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D.C.'s Dirty Slavery Secret

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April 16, 2008

Today, Vania Leveille, Legislative Counsel at our Washington, D.C. Legislative Office, guest blogged on Pam’s House Blend on D.C.’s dirty little secret of turning a blind eye to the enslavement of domestic workers by diplomats:

Policy makers have ignored for too long Washington, DC’s dirty little secret: in the nation’s capital, the State Department unwittingly facilitates the trafficking, exploitation and enslavement of poor women of color from around the world. It does so by issuing special nonimmigrant employment visas – more than 3,000 every year – so that ambassadors, foreign diplomats, consular officers, and employees of international organizations like the United Nations and the IMF can bring their nannies and other household workers into the US. Too often, these domestic workers become slaves in the household, unaware of their rights and unable to escape. And their tormentors are shielded by the domestic worker’s anonymity and by diplomatic immunity.

With coalition partners, the ACLU has been working to bring an end to this abuse of domestic workers. In our case Sabbithi v. Al Saleh, the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project (WRP) and Human Rights Program (HRP) represent three Indian women who were trafficked to the U.S. by a Kuwaiti diplomat and his wife. The women were physically and psychologically abused and forced to work against their will. This case is pending before Judge Emmet Sullivan of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.

In November of last year, WRP and HRP also filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an autonomous body of the Organization of American States with a mandate to promote and protect human rights in the Americas. The petition charges that with its guarantees of diplomatic immunity, the U.S. has violated the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man by failing to ensure that foreign officials are prohibited from committing egregious human rights abuses or are held accountable for human rights violations. The petition also calls on the U.S. to adopt a system to protect and compensate domestic workers abused by diplomats.

Recently, one of the diplomats named in that petition, Mr. Ali Fahad Al-Hajri, the former Ambassador to the Qatar Mission of the United Nations, was – shockingly – selected to serve as the Qatari Ambassador to the United States. After listening to Al-Harjri’s former employee, Siti Aisah, talk about her experience working for him and his wife in this podcast, you too would find it shocking that he was considered for, much less given, this high-ranking position. As a diplomat, his immunity gives him free rein to continue abusing his staff without any risk of repercussions.

WRP Director Lenora Lapidus testified about this problem to the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in Geneva in February, and the Committee’s concluding report included comments about the U.S.’s lack of human rights protections for minority women workers.

Vania’s blog post also covers federal legislation, specifically H.R. 3887, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, that begins to address the problem, and what more Congress needs to do to close the loophole that allows diplomats to enslave women. You can learn more about protecting the rights of domestic workers at

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