<spanlang=”EN-US”>Interview with Brian McConaghy, former RCMP Officer and founder of the Ratanak Foundation
<spanlang=”EN-US”><spanlang=”EN-US”>Brian McConaghy, Founding Director of the Ratanak Foundation, was a forensic scientist with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police for 22 years. For 19 of those years, he performed his duties with the RCMP while setting up and running the Ratanak Foundation as a volunteer. The Ratanak Foundation is a non-profit organization with a mission to be “a Christ-centered organization committed to serving the people of Cambodia by being an agent of change in Cambodia’s social, economic, and spiritual landscape.”
<spanlang=”EN-US”>As a former RCMP officer, how did you come to work for a non-governmental organization defending the freedom of victims of human trafficking?
<spanlang=”EN-US”>Well, I set it up when I was still in the RCMP. I was a forensic scientist with the RCMP for 22 years. For 19 of those years with the RCMP, I ran the Ratanak Foundation as a volunteer. I first became interested while working with international students at the University of British Columbia (UBC). I went to Asia to get a feel for what these Asian students had been through. I’m a wimp, so I started out in Hong Kong. After first visiting Cambodian refugee camps in Thailand, I witnessed the suffering in that country. I could not believe the history of this country and the trauma they have gone through. I wanted to help, but my training was in forensics and weapons, which were the last things these people needed: more weapons training. During that time, 1989, I became aware of a little girl named Ratanak who died because there was no medication available in the country to help her. Our first project was to bring medication into the country for kids such as Ratanak. I named the organization after her.
<spanlang=”EN-US”>We ended up bringing in over nine tons of medical supplies into this communist country, which was considered an international pariah state at the time. We were devoted to helping these kids, whether it was politically correct or not. At that time there was no identified child trafficking issue<spanlang=”EN-US”>—<spanlang=”EN-US”>it was a sealed country. During the civil war, we dealt with immunization programs and the building of hospitals. But with the opening of the country in the early 1990s and the coming of UN troops came the development of a substantial sex industry. I was content to avoid human trafficking problems. The problems of child sex abuse were overwhelming. I did not have the skills to tackle so grotesque a problem<spanlang=”EN-US”>—<spanlang=”EN-US”>no one does!
<spanlang=”EN-US”>In January 2004, I was still with the RCMP and I was asked to assist with an investigation of a Canadian who had been torturing Vancouver prostitutes and videoing the assaults. In those tapes, we saw little Asian kids. I had worked on numerous homicides and I thought that I had seen it all. These child sex assault videos involved children between the ages of 6–9 years of age. It was clear to me that they were in Cambodia, likely in one of two neighborhoods. In a miraculous turn of events, an NBC Dateline documentary on child sex slavery was aired six hours after I viewed the evidence videotapes. I’m a trained forensic scientist and I recognized the rooms featured in the documentary as those I had seen only hours before in the evidence tapes. In 72 hours we had the GPS locations of our crime scenes and thus a place to start looking for the victims. The images in those tapes were appalling to me; there is a visceral revulsion to such images by normal males who, I believe, are hard-wired to protect children. As I viewed these tapes, I became committed to the protection of such children. We would still be involved in medical and educational projects, but my central pillar became protecting children trafficked into the sex slave industry.
<spanlang=”EN-US”>How do the children assisted by the Ratanak Foundation become trapped in modern-day slavery?
<spanlang=”EN-US”>There are a variety of ways that children become involved in this. Poor families are known to sell one of their kids in order to have the money to feed the others. This does occur but is fairly infrequently encountered. More often a child is sold to cover gambling debts or the demands of loan sharks. It is safe to say that this issue is poverty-driven.
<spanlang=”EN-US”>There are also cultural problems in this, as the concept that human life has value was impacted by the communist revolution of the 1970s. Now, domestic violence is epidemic in that society. The Khmer Rouge regime dismantled all the pillars of society. This included the dismantling of the family. Children were frequently separated from their families and indoctrinated into a regime of violence and brutality. These children are now the parents of today. We are still reaping the results of that revolution now.
