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ARLINGTON, Va. — A bill that would allow U.S. civilian contractors, federal employees and even their dependents accused of human trafficking overseas to be prosecuted in U.S. courts is working its way through the House.

If the bill becomes law, it will close a loophole in current federal regulations that allow defense contractors to be prosecuted in the United States for crimes committed while deployed by the Defense Department, but ignores contractors for other federal agencies, as well as other government workers.

The bill is targeted at U.S. contractors who participate in human trafficking — including forced labor and forced prostitution, according to Maureen Walsh, general counsel for the Helsinki Commission, an independent U.S. government agency that monitors and encourages compliance with the Helsinki Final Act and other Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) commitments.

Walsh made her comments during a Thursday discussion on human trafficking and peacekeeping operations held by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C., think-tank.

The trafficking issue turned into a scandal that began in the late 1990s, when some U.S. contractors associated with the peacekeeping mission in the Balkans were accused of buying young women from the local mafia to serve as their personal sexual attendants.

The DOD got pulled in even further in 2002, after a March report by a Fox News affiliate alleging U.S. military members and military police patrols in South Korea were patronizing bars where women from the Philippines and Russia had been forced into the sex trade.

The Helsinki Commission requested an immediate Pentagon investigation into the military’s role in the sex trade in South Korea, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo.

A report issued after that investigation faulted military commands for a misperception of human trafficking problems and said further education for servicemembers was needed.

Meanwhile, Congress passed a law in 2000 to permit defense contractors to be tried in the United States for crimes they commit while working for the DOD overseas, including human trafficking.

Yet despite continuing reports of trafficking by defense contractors working in the Balkans, the DOD “dragged its heels on implementing” the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act of 2000, according to panelist Martina Vandenberg, an attorney with Washington, D.C., law firm Jenner & Block.

It took the Defense Department almost four years, until June 2004, to forward draft implementation instructions to the Senate and House judiciary committees, as the legislation required, she said.

Yet even with the implementation instructions now in place, the Military Extraterritorial law does not apply to contractors working for other government agencies, such as the State Department.

That loophole effectively immunizes against punishment the hundreds of U.S. police officers — many of them retired — who have worked in the Balkans as State Department contractors, the CSIS panelists said.

With 18,000 separate police departments in the United States, and no mandate for contracting companies to report “dark marks” against their workers to other civilian employers, “there is absolutely no accountability” for police officers, Vandenberg said. “They have total impunity when they get home.”

After waiting for Bush officials to come up with a solution to the contractor problem, Rep. Christopher H. Smith, a New Jersey Republican who co-chairs the Helsinki Commission with Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., introduced his own legislation in February.

The bill was sent to four committees for approval, Walsh said.

Of those four, the House Committee on International Relations already has passed the measure, and the bill’s advocates hope the House Judiciary Committee will consider the bill on Dec. 7, Walsh said. Smith and his co-sponsors also are hoping the third committee, House Energy and Commerce, will waive its requirement to approve the bill, Walsh said.

Finally, the House Armed Services Committee already has waived its requirement, but only after members negotiated a version that removed some provisions, including one that would make human trafficking illegal under the Uniformed Code of Military Justice.

Another provision Smith agreed to remove from his bill would have created an office inside the Defense Department to oversee anti-trafficking measures.

As a trade-off, Walsh said, HASC leaders agreed to consider inserting language into the upcoming 2006 defense authorization bill that would require the DOD to tell all combatant commanders they must appoint a high-level staff member to monitor the command’s handling of alleged human trafficking among servicemembers and contractors.

Although it’s unlikely the entire House will vote on the bill and send it on to the Senate before the end of the current session, “it certainly will be at the top of the [House] agenda next year,” Walsh said.

Stripes reporter Teri Weaver contributed to this story from South Korea.

Expert: Human trafficking undermines military missions

ARLINGTON, Va. — U.S. military commanders overseas who think human trafficking is another word for prostitution and a problem for local law are closing their eyes to the potential damage to their mission, according to a prominent trafficking researcher.

The revenue for human trafficing almost always goes to organized criminals, Sarah Mendelson, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C., think-tank, told Stripes on Friday.

Members of military missions who are “facilitating or participating in human trafficking are putting money in the hands of people who are out to undermine the mission,” she said in a telephone interview. “It doesn’t make sense to be focused on combating trafficking in arms and drugs, which NATO and DOD are doing, but then have an ambivalent attitude toward human trafficking,” Mendelson said.

Moreover, participating in human trafficking badly damages the reputation of the forces supposedly there to “stabilize” the area, she said. The trafficking problem that surrounds international peacekeeping missions is “enormous,” Mendelson said.

She cited a report by the International Organization of Migration that said between 2000 and 2003, a total of 5,203 women reported being sent to the Balkans to serve as prostitutes and then asked to be sent back home — including 500 minors.

Experts estimate the actual number of trafficked persons in the Balkans to be at least three times higher, taking into account those women whose passports were taken from them or who were physically prevented by their “owners” from making their way to officials for repatriation, Mendelson said.

NATO adopted a policy in June 2004 that says involvement in human trafficking will not be tolerated in any NATO peacekeeping operation, whether the person alleged to be involved belongs to a NATO member state or another country that has joined the mission. However, it remains up to the alleged violator’s own country to prosecute him or her. “We’re still waiting to hear from the British, the French, the Italians, and the Germans and, frankly, the United States” to take a “visible and active role” in combating human trafficking in their areas of responsibility, Mendelson said.

— Lisa Burgess

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