U.S. policy a paper tiger against sex trade in war zones

By Nick Schwellenbach and Carol Leonnig
Sunday, July 18, 2010

An eight-year-old policy that forbids government contractors and employees to engage in sex trafficking in war zones has proved almost impossible to enforce amid indications that such activities are occurring in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The policy, instituted eight years ago by President George W. Bush and still in effect today, calls for the prosecution of government employees and contractors who engage in trafficking and the suspension or disqualification of companies whose workers do. Bush's get-tough language also threatened criminal prosecutions for solicitation of prostitutes because many of the women are forced into the work.

Agencies say the cases are difficult to pursue because of limited investigative resources and jurisdictional questions. But some experts and lawmakers believe that authorities are turning a blind eye to evidence of such crimes.

"Zero prosecutions," said Martina Vandenberg, a lawyer and former Human Rights Watch investigator, "suggests zero effort to enforce the law."

The State Department reported recently that allegations of contractors' employees procuring commercial sex acts were "well publicized" but that no contractors have been prosecuted and no contracts terminated.

Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.), author of a 2000 U.S. anti-trafficking law, questions whether agencies vigorously pursue allegations. He suggested that if authorities really cared about the women being exploited, they would not look away "when those we are paying to do jobs for us are exploiting them."

Justice Department spokesman Alejandro Miyar said the agency "investigates all credible allegations of human trafficking."

An Army report

Nearly a decade after Dyncorp International employees were accused of buying and selling women from throughout Eastern Europe -- and were not prosecuted -- the State Department alerted the U.S. Army to allegations made by a freelance journalist. The journalist said she had interviewed women held in Iraq as involuntary servants in debt slavery.

The February report, posted online as part of an Army PowerPoint presentation, alleged that supervisors of an Army subcontractor in Iraq had sexually assaulted some of the women.

"The women were recruited from their home nations with promises of well-paying beautician jobs in Dubai," said an Army summary, "but were instead forced to surrender their passports, transported against their will to Iraq, and told they could only leave by paying a termination fee of $1,100."

The subcontractors work for the Army and Air Force Exchange Service, which runs restaurants and other commercial operations on military bases.

An Army Criminal Investigation Command spokesman, who declined to discuss specifics, said the allegations "were investigated and not substantiated."

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