stay in said position.

"And so next year, Liberia might actually rise to tier two or it might fall to tier three and so we are very interested in coming alongside our colleagues here in Liberia in making sure there's a best chance to discussing these issues," he said.

However, he seemingly expressed some praises for Liberia's human trafficking law, saying "it [is] set up to attack human trafficking in all its forms: labor trafficking and sex trafficking - of adult and child victims - male and female victims - regardless of whether a victim is a citizen or non-citizen".

Responding to a question about additional steps that Liberia must take in order to improve its rating, the former US Federal prosecutor said TIPs project should not be considered a "side project" for any government but a "priority project".

He called for the creation of a specialized investigation unit comprising of agents and officers to focus on identifying victims and prosecuting traffickers.

Increasing investigations, increasing prosecution and identifying victims and screening mechanisms for vulnerable populations are ways to identify individuals who might have indicators of trafficking, the US top diplomat said.

"If we are not identifying victims or making sure they get basic services and arresting traffickers then we don't even have a starting place - we have to have victims that we can begin the process with," he added.

Referencing the International Labor Organization's statistics, Ambassador Richmond said there are 24.9 million victims of trafficking in the world - a figure that more than double the 12 million people sold into slavery during the 400 years of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Over the last three years in Liberia, he said, there have been only two prosecutions of human trafficking cases and one conviction.

The lack of prosecution of traffickers creates little worries for them "because they sense no risk of getting caught," he asserted.

"There has been a 42% drop in global prosecution rates since 2015. Let's be clear, it wasn't all that high before it dropped... If you run the numbers, you will find that a person is more likely to get struck by lightning than prosecuted for committing a human trafficking offense."

The US TIPs report released in June 2019 had warned that the "Government of Liberia does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but is making significant efforts to do so."

It adds that "The government demonstrated significant efforts during the reporting period by supporting victims during trial by providing transportation, security, and shelter; organizing public awareness events with high-level officials; and training more law enforcement officials on identifying and investigating trafficking."

The report further recommended that the administration endorse the national referral mechanism, and facilitate training for law enforcement and social workers on implementation.

"Increase efforts to raise awareness of trafficking, including internal trafficking. Expand victim services--particularly for victims outside the capital, males, and victims requiring long-term care--through increased financial or in-kind support to shelters and enforce the 2005 law requiring restitution be paid to trafficking victims."

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