Cooley human trafficking symposium attracts impressive speakers


Ambassador Luis CdeBaca speaks to the atrocity of human trafficking at Cooley’s Human Trafficking Symposium. Seated behind Ambassador CdeBaca are (left to right) Dr. Vanessa Bouche, Dr. Shawn MacDonald and Brigadier General Michael McDaniel.


by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Thomas M. Cooley Law School featured only the most expert speakers at its Nov. 1 Human Trafficking Symposium, “Buying and Selling People” Is That Your Business?”

Chief among them was the keynote speaker, Ambassador Luis CdeBaca, who serves as the senior advisor to the Secretary of State on Trafficking in Persons. Prior to his appointment in 2009, he was in the United States Justice Department, where — among other honors heaped upon him — he received  the Attorney General’s Distinguished Service Award for being lead trial counsel in prosecuting the enslavement of over 300 Vietnamese and Chinese workers in American Samoa, which was at the time the largest slavery prosecution in U.S. history.

The symposium, the second all-day anti-contemporary-slavery event Cooley has sponsored in 2012, was spearheaded by E. Christopher Johnson, Jr. since he left as Vice President and General Counsel of GM Norton America and became an associate professor at Cooley, as well as its director of Corporate Law and Finance LL.M. program.

The symposium took place physically in Auburn Hills but was simulcast on all Cooley campuses. In Grand Rapids, only about a dozen viewed Ambassador CdeBaca’s presentation.

At the time of the earlier conference, Johnson commented about modern-day slavery, “It’s horrific, all of it, but especially that people are treated as disposable,” Johnson says.

At a time when more and more attention is focusing on human trafficking, the solution Johnson proposes involves waking people, and corporations, up to how their actions undergird the slavery system, that is, encouraging corporate responsibility.

CdeBaca, a low-key and engaging speaker, agrees on that solution, and in his speech went further. “Revisions to the law in 2008 changed the situation,” he said. “I did a case years ago in Southeast Michigan in which a strip club had a number of Eastern European women working there. We
ended up prosecuting the guys who posed as labor brokers —actually,” he added, “they were a type of perverse labor broker.

“At the time, you had to prove that a company owner had knowingly engaged in the activity as opposed to just looking the other way, so we were unable to go after the club owner. Now, the notion of reckless disregard has moved the situation beyond corporate social responsibility and into corporate risk management.”

He noted that with all the campus and faith-based activism going on, the chance of a company being sued over having slave-made products in its supply chain has increase.

CdeBaca was raised in Iowa but attended the University of Michigan Law School. He also served as counsel to the House Committee on the Judiciary, chaired by Michigan’s Rep. John Conyers.

CdeBaca started his presentation out by emphasizing that there are significant reasons to call human trafficking by its rightful name: slavery. He detailed the history of post-abolition slavery. Laws in the 1930s used the term peonage (which carries the connotation of involuntary servitude due to debt), and now human “trafficking” includes the concept of moving humans from one place to another in order to enslave them.

He argued that both raise difficult barriers, first of proving debt, the other of proving movement. “Now think about it,” CdeBaca said, “if somebody came to you and said there’d been a rash of bank robberies, and you had a choice between making it illegal to rob banks or illegal to drive to the bank in order to rob it, which would you choose?”

In relation to the corporate world, CdeBaca told the symposium audience about, a website that guides users through questions to assess “how many slaves work for you.” CdeBaca was instrumental in development of the site.

He emphasized that anti-slavery advocates must make a business case for eradicating the practice, and talked about the movie Amazing Grace about William Wilberforce’s battle to have slavery made illegal in the British Empire. The scene in the film that most impressed CdeBaca was one where “two fashionable young women come walking by a store that has a sign in the window saying ‘We do not sell sugar made by slaves,’ and they go in.”

The kind of pressure this epitomizes is “illustrative of what we have to do,” he said. “It’s that combination of penetrating through to individuals that these are real people while also making the business case. It basically means a cultural shift.

“More symposia, more activism, more writing, going to local not just state and federal governments, going to the politicians who’ve already done something and asking them about appropriations, educating... all of those things are vitally important.”

The Nov. 1 event also included  Michigan Abolitionist Project Conference on Corporate Responsibility. Other speakers included Dr. Vanessa Bouche, Director of the National Research Consortium on Commercial Sexual Exploitation; Janna Lipman, Co-founder and Executive Director of Anka Rising, “partners for a slavery-free economy;” Dr. Shawn MacDonald, Director of Programs and Research of Verité, a “US-based NGO whose mission is to ensure that people worldwide work under safe, fair, and legal conditions;” Brigadier General Michael McDaniel, Cooley associate professor of law; Dr. Louise Shelley, Director of the Terrorism Transnational Crime and Corruption Center at George Mason University; Daniel Werner, Deputy Director at the Southern Poverty Law Center; and symposium organizer Professor Christopher Johnson