State Department Faces Backlash Over ‘Politicized’ Trafficking Report

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On July 27, the State Department released its 2015 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, an annual publication that rates 188 countries on their efforts to combat forms of human trafficking such as prostitution and forced labor.

While the report is an important tool in the fight against what has been described as modern-day slavery, it generates little excitement outside policy circles and the foreign governments who are named and shamed in the report’s dry language.

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Photo: U.S. State Department
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry chairs the annual meeting of the President's Interagency Task Force to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons at the White House on April 8, 2014.

But this year, the bureaucratic rite of passage sparked an unusually fierce backlash. Although TIP has been a respected, if imperfect, resource for politicians and human rights advocates, this year’s rankings provoked a wave of outrage that is unprecedented in the report’s 13-year history.

Most of the uproar was in response to the State Department’s promotion of two countries from Tier 3, the lowest possible category, to the Tier 2 Watch List in spite of scant evidence of improvement. One is Malaysia, a habitual trafficking offender whose efforts to curb smuggling and labor violations over the past year have been described as half-hearted at best. The July report also gave Cuba a boost in the rankings despite its continuing status as a hotbed for labor trafficking. Overall, the 2015 TIP report upgraded a total of 18 countries — among them Saudi Arabia and Kenya — and downgraded 18 others, including Egypt and South Sudan.

A Reuters investigation alleged that the seemingly unwarranted upgrades for Malaysia and Cuba were the byproduct of political pressure at the top echelons of the State Department. Malaysia is one of 12 nations in the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks, and its former Tier 3 status could have been a major roadblock to the sweeping trade pact. That’s because legislation passed earlier this year granting President Obama so-called fast-track authority included a clause specifically barring Tier 3 trafficking countries from participating in TPP talks.

Meanwhile, Cuba’s jump was widely seen as a reward for the communist island’s recent diplomatic rapprochement with Washington after over 50 years of Cold War estrangement.

The Reuters article, based on interviews with more than a dozen sources, says that politics trumped autonomy as “the government office set up to independently grade global efforts to fight human trafficking was repeatedly overruled by senior American diplomats and pressured into inflating assessments of 14 strategically important countries.”

The State Department has denied that its senior political staff interfered with the report’s conclusions, but it’s clear the accusations ruffled some feathers. Foreign Policy’s John Hudson reported that Secretary of State John Kerry scolded staff for a series of high-profile leaks, including the Reuters report.

Despite State’s insistence that the report’s findings weren’t politically motivated, trafficking experts remain unconvinced.

“The elevation of Cuba and particularly Malaysia on their own merits is far-fetched,” Freedom House President Mark Lagon, a former U.S. ambassador-at-large to combat trafficking in persons, told The Diplomat. “In Cuba, forced labor is still ignored, and the assessment that there has been an improvement in government efforts to combat sex trafficking obscures the reality of a rollicking commercial sex industry, promoted for sex tourists.”

Lagon also outlined a host of unfulfilled initiatives in Malaysia’s anti-trafficking agenda, particularly the need to amend domestic laws, drastically increase convictions, end the detention of victims and outlaw passport confiscation. “Elevation from Tier 3 doesn’t fit this sobering list of problems,” Lagon told us.

At a minimum, the controversy has shed light on a seldom-noticed but critical tool in Washington’s arsenal to combat the global scourge of human trafficking, an industry that’s estimated to rake in $150 billion a year and ensnares tens of millions of people — from fishermen in Southeast Asia to young girls in Central Europe to child soldiers in Africa. It also raises important questions about the effectiveness and integrity of TIP as a public shaming device, as well as the consequences of mixing politics with diplomacy.

Inside the Trafficking Report

The TIP report is an evaluation published once a year by the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, a State Department agency created in 2001 under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), a landmark piece of legislation that recognized the far-reaching global phenomenon of human exploitation.

The most comprehensive resource of its kind, the report assesses the compliance of individual countries under three main categories. Prosecution standards require governments to criminalize human trafficking in their domestic laws, prosecute traffickers frequently and harshly, and cooperate with other nations in their investigations of suspected traffickers.

In addition, the TVPA legislation outlines a set of prevention standards to outlaw employment and recruiting practices that may lead to forced labor, such as confiscating migrant workers’ passports or charging excessive transportation fees. Finally, TVPA protection standards require governments to aid trafficking victims by funding shelters, offering witness protection services and repatriating rescued victims.

Countries are then sorted into four tiers. Those in Tier 1 are deemed to have fully complied with the standards, while countries in Tier 2 have not yet complied but have made significant strides over the past year. Countries in Tier 3 are home to the worst offenders.

Then there’s the Tier 2 “Watch List,” a fourth category between Tiers 2 and 3 reserved for countries that still have a large or increasing number of trafficking victims despite efforts to combat the problem, and that either fail to provide evidence of improvements over the past year or have pledged to take additional steps in the coming year.

