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Ending Slavery: Obama's Best, Most Overlooked Speech This Week

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You probably missed President Obama delivering one of the most meaningful speeches of his presidency this week. He wasn't touting his accomplishments on the stump or standing up for freedom of speech before the United Nations General Assembly, although those speeches were delivered as well. Top honors go to his remarks at the annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative. At a time when he would be excused for devoting every moment in front of an audience to ensuring his own political survival, the president spent valuable time tackling the scourge of human trafficking -- or what is more precisely called slavery. Saying that slavery has no place in a civilized world, Mr. Obama used his bully pulpit to put its victims and the movement to rescue and support them on par with the other major national and international issues of the day.

According to the U.S. State Department, as many as 27 million slaves live in the world today. Men and women, girls and boys are trapped, traded and forced into involuntary service as sex workers, laborers and soldiers. More than half of forced laborers, and nearly all sex trafficking victims, are women and girls. While Asia has the most slaves, and Africa's enslaved population is growing, the United States has at least 14,500 people trafficked into the country each year. People from sixty countries around the world are working as slaves in American homes, factories and fields or selling their bodies in communities all across the country. And consider this: since the transatlantic slave trade, the economics of buying and selling human beings has changed dramatically. According to the advocacy organization Free The Slaves, an American slave in 1850 cost the equivalent of $40,000 in today's money. Today, a slave costs an average of $90. Buying a slave is cheaper than buying the latest iPhone.

Calling the fight against modern slavery one of the great human rights causes of our time, the president announced measures tightening the federal government's zero-tolerance policy on human trafficking for companies it does business with. In addition, the Obama administration will improve training and guidance on human trafficking for federal prosecutors, law enforcement officers and immigration judges so slaves are treated like victims rather than criminals when their plight is uncovered. Several new non-governmental steps were also announced. A business coalition has been formed to help root out slavery in supply chains and across industries. Technology companies and others are being challenged to spur innovations combating predatory practices and a multi-million dollar initiative has been launched encouraging communities to improve support for victims of trafficking. Finally, workers such as educators and bus, train and truck inspectors will be given new training and tools to spot trafficking.

To be sure, abolishing slavery in our time will not be easy and will not happen quickly. Indeed, cynics will say that the measures the president announced this week do not go far enough and will not solve the problem. But let us remember that the battle to abolish slavery in America's early years began before the nation's founding and continued throughout the Civil War. It was waged by people from all walks of life, enslaved and free, who chipped away at this formidable institution through discreet acts of defiance and benevolence. It required a potent cocktail of unwavering conviction, strategic vision, tactical guile, and a cold-eyed appreciation for seizing the possible. One hundred fifty years ago this New Year's Day, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. What is now seen as a sweeping bestowal of freedom with one stroke of the presidential pen, was at the time little more than a message of hope and motivation to blacks trapped behind slave-holding lines. Speaking at New York City's Cooper Union several weeks after the Proclamation was issued, former slave and leading abolitionist Frederick Douglass addressed critics who felt the president's move was only "a thought, a sentiment, an idea." "But what of it?" Douglass asked. "The world has never advanced a single inch in the right direction, when the movement could not be traced to some such small beginning." Turning the effort President Obama began this week into a movement giving our fellow human beings enslaved today a new birth of freedom will require sustained interest, commitment and action on all our parts.