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Powell responds to Cambodia investigation

Complete transcript of interview with Secretary of State Colin Powell and NBC's Chris Hansen.
/ Source: NBC News


December 11, 2003
Washington, D.C.
(2:20 p.m. EST)

MR. HANSEN: Why has child sex trafficking become such an important issue for you and the Bush Administration?

SECRETARY POWELL: Because it's the worst kind of human exploitation imaginable.  Can you imagine young children, learning their ABC's or whatever the equivalent is in their language, being used as sexual slaves for predators?  It is a sin against humanity and it is a horrendous crime.

MR. HANSEN: Our investigation found girls as young as five years old working as prostitutes in the Cambodian sex trade.  You've seen some of our videotape.  Your reaction.

SECRETARY POWELL: I've seen the videotape and it's horrible to watch. It's horrible to think that there are youngsters who have been put in such an environment by the elders in their lives, people who don't care about them. 

But even more horrible for me to contemplate is that there are Americans who will go on tours, go on vacation, for the purpose of exploiting these children.  Well, they ought to know, it's against the law, and they can and will be prosecuted under the PROTECT Act.  And we have started to prosecute individuals, to put them away in jail for long periods of time, hard time, for committing this most heinous of crimes.

MR. HANSEN: You have a department that specifically monitors this issue.  Give me a sense for the scope of this --

SECRETARY POWELL: We've created a new office within the State Department that deals with trafficking in persons, and we work very closely with the Attorney General, the Department of Homeland Security and other government agencies.  President Bush has made this a priority, as you noted, and he told us, "Get on top of this and do something about it." 

And so we've created an office for this purpose. Congress has created a law that requires us to report on an annual basis on how all the countries in the world are doing with respect to trafficking in persons. And we do that every year. We classify them into three tiers, debating every year, in each country, how are they doing?  Are they getting better?  Are they improving themselves?

Cambodia has been cooperating. And there are sanctions associated with ending up in Tier 3, the lowest ranking in our system.  People think it's, "Well, why should you be going around making judgments like this about other countries?" Well, we are a nation of values.  We are a nation that's a moral nation, and we think that other nations want to also protect their people.

So we're really helping other nations as we push them and encourage them with this system.

MR. HANSEN: Why should Americans be concerned about the sex trade in Cambodia?

SECRETARY POWELL: How can we turn away? If we want to have friends in the world, if we want to have better relations with the countries of the world, we have to help them with this kind of problem. 

You know, can you imagine the spread of disease that is taking place with this kind of activity? Can you imagine what will happen to these girls when they're 15 or 20?  What will become of them?  They'll have no education. They will be -- they will have been used and tossed away and ruined. 

And that affects not just these girls, it affects that country.  It affects the family life in that country, it affects society development, it affects income, and, therefore, it affects foreign policy. 

So, as the Secretary of State, why is the Secretary of State worried about trafficking in persons?  Because it deals with foreign policy.  It deals with economic and social development within a country.  And a country that does not treasure its youth and protect its youth is not going to be moving in the right direction in the 21st century. 

And a nation such as ours, which says we are a moral nation, and that we have a value system, that we would allow our citizens to go over and fuel that trade, by their presence and by their money and by their rotten exploitation of these children, we wouldn't be living up to our values if we didn't do something about it.

MR. HANSEN:  What can you do to crack down on the countries involved?  What kind of sanctions would you levy?

SECRETARY POWELL:  Well, there's a lot of things we can do.  We can withhold foreign assistance money, we can make them not eligible for certain programs that we have, and the law requires us to look at these kinds of remedies.  And what we have found with this Tier 1, 2, 3 system, as time comes every year for the report to be written, a lot of countries want to know, what Tier are we in?  We're not going to be in Tier 3, are we?  It's a heck of a stigma to suddenly show up in Tier 3.

Now, we also recognize that there's trafficking in the United States.  There is exploitation taking place in our own country.  So we're not totally clean on this and we make that clear.  And the kind of exploitation that you're talking about in this piece that deals with the sexual exploitation of children, there's lots of other exploitation that we're worried about, a lot of other tracking in persons:  for sweatshops, to go in the mines, young people who are not getting an education but are being exploited for their manual capacity as young people, and they're being ruined just as well as these young people in the sex trade in Cambodia or elsewhere in the world.

MR. HANSEN:  We found Americans going to Cambodia for sex with underaged girls, including one American doctor who actually bragged about how easy it is to --

SECRETARY POWELL:  He may be a doctor but he's a criminal.  He's a criminal and if he can be brought to justice, he will be brought to justice.  The law requires it.  And he won't have to worry about being a doctor because he'll be doing time in jail and that's where he belongs.  More than that, he probably needs to see several dozen psychiatrists if that's what turns him on.

MR. HANSEN:  While we were reporting this story, the Cambodian Government promised to crack down.  As you mentioned, the U.S. Government has strengthened laws against people going over there for this purpose, but I've got to tell you something.  When we revisited Cambodia just a few months ago, the child sex trade was still flourishing.

SECRETARY POWELL:  It's still flourishing, and the government has been doing a better job.  We've been cooperating with them, we finance some of their efforts and we put pressure on them.  But you know what drives any industry, any trade, is that it's lucrative. 

So while we will, while we will put pressure on the Cambodian Government and other governments -- the Vietnamese Government, the Eastern European countries have similar problems -- while we do that, and that's the right thing to do, we also need to take a look at ourselves and whether or not we're cracking down hard enough on those Americans who do such things, or people from other countries, Europe and elsewhere, who go to these places, are attracted to these places, with a certain knowledge that they'll have a chance to abuse a child.

MR. HANSEN:  You have an awful lot on your platter right now.  This is an amazing time in history.  Where do you rank this problem?

SECRETARY POWELL:  It's at the top.  I mean, this is a major priority for President Bush, it's a major priority for me, it's a major priority for Congress.  I am briefed on it regularly.  I follow it regularly.  I watch the Tier rankings.  I make sure it's adequately funded.  It's a subject of discussion as I meet with leaders around the world.  And it's important.  I mean, what could be more important than protecting young people?  It is a foreign policy chatter.  It's not as if it's something that's -- it's not something that just, you know, is a soft part of my job.  It's a soft part of my job because I care about children.  Before I came back into government, that's what I was doing, working with young people, America's Promise, Alliance for Youth, the foundation that I helped create at the request of our other presidents.

So I have strong feelings about children and how they should be protected, and then taken care of and given the good life to lead and how to get to that good life.  But the hard part of my job is making sure that our foreign interests, foreign policy interests, are preserved, and countries that allow this to take place and are ruining their own future by ruining their own children, that is a foreign policy problem for me.

MR. HANSEN:  When you talk about a country like Cambodia, with that kind of poverty and that kind of corruption, can you ever really solve the problem?

SECRETARY POWELL:  I don't know if you can eliminate it totally.  You know, we have exploitation in our country with all of our, with all of our wealth.  It isn't a -- you know, a week doesn't go by we don't learn about some pedophile on the Internet who is trying to take advantage of a young child in this country. 

But we have to work at it. Human avarice is always there. It's harder to deal with in a country where there is such poverty. If there wasn't that kind of poverty, these children, their parents wouldn't push them into this. Their parents don't want to see this. Their parents are trapped in poverty. 

So we have other programs, whether it's our farm assistance programs, our HIV/AIDS programs, our economic development programs, our sustainable development programs, so that these countries can start to come up out of poverty and have sufficient wealth and people can have decent jobs and with those decent jobs bring an income into the family so that they don't have to sell their children into this kind of slavery.

MR. HANSEN: Excellent. That's the first one. Thank you very much. I appreciate it.