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07091 February 14, 2007
MRTI wants help pressuring Hilton Hotels to meet
Hope is that global lodging giant will help fight child sex trafficking
by Evan Silverstein
NEW YORK CITY - A Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) watchdog committee is calling on agencies and partners of the denomination to join forces with the public to demand that Hilton Hotels Corp. take steps in combating child sex trafficking spurred by the tourism industry.
The Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) committee, which monitors PC(USA)-related investments to ensure they are socially responsible and consistent with General Assembly policies, has been attempting to engage Hilton in dialogue since October.
The effort is part of an interfaith initiative to help protect thousands of children worldwide who are being sexually victimized each year through a clandestine multibillion-dollar industry known as child sex tourism - where grown men travel abroad to have sex with minors under the age of 18.
However, Hilton has not responded to a letter or several phone calls by MRTI requesting a meeting to discuss the matter, which is a subject few people want to talk about or even acknowledge.
Aggravated by the global hotel giant's unresponsiveness, MRTI unanimously approved action during a meeting here, Feb. 9-10, to solicit the support of PC(USA) agencies, committees, middle governing bodies, church members, ecumenical partners and the general public in "communicating with Hilton on the seriousness of the need to address this issue."
MRTI sent Hilton a new letter Feb. 13 outlining the committee's recent action in hopes that it will bring the corporation to the table.
If the Beverly Hills, CA-based hotel and hospitality chain fails to agree by the middle of next month to meet with MRTI representatives, then a mass letter writing campaign will be launched.
"I'm strongly convinced that our attempts at dialogue with Hilton have frustrated all of us and that it's time to express to the church that Hilton hasn't been cooperative," said MRTI chair Carol Hylkema. "Maybe by sharing that word around the church through various agencies people will take up the cause and begin to give us assistance and that eventually Hilton might respond positively."
MRTI is leading the charge to engage Hilton, along with eight Roman Catholic groups, through its work with the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR). The venture is part of a comprehensive engagement ICCR members are planning for several hotel chains, travel agencies and cruise lines.
The PC(USA)'s Board of Pensions owns stock in Hilton.
"We're taking the lead on this because stock is owned in Hilton and they're a worldwide company with hotels in countries where this is a prominent problem," said the Rev. Bill Somplatsky-Jarman, the PC(USA) staff person assigned to MRTI. "It has to be addressed globally in training of employees and figuring out ways to make sure their property is not being used for this kind of activity."
Other faith groups such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, American Baptist Churches and the Episcopal Church are organizing talks with such hospitality companies as Carnival Cruise Lines, Expedia.com, Host Hotels and Resorts Inc., and Starwood Hotel and Resorts Worldwide Inc.
The goal is to get the companies to comply with guidelines established by ECPAT (End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes).
"It clearly shows the seriousness with which the church takes the issue and that the seriousness is shared by so many around the religious community and elsewhere," Somplatsky-Jarman said. "We would hope that Hilton would see that as a sign of why they should sit down and talk with us."
ECPAT seeks, among other things, to have the industry adopt basic principles against child prostitution and trafficking, educate their employees and adopt policies and practices to prevent their properties or services from being involved in any way with child prostitution and trafficking.
Carol Smolenski, executive director of ECPAT-USA, addressed the MRTI committee about the growing problem of international child sex tourism during the meeting held at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in mid-town Manhattan.
"The code itself is very simple, it's only six steps," Smolenski said. "It was very much developed with the industry so that they would feel like they could and wanted to sign onto it. The idea is that we think the legitimate tourism industry really wants to be onboard with this. They really don't want to be seen as promoting or supporting or ignoring child sex tourism."
ECPAT-USA is a nonprofit organization established in 1991 to end the commercial sexual exploitation of children. The Brooklyn, NY-based group provides information and training to community organizations, schools, churches, international organizations and others on the issue of child sexual trafficking.
The code was initiated in April 1998 by ECPAT Sweden in cooperation with Scandinavian tour operators and the World Tourism Organization (WTO). It has been implemented worldwide by more than 150 companies in 21 countries, including tour operators, travel agencies, hotels, tourism umbrella organizations and tourism workers' unions in Europe, Asia and Latin America.
Thus far Carlson Companies, which owns the Radisson chain, has been the only major American hotel corporation taking action to inform its guests of the negative moral and legal aspects of sex tourism.
