New York Times columnist sees hope where others see despair: an interview with Nicholas Kristoff

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At first blush it’s easy to envy Nicholas Kristof, maybe even resent him. He’s a graduate of Harvard and Oxford who studied Arabic in Egypt. As a journalist for the New York Times , he’s been stationed in Beijing, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Los Angeles and has covered everything from the Tiananmen Square uprisings to the conflict in Darfur. He travels the world and currently writes a twice weekly column for the Times, focused mainly on social justice issues. He’s won two Pulitzer Prizes. His seems a charmed and exciting life.

Dig a little deeper though, as Kristof would surely encourage, and you start to feel trepidation at exploring the dark corners of the world in which he finds himself. There’s Darfur, where it is estimated that over 300,000 people were killed in a bloody ethnic conflict. There’s the dashed hopes of the students in Beijing who dispersed as the tanks rolled into Tiananmen. And there’s Kristof’s hands-on investigations of human trafficking, which is one of the topics he returns to often and that he will be in Calgary to discuss as part of Conversations of unCommon Grace, an initiative of Calgary Grace Presbyterian Church to discuss larger social issues by bringing together secular and religious communities.

“I think it’s one of the leading human rights abuses, if you will, both abroad and at home,” says Kristof by phone from New York. “So that’s what draws me back to it.”

His reports on human trafficking are not merely opinion pieces culled from scanning the Internet for bits of information and statistics. Kristof visits victims, talks to their parents and exploiters —he once controversially bought the freedom of two teenage prostitutes in Cambodia and wrote about it in his column — and puts a human face on an issue that is largely hidden from public view and prosecution. At any given time, the United Nations estimates there are millions of people, children and adult alike, being trafficked across the world. It draws Kristof in.

“I’d say it’s both difficult to continue and impossible to stop,” he says. “In general, with a lot of human rights issues, I mean Darfur was sort of the same thing — that I made one trip to Darfur early on and I never thought I’d make another, and then you see people being massacred and it’s hard then to kind of tune it out and it draws you back again and again. The trafficking is kind of the same sort of issue.”

While Kristof tends to focus on sexual exploitation in human trafficking — which continues to be the leading cause of trafficking in the world — forced labour is the bigger problem in the U.S., where it accounts for over 70 per cent of reported cases. While Canada doesn’t have those numbers, the RCMP has noted that forced labour is increasing, particularly in Ontario, as well as in Alberta thanks to the oilsands and the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (hard statistics are infuriatingly hard to come by).

Sexual exploitation, however, continues to be the major issue in Canada and around the world.

It’s also an interesting time when it comes to combating sexual exploitation in North America, with Canada’s prostitution laws sitting in limbo after a Supreme Court decision struck them down, and the U.S. stepping up enforcement on Johns and pimps rather than sex workers.

Kristof isn’t entirely sure where he stands on the topic of prostitution laws, saying no model is perfect.

“The problem with the legalize-and-regulate model, which I used to be quite sympathetic to, is that while you can have legal brothels with adult women who are there voluntarily, in every place that happens you tend to have a parallel market with underage girls, or with women who are coerced. So that in theory it sounds quite good; in practice it tends to be associated with trafficking as well,” he says.

The model Kristof thinks works best is the so-called Nordic model, represented by Sweden, where buying sex is illegal, but selling it is not. “In the Nordic model, essentially men can be arrested for buying sex. Essentially they’re fined, it’s not a big deal, they’re not dragged off to jail. But women are directed to social services — treatment of addictions or whatever it might be,” he says.

“Partly because it discourages the purchase of sex, it tends to dampen demand, which then lowers the price of commercial sex, which then reduces the incentive to traffic women and girls. It doesn’t work fabulously, but it kind of works okay.”

Buying and selling sex is never going to be eliminated, nor do most think it should be when it is consensual and between adults. What needs to be addressed, according to Krisof, is the larger issues that make people vulnerable to exploitation.

“I’d say the common thread is opportunity and that the foremost challenge we face is to spread opportunity, and that is good not only for those individuals who are now excluded from it, but for all of society,” he says.

“There are a million obstacles to opportunity — from lack of education, to poverty, to gender — but efforts to broaden that opportunity should be higher on the agenda.”

It’s a focus that has garnered criticism, at least when it comes to his view that sweatshops are a necessary evil on the road to development for poorer countries, but it’s part of a positive attitude and belief in the basic decency of human nature that he maintains despite the horrors he has seen and the stories he has told.

“I mean, in my reporting, I see some really grim things, but I also see incredible inspiration and courage and resiliency and altruism, and so, I’d say often I come back from trips and what has left the deepest impression on me is not the horrors, however real they are, but the extraordinary human capacity to do the right thing in impossible situations,” he says.

“It’s possible to come back from Darfur, or from brothels in Cambodia, actually feeling better about humanity.”

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