Home The Washington Diplomat March 2009 Former State Official ContinuesPrivate Battle Against Slavery

Former State Official ContinuesPrivate Battle Against Slavery


For years, Mark P. Lagon has been the country’s go-to guy on the subject of human trafficking, traveling the globe to enforce human rights standards and raise awareness of modern-day slavery as head of the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.

Now, with a switch to the private sector, he’ll be able to continue that work yet “live his own sermons,” he told The Washington Diplomat.

As of Feb. 1, Lagon became executive director of the Polaris Project, a nongovernmental organization started in Washington in 2002 that both pushes for new anti-trafficking laws and works directly with victims to end their personal suffering (also see “Governments, Organizations Slowly Addressing Issue of Human Trafficking” in the March 2005 issue of The Washington Diplomat).

As an ambassador-at-large with the State Department, “I was constantly saying we shouldn’t be human rights hypocrites. We have to deal with this problem here and be reminded that a teenager in prostitution by definition is a sex trafficker,” Lagon said. “You can’t lock them up. We have to give them the victim services and help them become a survivor, reclaim their dignity.… I can do that much more directly now.”

According to Polaris research, human trafficking is the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world. In the United States, where the group has three offices, thousands of modern-day slaves are reportedly victimized. Worldwide, accurate figures are hard to come by, but estimates on the global number of trafficking victims easily reach into the millions — generating an illicit industry that reaps in billions of dollars off domestic servitude, sex slavery, forced labor, child soldiers and even child camel jockeys.

It’s a problem Lagon knows all too well through his work in both the academic world and federal government. During the mid-1990s, he worked for think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute and the Council on Foreign Relations, where he specialized in China. Then he entered the political sphere, serving as a senior analyst and deputy staff director of the House Republican Policy Committee. In 1999, he became a senior Republican staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where his interest in human trafficking really piqued, he said. Lagon went on to the State Department, where he focused on U.N. reform, human rights and public diplomacy.

“The thing that I enjoyed most as a former academic and Hill staffer on the executive branch has been a strange bedfellow of coalitions from left to right working for human rights,” Lagon explained.

At the time, human trafficking was also given an ambassadorial distinction to “say to the world that it was an important t issue,” according to Lagon. He was personally given an opportunity to try his hand at the new ambassador-at-large position in 2007 while also being asked to run the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.

Lagon was thrilled. He describes the position as tricky yet important, particularly because of the international community’s mixed reaction to his office’s practice of grading countries on their responses to human rights.

The annual Trafficking in Persons Report rates 170 countries and is the most comprehensive worldwide report on government efforts to combat severe forms of trafficking — which includes forced labor, sexual exploitation and modern-day slavery.

Whereas most U.S. ambassadors are stationed in one foreign country for a long stretch of time, Lagon traveled to many and was stationed permanently in D.C., where he had face-to-face meetings with other nations’ ambassadors about their human trafficking practices.

“My philosophy was it would not be effective if we lectured other countries. The tough love of a report with grades would only be effective if we talked about what we were doing at home,” he said. “I was interested in showing myself as reasonable, but I really wanted to get down to business.”

So Lagon also stressed the need for reform back home in the United States, where he said a number of positive steps have been taken. In particular, he cites a so-called “T visa system” that has been set up to allow human trafficking victims from abroad to immigrate into this country and escape persecution. U.S. officials also recently added regulations that make it easier for victims to eventually get green cards and become full-fledged citizens.

“It’s a considerable step,” Lagon said. “At this time about 2,000 victims and family members take advantage. We need to find more to benefit from that protection.”

Additionally, the state of New York has adopted a Safe Harbor Law in which sex trade victims that are 15 or younger are automatically handed over to social services rather than prosecuted for something that is out of their control. “That there was any debate about a law like this being passed and that it’s 15 and under, not 18 and under, is surprising,” Lagon complained. “But these are steps forward. I hope other states will follow suit. We need to stop having the view that the victim’s at fault.”

That thinking fits in perfectly with Polaris’s mission. Since its inception, the group has run the National Human Trafficking Resource Center and anti-trafficking hotline for the Department of Health and Human Services.

Lagon’s hope is to continue talks Polaris has started with Craigslist, the popular Web site that features a free classifieds section believed to be used by human trafficking proponents to promote sex trades. In the past, efforts to get Craigslist to banish the section have been unsuccessful. But Lagon aims to keep pushing and eventually get site operators to see the wisdom in helping to address the problem.

Beyond focusing on sex trafficking, Lagon has also spoken out on the need for corporate accountability in the labor chain and improving the conditions under which laborers work.

“In general, corporate social responsibility needs to be much more than window dressing for companies to protect themselves from lousy PR,” he said. “If we can make it beneficial for businesses so they feel that it will help their bottom line that’s a big part of it. People have to demand it both as consumers and as shareholders. Everyone’s squeezed but you still have the power to say, ‘I’m not going to eat that chocolate bar because of how it was made in West Africa.’”

If Polaris’s direction changes at all, there will be an increased focus on promoting enhanced worker conditions. Lagon also wants to train more law enforcement officials about the problem of sex trafficking, and perhaps open another international office in addition to the one Polaris has in Tokyo.

Since 2005, some 150 countries have created or revised laws to deal with trafficking, according to Polaris data. The next challenge is implementation. “I’ve told many, many ambassadors that to concentrate on the perfect human trafficking law and not concentrate on the implementation is a little like concentrating on the wedding ceremony but not on the marriage,” Lagon said. “Hopefully I can remain active in discussions with them about these challenges.”

About the Author

Dena Levitz is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.