<spanlang=”EN-US”>The impact of the revolution is key to understanding the Cambodian context of today. The dehumanization that occurred in Cambodian society between 1975 and 1979 are unprecedented in modern history. The vast majority of the population has suffered through post-traumatic stress. They estimate about 50 percent of Cambodians still suffer from trauma. This lack of value in human life I was mentioning involves a twisting of a normal Asian tradition. There is a story of a grandmother who sold a child not because she wanted a television, but a better television. In traditional Asian culture, the child’s purpose is often to better the family. The children serve the parents in their old age but the children are, nonetheless, valued. In the Chinese family, the eldest son frequently is expected to take care of the parents. In the Cambodian context this tradition is twisted, the children are to serve the needs of the family but often they have no particular value. Thus they are sold off to pay family debts incurred by the parents.
<spanlang=”EN-US”>There is also kidnapping of children where sex traffickers go to the villages and simply take the children. Traffickers also trick poor families to hand over their children with promises of decent and legitimate jobs in the big city.
<spanlang=”EN-US”>There is also the international model, where the kids are trafficked across borders. They have no papers or passports, so legally they do not exist. When they are found, they are not seen as victims, but they are arrested because they are seen as illegals. This situation is changing in Cambodia as more international law enforcement involvement encourages the view that the trafficked child is in fact a victim. The other problem is the fact that ethnic Vietnamese are hated by the Cambodians. This hatred plays out in the brutality of the Cambodian brothel network.
<spanlang=”EN-US”>In this context, I am always struck by how noble the kids are. They are devoted to their families<spanlang=”EN-US”>—<spanlang=”EN-US”>even those families who would sell them. We do have examples of children choosing to sell themselves to protect the family from loan sharks, etc. Some of these kids know exactly what they are heading into and, in what I consider to be profound bravery, present themselves for sale. It is astonishing.
<spanlang=”EN-US”>What is driving the problem of human trafficking in developing countries like Cambodia?
<spanlang=”EN-US”>This is poverty-driven. You don’t find rich families doing this. This involves families desperate for money. There is also the lack of understanding and lack of respect for human rights in Cambodia.
<spanlang=”EN-US”>When such poverty comes into contact with international, including Canadian, pedophiles who have huge relative wealth, the mix is deadly. Defacto they have more power in that community than anyone else, by virtue of the fact they have some US cash in their pocket.
<spanlang=”EN-US”>Are there particular stories you can share that show the readers how serious the problem really is?
<spanlang=”EN-US”>On a societal level, there are children taken as domestic help who are tortured. When we find them, they are covered in scars. In some cases, we have to re-break bones to re-set untreated previous fractures. In one rehabilitation centre, we had a girl who when she was being fed would run away with the food and stuff it in her mouth in some secret corner while looking over her shoulder. She behaved like an animal. Such behavior was later explained when we found out that while in the brothel she was kept on the floor. She would be fed by the owners who would throw her scraps on the floor. She would then have to fight the dogs for what little she could get.
<spanlang=”EN-US”>The condition of the children we deal with is horrible, where many of them have had to service multiple adult males in a single night. This is not about love or even sexuality. It is about violence and power.
<spanlang=”EN-US”>In the brothels, they condition these children and train them. They are given beatings and electric shocks so they become able to smile while in pain<spanlang=”EN-US”>—<spanlang=”EN-US”>customers like you to smile! They dehumanize these girls so they become a human product that is marketable. The discipline is very strict; if they escape, they can be subjected to many forms of torture or even killed if recaptured. This is slavery in every sense of the word.
<spanlang=”EN-US”>The psychological damage is overwhelming.
<spanlang=”EN-US”>In Cambodia, it is not uncommon for the girls to start in the brothels at the age of 5. In Thailand, the girls generally start between 12–13 years old. So, it is an older industry. The “product” in Cambodia is much younger, between 5–6 years old. At such an early age they are not providing intercourse, only oral sex. When they do have intercourse starting at about 9 years of age, they are frequently re-sewn up so they will bleed when re-raped. In this way their “virginity” can be sold three and four times for great profit. I worked for 20 years in homicide and had no idea how low human beings could go. This is what made me leave the RCMP to work with these children.
