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Celebrification of Human Trafficking, Part III

Ricky Martin has been a recent favorite of both the Executive and Legisative branches of the US government. Through his Foundation, he has been the recipient of substantial US government anti-trafficking funding, and has been a frequent celebrity witness before Congress.

How does Martin’s work relate to human trafficking? He was drawn to human trafficking through his interest in children, expressed through his work as a Goodwill Ambassador to UNICEF and his own NGO, the Ricky Martin Foundation, Among other efforts, the Foundation partnered with the International Organization for Migration to create “Llama y Vive,” a Spanish language campaign “aimed at the prevention of human trafficking, protection of the youngest victims of child trafficking, and prosecution of the traffickers.”

Martin has had a bit of a mixed career as an activist. Under the loose heading of his interest in “helping children,” he has engaged in some ill-advised faux diplomacy. In 2005, for example, he traveled to Jordan where he met with teenagers to whom he vaguely offered to “become a spokesperson on your behalf.” He then posed for photos with Palestinian youth while wearing a keffiyeh bearing the inscription ‘Jerusalem is Ours’ in Arabic.

Despite acknowledging that he did not even know the issue existed five years earlier, in 2006, Martin was invited by Congress to testify before the House Committee on International Relations as an expert witness on human trafficking. Martin told members of Congress that his ”commitment and passion for this issue was born from . . . [travel] to Calcutta, India,” where he “met three little girls that were living on the streets, maybe days away from being sold into prostitution, trembling beneath plastic bags.” He knew then that he had to “do something.”

Martin’s testimony before Congress exemplifies many of the problems with celebrity activism in the arena of human rights: 1) celebrities tend to overly focus attention on the stereotypes of human trafficking (“I heard amazing. . . I mean horrible. . . stories about this issue, like the story of a 12-year-old boy from El Salvador . . . [who was kept] in a small room for weeks and sexually exploited. . .”); 2) they make emotional appeals that arrest a more nuanced interrogation into how best to approach the problem (“When we listen to the story, I mean if we have a soul, we have to feel the pain but sometimes we also feel the hopelessness. But in the face of hopelessness action can bring hope [sic],”); 3) they oversimplify the ‘solutions’ to the problem. For example, Martin advised Congress that the way to end human trafficking was as follows:

“First of all, we must prevent exploitation by educating children and families about the dangers of human trafficking. Step two, we must protect the victims by providing resources to reintegrate and rehabilitate. And number three, we must prosecute and punish those who make a living out of this illegal activity from traffickers to consumers.”

These are, of course, the same three steps already set forth in the Trafficking Victim Protection Act of 2000 and each of its subsequent Reauthorizations. But the larger problem is that members of Congress asked him to state what he would do, were he a member of Congress, to eradicate human trafficking. This abdication of responsibility on the part of legislators continues to be troubling. When the persons to whom they abdicate responsibility are celebrities with whom they enjoy rubbing elbows, Congress’ mode of attending to this matter leaves much to be desired.

To his credit, Martin did use some of his time before the House Committee on International Relations to challenge it a bit, recommending that the US ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Martin is a good example of a celebrity with tremendous goodwill but a modicum of expertise on human trafficking, who has nevertheless been thrust into (but also willingly accepted) a policy role through repeated invitations to hold forth on the topic by both US lawmakers and UN policy makers. 

Related posts:

  1. Celebrities in Human Trafficking, Part II
  2. The Celebrification of Human Trafficking, Part 1 (in a Six Part Series)
  3. Read Now: Human Trafficking and “Red Carpet Feminism”
  5. Human Rights and Human Trafficking: Quagmire or Firm Ground? A Response to James Hathaway by Anne Gallagher