Smolenski told the committee that child sex tourism is a growing phenomenon in today's rapidly shrinking world as access to information about other countries becomes easier to obtain through such mediums as the Internet.
More than an estimated two million children are enslaved in the child sex trade, Smolenski said. Although child sex tourism mainly occurs in areas such as South East Asia and Latin America, most of the demand for child sex comes from the Western world. Reports indicate that some 25 percent of sex tourists are American males.
Smolenski said there are many myths that people use to justify child sex tourism.
Some believe that by paying a child for sex they are helping them because the money will help their family. The fact is most children never see the money because it goes to pimps and brothel owners, she said.
Many people also believe that children are less likely to be HIV positive, which makes them think it is safer to have sex with children. The truth is children are more susceptible to HIV and other STDs, especially if they are involved in the prostitution business because the have immature tissue in their bodies that tear more easily than that of adults, Smolenski told the committee.
It is also believed that child prostitution is acceptable in other countries. However, child prostitution is not acceptable in any country, she said. It is child abuse and it's illegal in all countries around the world, though laws are often not adequately policed or enforced.
Children who are prostituted rarely go on to a normal life, Smolenski said. They suffer long-term emotional, physical and social problems. Girls may have reproductive problems due to the immaturity of their bodies when they become sexually active. HIV and AIDS are also widely seen among prostituted children.
Hilton Hotels Corp. has nearly 2,800 hotels and 485,000 rooms in more than 80 countries, with 150,000 employees worldwide. It's portfolio of hotel brands including Hilton, Conrad, Doubletree, Embassy Suites Hotels, Hampton Inn, Hilton and The Waldorf-Astoria Collection.
In other meeting news, the MRTI committee received an update on events taking place in the Sudan, a region of the world of particular interest to the group in wake of the PC(USA)'s 217th General Assembly last summer in Birmingham, AL.
The Assembly instructed MRTI to explore the appropriateness of recommending to the GA that it add to its divestment list those companies profiting from the sale of armaments, helicopters, tanks, and other war material to the government of Sudan until those companies either suspend their operations in Sudan or a just and lasting peace exists for all people in Africa's largest country.
Furthermore, the Assembly voted to allow the General Assembly Council to "be authorized to act on behalf of the General Assembly on the MRTI's recommendations and to do so with all due speed." The GA won't meet again until summer 2008 in San Jose, CA.
MRTI will present a detailed report of the committee's work to the GAC this September, which may possibly include recommendations concerning the Sudan divestment issue, Somplatsky-Jarman said.
The armed conflict in the Darfur region of western Sudan has yielded massive numbers of deaths, and the United States government has described the atrocities there as genocide. Sudan's government and the pro-government Arab militias are accused of war crimes against the region's black African population.
"It was not doing a service to the people involved in the civil war to say it was Arab versus African and Muslim versus Christian," said bobbie-frances mcdonald of the PC(USA)'s Sudan Mission Network, who presented the briefing. "It's about a whole lot more than that. It's about the gum arabic. It's about weakened international boundaries, the Congo, Chad, Uganda."
The Sudan Mission Network, which consists of individuals, churches and presbyteries interested in Sudan, has been actively working to address needs there for many years.
"There are people who have nothing to eat and are going to be shot at and all they're asking for is to not be forgotten in prayer," mcdonald said. "I don't think that's too much to ask, especially when there's something that we can do like divest from foreign companies that are doing business with the government in Khartoum whose revenues do nothing to better the lives of its own people."
The PC(USA) is no stranger to the conflict in Sudan, and MRTI successfully worked to change the business practices of Talisman Energy there. The 2001 GA voted to place Talisman on its divestment list because of the company's involvement in an oil exploration and pipeline project in southern Sudan.
The Sudanese government was receiving revenues from the pipeline, which it used to repay loans it used to fund the civil war. Pressure on Talisman eventually led to it selling its interest in the project.
And other PC(USA) entities, including Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, also have played a part in assisting with the Sudan crisis.
"We treat Sudan, the government in Khartoum, very, very gingerly because they are our ally in our war against tourism," mcdonald said. "They may be our ally, but I don't think we're getting such critical information from them that we should not do what we have to do to protect the citizens in Sudan and Darfur because we're going to lose this valid ally. I think that's pushing it a little bit."
Also during the meeting, Carol Hylkema of Dearborn, MI, was re-elected chair of the MRTI committee and Bernice McIntrye of Washington, DC was re-elected vice chair. Both women will be serving their third term in their respective offices.
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