Senate demands hearing on suspect changes to human trafficking report
by Jae Wasson
Posted 7/30/15, 05:10 pm
Prominent senators questioned the integrity of the annual human-trafficking report, released Monday, and demanded a hearing after Obama administration officials dropped Malaysia and Cuba from the report’s blacklist.
The annual Trafficking in Persons report (TIP), published by the U.S. State Department, ranks the performance of 188 countries in fighting human trafficking. Malaysia and Cuba both ranked in Tier 3, the blacklist, in the last report. Human rights activists and even some Democratic lawmakers claim the State Department allowed the valuable report to be politicized, ignoring facts.
“Bending the standards to reward a country that accepts trade in women, children, and forced laborers is wrong,” said Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas.
When the report brings a country up to Tier 2, it means more could be done in the country to fix trafficking but officials have recognized government action toward improvement. The upgrade is a leap from Tier 3, where the United States can consider sanctions to pressure the country into making changes.
“It is generally helpful … when people continue to say no, this government needs to make improvements,” said Holly Burkhalter, from the anti-trafficking group International Justice Mission.
Malaysia recently faced intense international criticism for turning a blind eye to the trafficking of stateless Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar and Bangladesh. Investigators found dozens of graves and pens probably used as migrant cages in abandoned Malaysian jungle camps.
“Rohingya victims’ bodies are being pulled from shallow graves at the border,” said Phil Robertson, from the Asia division at Human Rights Watch. The discovery of the mass graves of these victims happened only two months beyond the reporting period for this year’s TIP report.
Robertson joined other critics in questioning the report. He said Malaysia has convicted fewer human traffickers this year than last year, in the face of more evidence of trafficking.
“How can the State Department call this ‘progress’?” he asked.
Some lawmakers suspect the State Department ignored such questions because Malaysia is one of the 12 countries finalizing negotiations this week to be included in the U.S. Trans-Pacific Partnership, the key economic plank of President Barack Obama’s Asia policy.
“The facts regarding each government’s actions in the fight against human trafficking are given almost no weight when put up against the president’s political agenda,” said Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J.
Cuba’s upgrade also raises questions, Burkhalter said. The country had been listed at Tier 3 status for 14 years. But in the few weeks of new normalized relations between U.S. and Cuba, they were brought up to Tier 2.
“It calls into question the Tier 3 ranking in the first place,” Burkhalter said. “We can’t have Tier 3 being a dumping ground for our political enemies. … TIP should be about reality.”
Burkhalter hopes the Senate hearing will help restore the report’s integrity.
“Even if governments say they don’t care, they really do,” she said. “Really bear down. … That kind of criticism by the Senate will produce a better report next year.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Jae is a Zenger House fellow