National Freedom Day and the Fight Against Modern Slavery

Posted by Luis CdeBaca
February 1, 2012
President Truman Signing \National Freedom Day\ Proclamation

Seventy years ago, a group of men and women organized at Independence Hall in Philadelphia to lay a wreath before the Liberty Bell to commemorate the date -- February 1, 1865 -- that President Abraham Lincoln signed the 13th Amendment, banning slavery in the United States. The plan to set aside February 1 was led by Richard Wright, who was born into slavery in 1855. After Emancipation, Wright went to college, joined the army, and late in life became the first African-American in the United States to own a bank. A year after Wright died, in 1948, Wright's legacy was written into law when Congress passed a bill making February 1 National Freedom Day. Harry S. Truman was the first President to declare National Freedom Day, a tradition upheld every year since and reaffirmed again today by President Barack Obama.

As we mark that moment, when Lincoln sent to the states a document ending slavery, we note also that the 13th Amendment wasn't merely a moment in our nation's history. It was a promise: "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude… shall exist." Not then. Not ever. Today, a century and a half later, the work to deliver on that promise continues.

Trafficking in persons, a modern-day form of slavery, victimizes as many as 27 million people whether through forced labor or commercial sexual exploitation. It is a crime that affects every country in the world.

That's why the Obama Administration continues to make this struggle a priority. Next month, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will chair the annual meeting of the President's Interagency Task Force on Trafficking in Persons, bringing together leaders from across government to share accomplishments and strategic objectives in fulfilling our long-held promise.

Across the country, law enforcement and criminal justice organizations are strengthening their response to this crime by improving victim identification, providing more comprehensive services to survivors, and delivering traffickers the justice they deserve. Nearly every state has adopted a modern, comprehensive anti-trafficking law that approaches this crime with the victim-centered 3P Paradigm of prevention, protection, and prosecution (including Indiana, where just two days ago Governor Daniels signed a law toughening penalties for sex trafficking).

But just as modern slavery doesn't exist solely within our borders, the 13th Amendment doesn't stand alone as a promise to bring an end to this ancient crime. Look no further than Article 4 of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights: "slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms." This isn't just a problem at home, and we aren't alone in this struggle.

That's why the President and Secretary Clinton have made the fight against modern slavery -- the legacy of National Freedom Day and the 13th Amendment -- an important component of our foreign policy. The Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (TIP) engages governments around the world and assesses global efforts to combat this crime in the annual Trafficking in Persons Report.

Likewise, the TIP Office is at the forefront of diplomatic engagement. Last month, following Secretary Clinton's historic visit, I traveled to Burma to meet with government officials. We discussed positive steps forward in addressing modern slavery in that country as well as the potential for future progress.

That trip -- that sort of engagement -- is essential, because trafficking in persons is a threat to stability. It devastates communities, breeds corruption, and hinders our interests around the world.

But, just as important, we carry that promise of freedom around the world because it's part of who we are as a nation. Because Lincoln signed his name to the 13th Amendment -- because those men and women laid a wreath before the Liberty Bell 70 years ago -- our work today seeks not only to honor that solemn commitment for all those who once endured exploitation, but to deliver on that promise of freedom for all whose suffering we are determined to end.

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