<spanlang=”EN-US”>How is governance in developing countries part of the problem?
<spanlang=”EN-US”>All developing countries are desperate for development and money. Any commodity that is capable of being sold for foreign dollars is seen as valuable. There may be a lack of industry, shattered economy and lack of infrastructure resulting from times of war and revolution as in the case of Cambodia. Under these circumstances such countries can lose their moral compass. In some instances, the only commodity poor communities have to sell is their children.
<spanlang=”EN-US”>Cambodia has strict laws against child sex trafficking; they are just not enforced as the country lacks resources. They have many other pressing problems to deal with.
<spanlang=”EN-US”>In terms of the authorities, there are few resources to tackle these problems. The police are also part of the problem; corruption is rife in these countries. The police are also poor. I know police who will return children that have escaped from brothels. They will receive $100 for doing so and many of them have not been paid for months. This kind of money will feed their family for about a month. The police are also not able to deal effectively with the problem because they lack the training and the skill set.
<spanlang=”EN-US”>The police also realize it’s a “dog eat dog” world. As long as their children are fine, there is no problem. Culturally, there can be few changes to your lot in life, as karma is an important concept in these societies. You are, by definition, where you belong. The deeds of a past life, good or ill, dictate your present circumstances<spanlang=”EN-US”>—<spanlang=”EN-US”>there is little hope of bettering your lot. So there is little societal desire to change the lot of children in brothels. They are viewed as belonging there and the kids themselves frequently wonder what they did in a previous life to deserve this. Their hope is not in changing their lot in this life, rather they seek to accept it hoping for better circumstances in the next life. Such beliefs can be paralyzing, as there is little room for compassion or hope.
<spanlang=”EN-US”>How are international child sex offenders contributing to the problem of human trafficking in developing countries like Cambodia?
<spanlang=”EN-US”>It’s definitely not just Canada, as there are offenders from countries everywhere, such as Korea, Japan, and China. There are sex offenders from the United States, European countries, and Australia who come to these brothels.
<spanlang=”EN-US”>In terms of Canadian child sex offenders, I’m aware they’re involved. I’ve watched the videos. I’m aware of their activity. They have a fierce appetite for children. They consume them daily. Because they have the money, they can go through dozens of children daily. If they’re HIV positive, they can give it to the children. The kids have no way of knowing, but they don’t care.
<spanlang=”EN-US”>They are totally egocentric. No one else’s feelings matter. They have the wealth and the power.
<spanlang=”EN-US”>Pedophiles present classic predatory behavior, like we see in the animal kingdom. The lion will not go for the strongest wildebeest. They will wait for the slowest one, the one who is struggling, the weak one.
<spanlang=”EN-US”>These people have their legal rights defended in their home countries, their health care taken care of and they can travel halfway around the world to find weak people who do not possess the same privileges. They go where children are unprotected. They prefer this to places like Canada where the children have supportive families, social and medical services, and a law enforcement and legal system arrayed against them. It is classic predatory behavior. It’s despicable.
<spanlang=”EN-US”>Many Canadians don’t believe this is really happening as it so abhorrent. Until I had seen the videos, I didn’t fully realize it either. We are talking about doctors from Ontario and lawyers from Edmonton, “normal” people among us. It’s hard to believe, but it’s real.
<spanlang=”EN-US”>Extraterritorial criminal jurisdiction is an important factor in this issue. Comment on those issues.
<spanlang=”EN-US”>It’s absolutely wonderful. As far as I know, it is completely orthodox legally. The Canadian laws with extraterritorial reach are within international norms. Under United Nations conventions (especially those pertaining to the protection of children), there is government-to-government co-operation and agreement on these issues. Some crimes are seen to transcend geographic jurisdiction. Systematic and organized child trafficking and sexual slavery is absolutely in that category. The constitutionality of such Canadian reach has been tested and has been successful. I am proud that we, as Canadians, have joined with so many other like-minded nations as we attempt to protect children.
