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Not My Life : Globalization and Modern Slavery

On January 19th, 2011, the Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall in New York City will hold the world premiere of Not My Life -- a feature-length documentary film about modern-day slavery and global human trafficking, about horrifying practices that affect millions of children, women and men in every part of the world -- a shameful but neglected reality in our "global village".

Globalization has brought us many advantages indeed, but its related deregulation processes have also facilitated some inhuman practices. Bonded labor, debt-related slavery, commercial sexual exploitation and other forms of forced labor and related trafficking have become a global industry -- very conservatively estimated at over $32 billion by the International Labor Organization (ILO) in 2005 and even higher numbers in more recent reports by other organizations, the United States' State Department, etc.

All varieties of forced labor and human trafficking are treated as criminal practices, prohibited in international law and most national legislation. It is covered by international treaties and covenants, including three United Nations Protocols and three ILO Conventions, which are unique in the sense that they include elements of criminal law and its enforcement. The overwhelming majority of governments have ratified these instruments and developed and/or improved related national laws and technical cooperation programs. Yet, the illegal and hidden nature of different forms of forced labor and trafficking makes it very difficult to crack down such practices. Very few victims are rescued on a global basis.

There are indeed many committed institutions and compassionate individuals advocating an end to modern slavery, and many of them are working with governments and their law enforcement agencies. But these efforts need to be strengthened with more financial resources and also proactive media to mobilize public opinion, particularly consumer awareness, as well as private business initiatives, etc. Businesses today cannot afford to run risks of association with any form of child labor and forced labor and related human trafficking in their own business operations and their supply chains, no matter how difficult it may be for them to monitor and control these complex chains.

Particularly in countries with well developed legislation and strong human rights advocacy groups, any company facing allegations of profiting from forced labor exploitation will not only find their reputation severely damaged, but may also face costly lawsuits and criminal prosecution. The same is generally true for at least some of the "worst forms of child labor" defined under ILO Convention 182 and related UN Protocols. These issues have become a significant risk management concern for companies. But few of them are engaged proactively in multistakeholder efforts to crack down on forced labor, child labor and human trafficking. It would indeed help them fence off their own risks if they would become more actively engaged.

Not My Life is a film that can make a difference in informing and mobilizing public opinion and multistakeholder initiatives. Although the topics addressed -- especially female sexual trafficking -- have been seen in television reports, there is a lack of feature length films that effectively depict the problem of modern slavery as a whole targeting a mass audience and, in addition, can provide, at little or no cost, edited versions of the film for educational and fundraising purposes and to help enhance cooperation.

Not My Life is the outcome of four years of planning and hard work by its director, writer and producer, Robert Bilheimer. It was filmed in North and South America, Europe, Southeast Asia, India, and Africa. I first met Robert in Washington, DC, in early 2007 when he was seeking support from United States agencies and international organizations to help him define the focus, scope, funding and outreach of his envisaged new film. As Director of ILO for the United States, I engaged frequently with Robert in his efforts and, in this process, we became close friends as well. Robert's compassionate worldview and artistic style had been evident in A Closer Walk, his highly acclaimed documentary about global HIV-AIDS. This character and style would inevitably lead him to produce a humanistic essay about slavery that, as he once put it, would

provide a deeper understanding of the way the world is and our relationship to one another as human beings in a planetary society. ...The viewers around the world who see this film will ask themselves: what kind of society have we created that allows traffickers to profit and prey on -- of all things -- human lives? The lives of innocent children? The lives of young women and girls? The lives of men who have been robbed of their dignity and self-respect long before enslaving criminals appeared to take what little they had left?

Yet, the nature of this complex theme required more than a humanistic approach. It dealt with crimes. It required an in-depth knowledge of the international and national instruments and loopholes, and the efforts of some UN agencies, NGOs and government agencies dealing with the scourge of modern slavery and related trafficking. Robert and I had long discussions about how a poetic humanistic perspective could in fact enhance what the UN agencies and NGOs, and many governments and some companies were trying to achieve.

Not My Life's premiere will be a celebration of all those individuals and organizations working to end slavery in our time. Many of those appearing in the film itself will attend the premiere, including guests from several countries, among them, prominent government figures, leaders from NGOs, United Nations agencies and private business, members of the arts and entertainment communities, including the film's narrator, Ashley Judd, and musical contributors Dave Brubeck, Derek Trucks, and Susan Tedeschi. Members of the international press corps will be in attendance to mark what the organizers anticipate will be a watershed event for one of the most complex and troubling human rights issues of our time. The premiere, which will be attended by approximately 1,000 people, will be followed by a limited theatrical run of Not My Life in select theatres in the United States, including New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles.