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Date: Wed Oct 13 1999 - 09:50:13 EDT

                                 Inter Press Service
                      Copyright 1999 Global Information Network

                              Tuesday, October 5, 1999

                                   By Thalif Deen

    UNITED NATIONS, Oct. 5 (IPS) -- Fourteen women foreign ministers,
  including US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, have written to UN
  Secretary-General Kofi Annan seeking an end to the widespread practice
  of trafficking in women and children.

    "On the edge of the 21st century, it is unacceptable that human beings
  around the world are bought and sold into situations -- such as sexual
  exploitation, domestic servitude and debt bondage -- that are little
  different from slavery," their letter said.

    The 14 women ministers -- who thanked Annan for focusing international
  action on "this heinous practice" -- were from the Bahamas, Barbados,
  Bulgaria, El Salvador, Finland, Niger, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg,
  Madagascar, Mexico, Mongolia, South Africa, Sweden and the United

    Describing themselves as "concerned women" -- the foreign ministers
  gave their "strong support for the struggle to end the repulsive
  trafficking in human beings."

    "We recognize the importance of close international cooperation to
  defeat the traffickers at every stage of their criminal activities,"
  they wrote.

    The ministers also pledged to build strong links among themselves --
  and called on other nations to join them. "Our governments are committed
  to the eradication of such (human) trafficking," the ministers

    They also pledged support for the proposed UN Convention against
  Transnational Organized Crime and the protocol on trafficking in
  persons, both of which are currently under negotiation.

    "Together, we call for the earliest possible completion and full
  implementation of the convention and protocol, and commit ourselves and
  our governments to doing all that we can to achieve this goal," the
  letter added.

    Last week, speaking on behalf of the 15-member European Union (EU),
  Finnish Foreign Minister Tarja Halonen expressed concern over the
  discrimination of women worldwide.

    "We underline the significance of international human rights
  instruments designed to protect and promote the human rights and
  fundamental freedoms of women," she said.

    Halonen said trafficking in human beings violated many of the most
  basic human rights and most of the victims of this practice were women
  and children.

    She said that concerted international action was needed in the fight
  against trafficking.

    "The EU supports the work done to develop international standards to
  prevent these crimes and to punish the perpetrators," Halonen said.
  "Measures must be taken to help victims of this type of exploitation."

    The European Union considered human rights essential in the
  maintenance of international peace and security, she noted and added
  that the United Nations had a primary role in the promotion of universal
  respect for human rights.

    "They must be further integrated in all UN activities. The promotion
  of universal respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms is
  central also to the activities of the European Union," Halonen said.

    The United Nations, meanwhile, also planned to probe the appalling
  working conditions of women migrant workers in the Middle East, many of
  whom toiled under conditions of near-slavery.

    Radhika Coomaraswamy, the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against
  Women, said that her office was examining the possibility of a visit to
  the Middle East to examine some of the problems facing migrant workers
  in the region.

    Currently, millions of women workers, mostly domestic servants from
  the Philippines, Sri Lanka, India and Bangladesh, were reportedly
  working under horrendous conditions in Western Europe, East Asia and
  primarily in Middle Eastern countries, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait,
  the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Oman. Most Middle Eastern
  countries have resisted attempts to open their doors to UN scrutiny.

    In a 1995 study titled "Punishing the Victim: Rape and Mistreatment of
  Asian Maids in Kuwait", the Middle East Watch said that housekeepers of
  Indian, Sri Lankan, Bengali and Philippine origin were targets of rape,
  physical assault, non-payment of salaries, debt bondage and abusive work
  conditions because of their nationality."

    The International Labor Organization (ILO) has reported numerous cases
  of maltreatment, sexual harassment and abuse, and excessive workloads.

    "The high incidence of non-completion of contracts and premature
  returns, especially among women migrating to the Middle East, has been
  interpreted as indicative of the stressful nature of their situation,"
  ILO said.

    Salma Khan of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination
  against Women said abuses committed against female migrant workers was
  of great concern to her Committee. "Many of the women migrant workers
  were being trafficked and abused," she added.

    Khan also said that migrant workers were not provided with the
  information and training they needed before proceeding to work overseas.
  Most migrant workers, who left their spouses and children, caused new
  social problems, including broken homes and single parent families.

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