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Two Tasks for Today’s Abolitionists

Despite decades of legal prohibitions, human trafficking continues to claim victims around the world. But while the religious cannot always pray at the same altar, the world's religions can and should act in unison to promote human dignity and defend universal freedoms.

VATICAN CITY – The scourge of human trafficking is an issue that leaders of all faiths must take very seriously. One of the first things that Pope Francis did when he was elected in March 2013 was to write to me, in my capacity as head of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (PAS), requesting that we study modern slavery and its solutions.

Nine months later, Francis convened religious leaders from around the world to declare that trafficking humans and their organs, and forced labor and prostitution, are crimes against humanity. In September 2015, world leaders echoed this conclusion when the United Nations General Assembly unanimously adopted the Sustainable Development Goals – which include a target to end these practices.

For these and many other reasons, it is a moral imperative that the world work together to achieve the vision set by our religious and political leaders. With millions of people still victimized by modern forms of involuntary servitude, there is no time to waste.

Abuse in all of its forms – whether torture, rape, forced marriage, or forced labor – does more than cause physical damage. It strikes at a person’s soul, leaving wounds to our self-confidence and ability to trust others that can be even more painful and profound.

To grasp fully the depravity of this type of “moral violence,” think of friends who love, approve, and affirm one another, and how important those actions are to their individual and collective existence. Victims of human trafficking cannot experience this type of friendship easily, because the degradation and humiliation they have suffered can lead them to believe they are unimportant or someone else’s property. As a result, they are often unable to offer or receive the support and affirmation that true friendship requires. These disabilities extend to victims’ participation in marriage and family.

Christ’s message of fraternity, coupled with the anti-slavery movement that began at the end of the eighteenth century, eventually led to the abolition of legal human bondage around the world. International treaties – like the Slavery Convention of 1926 – made many forms of slavery illegal. However, slavery continues under new names, stirring less public outrage or attention than past violations of civil liberties. While human rights became a defining feature of the post-World War II era, victims of modern slavery still suffer.

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Negative feelings can be helpful in efforts to prevent social exclusion. Indignation might disarm us, but it could also mobilize us to take action. When people observe the intolerable contrast between what is expected in terms of human rights and what victims of modern slavery actually endure, it becomes harder to ignore the unfair distribution of dignity in our societies. And, once we commit to unified global action – as Francis’s sweeping encyclical, Laudato si’, has urged – ending modern slavery becomes possible.

To ensure dignity, freedom, and social participation for everyone, global leaders must work to effect change across political, religious, and cultural boundaries. The PAS has identified two areas that need special attention.

First, to support victims more effectively, the world must move away from interfaith dialogue and toward collective action. Although the religious cannot always pray at the same altar, the world’s religions can and should act in unison to promote human dignity, defend universal freedoms, and aid those in need.

Second, leaders across sectors must raise awareness about modern slavery and work hard to implement solutions. Legal professionals – including police, prosecutors, and judges – should make human trafficking a criminal-justice priority. Local officials, such as mayors, must become more involved in addressing the problem. And national and provincial governments should introduce policy changes from the top. Most important, all of these efforts must be coordinated to make certain that victims are never treated like criminals.

When Francis met with leaders at the PAS in April 2014 to discuss human trafficking, he called the issue an “open wound on the body of contemporary society, a scourge upon the body of Christ.” That is what many of the early abolitionists thought, too, and it is up to every generation to continue the work they started. As the Talmud puts it, “You are not obligated to complete the task, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

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