The criteria can be technical and opaque, but the overarching goal is to prioritize and put a face on an issue that just a decade ago largely flew under the radar.

[W]e want to bring to the public’s attention the full nature and scope of a $150 billion illicit trafficking industry,” Secretary of State Kerry said at the report’s July launch. “And it is an industry. Pick up today’s New York Times front-page story about a young Cambodian boy promised a construction job in Thailand, goes across the border, finds himself held by armed men and ultimately is pressed into service on the seas — three years at sea, shackled by his neck to the boat so that he can’t escape and take off when they’re around other boats. If that isn’t slavery and imprisonment, I don’t know what is.”

Naming and Shaming

Although the State Department does mandate some U.S. financial sanctions against Tier 3 countries — including restrictions on non-trade or humanitarian aid — the report’s main source of influence is publicly calling out other countries on their trafficking track records.

Naming and shaming has become an increasingly popular form of what Joseph Nye famously termed the soft power approach to diplomacy, which emphasizes persuasion and pressure over coercion and force. Even when the rankings don’t entail tangible penalties, foreign governments often take umbrage at being scolded by Washington, lodging diplomatic protests in some cases or retaliating by lashing out at their U.S. counterparts.

“Countries dislike being known for failing to fight appalling violations of human rights and loathe being grouped with other low performers,” said Judith Kelley of Duke University in a recent op-ed with Freedom House’s Lagon. “The reporting and tier placement help TIP and embassies around the world engage local officials in dialogues about how to improve. It creates leverage.”

In a study that she co-authored with Harvard University professor Beth Simmons in January, Kelley found that countries included in the TIP report are significantly more likely than other countries to criminalize trafficking in their domestic laws after being placed in a low tier or being downgraded.

A plethora of anti-trafficking success stories over the past 13 years since TIP’s creation lend credence to these findings. Armenia’s Tier 3 placement in 2002, the first year in which the TIP report was published, motivated Armenian officials to tighten anti-trafficking laws and boost funding for NGO-run trafficking shelters. These efforts helped Armenia crack into the Tier 1 category for the first time in 2013, where it remains today.

Similarly, the Philippines bounced back to its current Tier 2 placement after being put on the Watch List a few years ago by passing more stringent anti-trafficking laws and implementing a new trial system to clear the country’s large backlog of untried trafficking cases.

Thailand, which was demoted to Tier 3 in 2014 due to the country’s notorious fishing industry, has lobbied U.S. officials against its ranking but also taken action to improve it. Just days before the release of the 2015 TIP report, Thai officials arrested and charged over 100 individuals suspected of involvement in the smuggling of Rohingya Muslim refugees from neighboring Myanmar, including a top-ranking Thai military officer, in one of the biggest government crackdowns in recent history. Authorities also removed 50 police officers from their posts for neglecting their duties.

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Photo: "Displaced Rohingya people in Rakhine State (8280610831)" by Foreign and Commonwealth Office / OGL via Commons
Displaced Rohingya people sit under a tree in Myanmar's Rakhine state. Rohingya Muslim refugees from Myanmar are frequently trafficked through nations such as Thailand and Malaysia.

In spite of these victories, there are limits to the report’s effectiveness. Kelley and Simmons’s research shows that countries with repressive regimes are more resistant to embarrassment, presumably because they don’t have great reputations to begin with or they lack democratic channels through which civil society groups can lobby for change. Public shaming is also less effective in countries that have a high degree of corruption and weak rule of law.

Efforts to prosecute traffickers in the United Arab Emirates, for instance, allegedly led to worse conditions for sex workers, who can be victimized twice at the hands of corrupt, untrained police officers. “Addressing human trafficking according to U.S. anti-trafficking standards requires an increase in the numbers of arrests and raids of women in the sex industry,” Pardis Mahdavi, an associate professor at Pomona College and vocal critic of the TIP rankings, wrote in a Huffington Post piece. “Far from helping these women, raids and arrests feel more abusive to many sex workers in Dubai, who noted that the bulk of their abuse comes from untrained law enforcement officials during raid and rescue efforts.”

Politics vs. Human Rights

Another major shortcoming of the TIP report — and perhaps the most damaging — is its perceived political whitewashing. The subjective nature of TIP assessments and lack of transparency surrounding the internal ranking process have led many critics to question the impartiality of the report’s findings. “Country rankings align more closely with who the U.S. ranks as friend or foe than actual trafficking problems,” said Mahdavi, arguing that the report tends to have a bias against Islamic countries.

Following the release of the 2015 TIP report, many U.S. lawmakers have echoed some of Mahdavi’s concerns. “Upgrades for Malaysia and Cuba are a clear politicization of the report, and a stamp of approval for countries who have failed to take the basic actions to merit this upgrade,” Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said in a July press release, noting that State Department officials have “elevated politics over the most basic principles of human rights.”

