from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Realpolitik and Human Trafficking

August 7, 2015

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The fight against trafficking in persons has been a human rights policy that works. Laws adopted largely because of pressure from religious groups, especially Evangelicals, were resisted by the usual combination of professional diplomats and realpolitik theorists. But the Trafficking Victims Protection Act was passed in 2000 and has been renewed several times since. It established an Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons in the State Department, and requires annual reports that place countries in several tiers depending on how good or bad the trafficking situation is.

This is not traditional diplomacy--but it has turned out to be a successful form of diplomacy. Why has it worked? Partly because no country, whatever its form of government and even if it is a repressive dictatorship, likes to be accused of involvement in or indifference to human trafficking. Partly because most often, those engaged in trafficking of persons are not part of the top power structure. Governments may be resistant to eliminating the kind of corruption that keeps top officials and generals rich; religious freedom may be hard to square with the prevailing religious practices or forms of repression; establishing independent judiciaries may take decades. But eliminating trafficking in persons (typically for purposes of prostitution) can be addressed by most governments quickly and effectively--if there is a will to do so--and top officials and influential private citizens will not be involved in such crimes.

I recall the case of young boys from Pakistan being trafficked to the UAE as jockeys in camel races. They were useful in this role because of their very light weight. When the Bush administration approached the UAE government about this, they responded by investigating and immediately agreeing with us that it was happening and had to be stopped. And they did stop it, sending the boys home and compensating them and their families. The UAE acted because the government did not approve of this child labor and did not want the country’s reputation stained by it.

The annual listing of countries (the report for 2015 can be found here) is a useful, effective way of pressuring governments and often shaming them to act against trafficking--but it works if and only if the State Department reports honestly. If it begins to shade the truth for political, realpolitik reasons, the entire system will collapse.

Sadly it seems this may be happening. Here is the a Reuters "Special Report" dated August 3rd:

In the weeks leading up to a critical annual U.S. report on human trafficking that publicly shames the world’s worst offenders, human rights experts at the State Department concluded that trafficking conditions hadn’t improved in Malaysia and Cuba. And in China, they found, things had grown worse.

The State Department’s senior political staff saw it differently — and they prevailed.

A Reuters examination, based on interviews with more than a dozen sources in Washington and foreign capitals, shows that 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 in this year’s Trafficking in Persons report.

In all, analysts in the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons - or J/TIP, as it’s known within the U.S. government — disagreed with U.S. diplomatic bureaus on ratings for 17 countries, the sources said. The analysts, who are specialists in assessing efforts to combat modern slavery - such as the illegal trade in humans for forced labor or prostitution - won only three of those disputes, the worst ratio in the 15-year history of the unit, according to the sources. As a result, not only Malaysia, Cuba and China, but countries such as India, Uzbekistan and Mexico, wound up with better grades than the State Department’s human-rights experts wanted to give them, the sources said.

Here’s a Washington Times report from August 6th:

Senators in both parties accused the Obama administration Thursday of putting its trade goals ahead of modern-day slavery. At a Senate Committee on Foreign Relations hearing, lawmakers threatened to subpoena State Department records on the agency’s upgrade for Malaysia on human trafficking, at a time when that nation is seeking to join President Obama’s cherished Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a massive free trade deal in the Pacific Rim.

Sen. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat, said State’s latest report on human trafficking “was under exceptional pressure to shape the rankings to meet political demands, not the facts on the ground.” Noting reports that political appointees at State interfered with staff recommendations against improving Malaysia’s ranking, Mr. Menendez said the upgrade appeared to be “the result of external pressure.” Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Corker, Tennessee Republican, said the administration’s policy “trumped any real regard for humans being trafficked.” “You sort of threw the trafficking phase under the bus to ensure that you were successful with” the TPP, Mr. Corker told Sarah Sewall, State’s undersecretary of human rights....“This is possibly the most heartless, lacking-of-substance presentation I have ever seen about a serious topic,” Mr. Corker said. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, Maryland Democrat, asked why Malaysia received an improved ranking “despite having less [criminal] convictions” for trafficking in 2014.

The annual Trafficking in Persons Report, issued July 27, upgraded Malaysia from a “Tier 3” country — the lowest ranking — to the Tier 2 “watchlist.” Congress has barred any Tier 3 country from taking part in the TPP negotiations, but Malaysia is a party to the 12-nation agreement reaching the final stages of talks. Mr. Obama considers TPP the economic centerpiece of his effort to “pivot” foreign policy toward Asia and serve as a counterweight to China’s influence.

In the House Thursday, Democratic Reps. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, Rosa L. DeLauro of Connecticut and Mark Pocan of Wisconsin asked Mr. Obama and Mr. Kerry for “clarification” of the decision involving Malaysia’s trafficking record. “We are concerned about the upgrade of Malaysia’s status to the Tier II Watch List,” the lawmakers wrote, calling the upgrade “inconsistent with findings from other reports.

Some of these calls were probably legitimately very close. And in every administration, there are struggles over what tier certain countries should be in, just as there are every year struggles between State’s Human Rights bureau and other parts of the department over the wording of the annual "Country Reports on Human Rights Practices." That’s inevitable.

But it is not inevitable that the Trafficking in Persons reports become so politicized with regard to a dozen countries. It is not inevitable that the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons be weakened and undermined. It is not inevitable that the annual reports be regarded as the equivalent of a UN speech or diplomatic plaything, rather than a blunt and honest assessment.

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act has done an enormous amount of good and Americans should be proud that we have stood for, and pushed for, an end to human trafficking. It would be tragic to see all of that diminished now. What a legacy that would be for Secretary of State Kerry, Deputy Secretary Blinken, and President Obama to leave behind.

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