<spanlang=”EN-US”>I am enthusiastic about an international response to this.
<spanlang=”EN-US”>Asian governments remain a weak link. They are inclined to worry about “losing face” when their own citizens commit such crimes. Bribes can be paid and diplomatic pressure brought to bear securing a quick lease for an accused who can then be whisked off to the airport and home, thus preventing the risk of national embarrassment. While not an intended outcome, such practices do serve to protect the travelling pedophile and exacerbate the problem.
<spanlang=”EN-US”>Western countries, on the other hand, have no such sensitivities and place a value on the protection of children over and above their own pride. I celebrate this. Canadian law enforcement is not only willing, but eager to investigate and lock up those Canadians who engage in such activity whether here or abroad.
<spanlang=”EN-US”>What actions should the federal government take to confront the problem of Canadian offenders driving demand for sex trafficking abroad?
<spanlang=”EN-US”>I actually think that our current laws are adequate. The laws themselves are good. The problems are to be found on the enforcement side. Canadian police have the skills, desire, and drive but not all the resources to participate in many of these investigations. By definition, this work is expensive. It takes a lot of police resourcing. We also need to work diplomatically with governing authorities and police within these countries. We need to collect evidence that is up to the standards acceptable in Canada. So, we need a tremendous degree of co-operation with foreign police authorities who frequently do not have the skills to pursue an investigation in such a way as to be acceptable to the Canadian courts<spanlang=”EN-US”>—<spanlang=”EN-US”>that takes time, resources, and diplomatic skill.
<spanlang=”EN-US”>Also, the issue of public awareness is important. The public doesn’t know what is happening. Child pornography is at the centre of this. If guys get sucked into this stuff they will eventually feel they need to act on it. Canadian society does not want to admit the size of this problem. Police currently have the IP (internet provider) addresses of thousands of people who have viewed this material, but they lack the manpower to investigate.
<spanlang=”EN-US”>The Canadian judiciary is also a huge problem. In terms of sentencing, they are not doing anywhere near enough. Their sentencing, to date, has been, in my opinion, ludicrously lenient given the gravity of such offences. The Canadian judiciary must start to both sentence and make statements of clear condemnation in their rulings that reflect the opinion of Canadian society at large which, again in my opinion, places a very high value on the life of children.
<spanlang=”EN-US”>Look at the US, where one convicted pedophile tried in California, Capt. Michael Pepe, who bought five little girls in Cambodia, is facing up to 210 years in prison. The girls he victimized are currently in one of our rehabilitation programs. In Canada, we have someone like Donald Baker, who is serving a seven-year sentence for very similar offences. His victims are also in our recovery programs in Cambodia. Having the privilege of knowing both sets of victims brings the disparity of sentencing into sharp focus.
<spanlang=”EN-US”>Some of these people are hard-core pedophiles and display psychopathic traits regarding how they interact with people. Canadian judges are not verbalizing their sense of revulsion or their condemnation for such abuses. If we as Canadians are to have faith in our judges and their ability to protect us we need to hear from them on this issue.
<spanlang=”EN-US”>Yet there is growing concern that both judges and, on occasion, even Crown prosecutors are reluctant to view the video and photographic evidence collected by travelling pedophiles or those engaged in child pornography. It appears that such evidence may be considered so abhorrent that it is not to be viewed. Imagine a murder trial where the primary evidence is not viewed! I find such attitudes completely offensive. I, along with many other law enforcement personnel, suffer through this profoundly disturbing material. We, in short, do our jobs. I would insist that prosecutors and those who are the triers of fact must view all the material evidence in order to appropriately proceed with such cases<spanlang=”EN-US”>—<spanlang=”EN-US”>a failure to do so would exasperate me completely. The offending of sensibilities is simply not the point. We all have a job to do!
<spanlang=”EN-US”>I fully support this new bill introduced by MP Joy Smith regarding the mandatory sentencing for human trafficking. I applaud these efforts. If judges are not able or willing to protect us, Parliament should.