“Giving countries with clear evidence of human rights violations, like Malaysia, a front-row seat to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership is unconscionable,” added Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).

Menendez and Sherrod were among 178 members of Congress who unsuccessfully petitioned Kerry earlier this summer to keep Malaysia on the Tier 3 list.

Undersecretary of State Sarah Sewall, a main overseer of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, categorically denied allegations of special treatment in a press briefing the day of the report’s release. When asked about specific anti-trafficking efforts undertaken by Cuba in the past year, Sewall pointed to Havana’s increased sex trafficking prosecutions and future commitments as justification for its upgrade, although she conceded that labor trafficking remains a serious problem. Similarly, the 2015 TIP report cited increased prosecution and improvements to witness protection programs as reasons for Malaysia’s promotion.

Sewall also reminded reporters that the purpose of TIP is to evaluate government efforts to combat trafficking, not necessarily rate actual conditions on the ground. “A Tier 2 Watch List ranking does not mean that a country is free from human trafficking,” she said.

Critics remain skeptical that the report hasn’t been watered down so as not to offend key U.S. allies. For some, the backpedaling on Malaysia and Cuba despite expert recommendations to the contrary was nothing new. Experts have noted that other politically or economically relevant countries like China, India, and Mexico have been receiving inflated placements for years.

Part of the problem is the often-political nature of the State Department’s internal decision-making meat-grinder. Although initial TIP assessments are made by independent human rights analysts, senior diplomats and politicians within the department have the power to challenge the experts’ conclusions, successfully overriding them in almost half of all disputed cases. This year, however, the independent analysts’ won only three disputes.

The complete step-by-step process, as Freedom House’s Lagon described it, clearly shows the influence wielded by political interests. Analysts within State’s trafficking office begin the process by proposing tentative rankings and country narratives based on government and NGO data gathered from embassies around the world. Next, regional bureaus that disagree with a particular ranking may request meetings with the trafficking office to discuss possible compromises, and may also nitpick at the language used in the accompanying narrative. Each year, a handful of disputed cases go as high as the secretary of state, before receiving a final grade.

In many cases, when a regional bureau successfully challenges a proposed ranking, the trafficking office is compelled to promote the country but in return may be given greater leeway in writing the country’s narrative. This often results in a “gap between the ranking and the text,” Lagon explained.

Long-Term Repercussions

While it may be politically convenient to soften rankings for strategically important countries, human rights expert warn that such appeasement may harm American interests in the long run. Indeed, former State Department officials have said that the preferential treatment given to Malaysia and Cuba this year could reverse all of the progress in global anti-trafficking efforts that the TIP report has brought about since its inception.

“It only takes one year of this kind of really deleterious political effect to kill [the report’s] credibility,” Mark Taylor, former senior coordinator for reports and political affairs, told Jason Szep and Matt Spetalnick of Reuters.

Other diplomats, though, disagree with the fundamental premise that calling countries out will alter their calculus. Rather, they argue that dialogue and engaging repressive regimes, rather than offending them, offer the best hope for eventually opening them up to change.

But Republicans have seized on the allegations of political bias in this year’s TIP, turning the controversy into a convenient political cudgel with which to bash President Obama’s foreign policy agenda.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a 2016 White House contender and outspoken critic of Obama’s Cuba policy, accused the president of sacrificing principles for political expediency — and tarnishing TIP’s reputation in the process.

“President Obama and his administration have set a dangerous precedent with this trafficking report that could lead countries to believe they can negotiate their way out of having their human trafficking abuses highlighted,” Rubio wrote in an August letter urging Kerry to reconsider Cuba’s upgrade. “This is a great disservice to the millions of people who have been victimized or are vulnerable to human traffickers.”

But given that this year’s rankings are hardly the first to elicit controversy, Lagon expressed optimism that the 2015 report may not be as damaging to TIP’s long-term integrity as some have suggested. “The report has always represented a balance between the views of trafficking specialists from the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking on the one hand, and embassy and regional bureau diplomats accounting for broader factors on the other,” said Lagon, who formerly headed the anti-trafficking nonprofit Polaris. “It remains very credible, reflecting a well-founded assessment in the vast majority of cases.”

According to Lagon, however, finding strong leadership to head the trafficking office in the wake of former Ambassador-at-Large Luis CdeBaca’s departure last November may be crucial to maintaining TIP’s credibility. “It appears that the absence of a confirmed ambassador heading the office may have contributed to politically motivated placements for Malaysia and Cuba,” Lagon said. “The lack of leadership in sustaining internal debates to the highest levels of the department may lead to more rankings that are not based on considerations of trafficking alone.”


About the Author

Karin Sun is a freelance writer in Maryland.

Last Edited on October 1, 2015