Vatican Address to Highlight Bitcoin Use in Slave Trade

AccessTimeIconNov 5, 2017 at 6:30 a.m. UTC
Updated Sep 13, 2021 at 7:07 a.m. UTC
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The Vatican is soon to host an address on how bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are being used in the modern-day slave trade.

To be held today at the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences (PASS) in the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church, the talk by Bank of Montreal senior manager Joseph Mari is to provide an overview of the role cryptocurrencies play in money laundering, while highlighting the potential of blockchain to help the unbanked.

The second of a three-day long event, itself part of an even larger effort led by Pope Francis to eradicate slavery entirely by 2020, the address is expected to be given to an audience including the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, and other senior church leaders.

Since the Pope was named the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in 2013, he has made slavery a top priority of the church, helping inspire the recent PASS efforts, according to an internal document provided to CoinDesk.

In addition to today’s address on blockchain, the group has held other workshops, seminars and plenary meetings culminating in the organization's "core" recommendation to resettle slaves where they are found, if they so choose, rather than repatriate them.

Speaking in an exclusive interview with CoinDesk, Mari detailed the purpose of his particular address, and the potential bigger picture role it could play in fighting against what the International Labour Organization estimates is a $150 billion
 forced labor industry.

Mari said of the audience:

"Blockchain and cryptocurrency needs to be on their radar, it needs to be recognized as something that is current, is being utilized and the quicker the learning curve is surmounted, the quicker we can start working towards the risks that are presented."

Mass education

The day's proceedings are scheduled to kick off with the celebration of mass by H.E. Msgr. Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, who is also the bishop of Argentina and chancellor of PASS.

Following chancellor Sorondo's blessing at Casina Pio IV in Vatican City, Mari is scheduled to present the most recent results of Project Protect, founded two years ago to teach AML officers how to identify patterns in their own transactions that might be evidence of human trafficking.

Specifically, Mari plans to frame early results of Project Protect that identified an increase in the use of cryptocurrencies by slave traders in Canada and other regions in light of the broader concerns being addressed at the event.

Having early on identified an increased use of cryptocurrency by slave traders , the project — which Mari calls a "zero-cost initiative" designed to bring new efficiencies to existing AML procedures — has worked with blockchain data startup Chainalysis and other financial institutions to create new methods to identify patterns in cryptocurrency transactions that might indicate a slave has been purchased, or is being advertised.

By focusing on that work, projects elsewhere that use blockchain to bring new levels of transparency to the shipping of goods and to provide individuals at risk of becoming slaves a self-sovereign means to identify themselves, Mari aims to present to the church leaders a nuanced depiction of the technology's role in human trafficking.

"For everyone in the room at that time in the Vatican, I’m just really stressing from an AML standpoint that this is something that has been going on for the better part of ten years," he said. "And its uses are diversifying across the board, in terms of both positive and negative."

Church and bank

Expanding on Mari’s mission to jumpstart the education process of the church leaders was event co-organizer and founder of the Global Alliance for Legal Aid (GALA), Jami Hubbard Solli, who added to the objectives her hope to win the support of the Vatican in recruiting banks in the fight against human trafficking.

Originally conceived as a separate event hosted by GALA to draw attention to the slave trade between Nigeria and Italy, Solli first contacted the Vatican through the president of the Pontifical Academy, Margaret Archer, whom she invited to participate as a speaker.

Instead, Solli said she was invited by Archer, to co-organize today’s joint event, formally called "Assisting Victims of Human Trafficking: Best Practices in Legal Aid, Compensation and Resettlement."

Through a diverse set of public-private partnerships scheduled to be discussed at the event, Solli believes existing anti-money laundering measures can be upgraded to more adequately account for the rapidly growing impact of cryptocurrencies on human trafficking.

"We really need partnerships between banks and prosecutors," she said. "As well as between financial institutions and civil society."

As a result of Mari’s address on blockchain and other addresses at the gathering, further Vatican recommendations are expected to be forthcoming, according to Solli.

Mari described the potential impact of the event could have on jumpstarting the fight against slavery transacted in cryptocurrency:

"The quicker that we can start coming to terms with the fact that this is something that is most likely going to be here for the foreseeable future, the quicker we can start getting towards mitigating the risk."

Vatican image via Shutterstock


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