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Fight for Rights

During his tenure on Capitol Hill, former Washington Rep. John Miller (R) faced his share of uphill battles and narrow victories. Now, more than a decade after he left the Dome, he is engaged in what he describes as the most important battle of his career — the fight to end global trafficking.

But Miller’s struggle has nothing to do with the sale of illegal narcotics or weapons. This is a more perverse black market, dealing in a less publicized breed of trafficked goods — human beings.

“You say ‘slavery’ and the majority of people ask: ‘Didn’t it end with the Civil War?’” Miller explained.

He is the director of the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, a title he considers a euphemism. “It ought to be called modern-day slavery — that’s what it is.”

Last month, Miller joined Secretary of State Colin Powell in releasing the department’s 2004 Trafficking in Persons Report, an annual global survey that measures the progress of foreign governments to reduce human trafficking, defined by the United Nations as “the recruitment … harboring or receipt of persons … for the purpose of exploitation.” Forced prostitution, domestic servitude and coerced labor of child soldiers or sweatshop workers are common forms of trafficking, according to Miller.

“These are the kinds of things that still go on in the world,” said Miller, who estimates that nearly 800,000 men, women and children are trafficked each year across international borders — including the United States, where at least 14,000 victims were reportedly brought last year. According to Miller, traffickers often generate expectations of a better life by enticing victims through false offers of work — only to later seize their passports or legal documents and force them to perform services to pay off travel expenses. “The promise is there, the deception,” Miller said.

Established by Congress under the 2000 Trafficking Victims Protection Act, Miller’s office uses a three-tier ranking system to monitor the efforts of countries around the world to address human slavery by focusing on prosecution, protection and prevention. A large part of Miller’s job as director consists of traveling to foreign countries, where he meets with NGOs, government and embassy officials, and members of the press to discuss the challenges facing that country. However, he says his strongest source of motivation comes from meeting with victims of trafficking.

“That is one of the most moving experiences — when you meet with victims who have experienced this and hear their stories,” Miller said, citing several stories of former slaves who were rescued or managed to escape.

In Amsterdam, he met a woman named Katya, who had a 2-year-old daughter and a failing marriage in the Czech Republic. After she was promised a job as a waitress in the Netherlands, a Dutch trafficker took Katya to a brothel, where she was forced to work as a prostitute or her daughter would be harmed.

“When she’s telling this story, the depression starts seeping out,” Miller recalled. “She was thinking of killing her daughter and committing suicide.” But after a cab driver caught on to her situation one day, Katya was finally rescued. “She’s a lucky one — she gets out.”

For Miller, whose career has led him in a mosaic of directions — his résumé includes a legal practice, a seat on the Seattle City Council, a stint in the news media as a commentator and a turn in investment banking — stories like Katya’s keep him focused. “These stories are gruesome, they are overwhelming, they are moving,” he said.

Miller remembers pondering a career in public service when he was growing up in Manhattan. “I think it started back at the dining room table when I was a kid,” listening to grown-ups discuss current events. “And you read about things that aren’t going well in the world and you say, ‘I want to change them.’”

During his time as a Republican Congressman from 1984 to 1992, Miller served on the International Relations Committee and was a member of the Human Rights Caucus. He visited Lithuania and other Eastern European countries to advise governments and encourage free elections as the Soviet Union’s power grip began to weaken. Despite his efforts in the area of human rights, Miller said he was unfamiliar with the issue of human slavery. “It was not on the agenda in the 1980s or even the early 1990s,” he said. “I don’t even remember a session on this at all.”

When asked what he considers to be his most significant accomplishment during his time in Congress, his response is the Miller Principles, a set of minimum guidelines on human rights that China would have to satisfy to avoid sanctions. Though the principles passed the House in 1991, they were never ratified.

Miller said his decision to leave the Capitol a year later was largely motivated by his desire to spend more time with his 4-year-old son back home.

“I had a lot of close races, but I retired before the voters had a chance to throw me out,” joked Miller, who said he still keeps in touch with former colleagues. “It was eight challenging years. It was a great experience.”

Following his work at the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based research organization that writes on various issues ranging from trade, defense and economics to technology, Miller was later recruited for his current position by friends and State Department officials.

“People came to me and said, ‘If you want to make a difference in human rights, this is something you ought to do,’” he said. “The more I read, the more appalled I became and thought, ‘This is important work.’”

Paula Dobriansky, undersecretary for global affairs at the State Department, said Miller’s work in Congress helped prepare him for his duties as director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.

“When John Miller was a Congressman from the state of Washington, he was heavily involved in human rights matters,” Dobriansky said. “I think he’s someone who is not only very committed to the goal and object of eradicating slavery throughout the world, but he’s someone who knows how to find and look at effective strategies that can have an impact.” For example, she said, it was Miller’s idea to include in this year’s report international best practices, as well as the stories of heroes in the fight to stop trafficking.

Among the heroes is Pierre Tami, a Swiss entrepreneur who created three viable businesses to provide work for former trafficking victims in Cambodia. “Human beings are incredibly resilient,” Miller said. “Some of these stories give you hope. You see something like that — there are good experiences, too.”

Tami was one of three heroes Miller introduced to audience members at the press conference for this year’s trafficking report, when he cautioned that “this issue is not about reports, it’s not about figures, it is about human beings.”

Miller said his life “seems to evolve in four- to six-year chunks. Maybe some say I haven’t had the maturity to fix on something for 15 years. But after a while, I feel there’s a need for new blood.”

But four years and counting, Miller said he has a long way to go before the time comes to leave the office.

“My energy level is high — my passion is high,” he said. “The good news is, the world is awakening. Governments are doing more. But there is so much more to do.”