Accusations that the State Department watered down its report on human trafficking for political reasons threaten to undermine the agency’s credibility and promotion of human rights, according to former department officials.
Reuters reported on Monday that senior political leaders at the State Department overruled the agency’s trafficking experts on the rankings of several countries that have failed to crack down on the modern slave trade for humans, including for forced labor and prostitution.
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While the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (J/TIP) usually prevails in more than half of its disagreements with the department’s diplomatic bureaus, trafficking analysts lost out to senior diplomats on the ratings of 14 out of 17 prominent countries, according to the Reuters investigation.
Strategically important nations such as China, Cuba, and Malaysia—all of which have been accused of sponsoring or overlooking forms of forced labor and trafficking—received inflated assessments as a result. China remained a "Tier 2" country despite J/TIP’s recommendation to downgrade it to "Tier 3," the lowest ranking. Both Cuba and Malaysia were upgraded to Tier 2 amid objections from trafficking analysts.
Jose Cardenas, a former senior State Department official in the Bush administration who specialized in Latin American relations, said in an interview that he has never observed an instance where the department was alleged to have engaged in such extensive politicization of human rights standards. There was "always a real firewall between the technical experts and the political leadership at the department," he said.
"You don’t doctor what are supposed to be objective reports in order to please that government," he said. "These reports stand or fall on their own and they do not become tools in diplomacy."
Mark Taylor, a former senior official at J/TIP from 2003 to 2013, told Reuters that "it only takes one year of this kind of really deleterious political effect to kill [the trafficking report’s] credibility."
In the case of Malaysia, a continued Tier 3 ranking might have jeopardized the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a significant trade deal involving the United States and several other Asian countries that the Obama administration views as a potential legacy achievement. Sen. Robert Menendez (D., N.J.), former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, included an amendment in the trade promotion authority law for the TPP that bars congressional review of any trade deal with a Tier 3 country.
Malaysian authorities announced in May that they had discovered dozens of graves for regional migrants who were captured by gangs of human traffickers, leading to heightened criticism of the government’s failure to address the problem. Forced labor also reportedly continues in the country’s palm oil, construction, and electronics industries.
Menendez said in a statement that if the allegations are substantiated, it will prove that "the State Department’s trafficking report has been blatantly and intentionally politicized."
"As I’ve said many times, our nation’s commitment to fighting the scourge of human trafficking should remain above politics," he said. "I know many of my Senate colleagues share my outrage and we will demand a full accounting of this process."
Menendez has previously said that State’s inspector general might need to investigate the alleged politicization of the trafficking report. Juan Pachon, a spokesman for the senator, said further actions will be determined after the Senate Foreign Relations Committee examines the report at a Thursday hearing.
Mark Toner, deputy spokesman for the State Department, defended the agency’s determinations in the Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report.
"The Department generally does not comment on internal deliberations. But I will say this: colleagues from across the Department engage in iterative, fact based deliberations on the annual trafficking in persons report," he said in a statement.
"These deliberations produce the annual country reports and inform the Secretary's decisions on tier rankings," he continued. "The Department stands behind the findings and the process of the TIP report."
Toner also said at a press briefing on Tuesday that, "ultimately it’s the TIP office that—with the input of the regional bureaus, but the TIP office that ultimately makes that designation" for countries’ trafficking records, which are finally approved by the secretary of state. However, Reuters noted in its report that top department officials, including Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken and Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, were present at meetings where the disputed ratings were finalized.
The allegations of politicizing trafficking issues raise troubling questions about the Obama administration, which has already been accused of not pressing U.S. adversaries on human rights abuses. Obama has previously said that, "our fight against human trafficking is one of the great human rights causes of our time, and the United States will continue to lead it."
This year’s TIP report notes that China, still a Tier 2 country despite trafficking analysts’ recommendation to downgrade it, failed to honor its promise to abolish the "re-education through labor" (RTL) system.
"The government converted other RTL facilities into state-sponsored drug detention or ‘custody and education’ centers, and continues to force prisoners to perform manual labor," the report said.
The report added that Chinese officials "continued to forcibly repatriate North Korean refugees" who were trafficking victims and "did not demonstrate overall increasing efforts to address anti-trafficking compared to the previous year."
In Cuba, now elevated to a Tier 2 country, there are still reports of child sex trafficking and forced prostitution. The Castro government also sends more than 51,000 workers on foreign medical missions that are heavily criticized by human rights groups.
The missions have been subject to "claims that Cuban authorities coerced participants to remain in the program, including by allegedly withholding their passports, restricting their movement, or threatening to revoke their medical licenses or retaliate against their family members in Cuba if participants leave the program."
Cardenas said it would be "foolhardy" for the Obama administration, which has pursued a rapprochement with the Castro government amid staunch opposition from some U.S. lawmakers, to attempt to ease the normalization process with Havana by neglecting its record on trafficking.
"It is going to make that opposition to what they’re trying to accomplish on Capitol Hill that much stronger," he said.
He added that compromising the trafficking report for political purposes is a "slippery slope" that could embolden governments to bargain for better grades in the future.
"If you make that calculation that you’re going to compromise on human rights in pursuit of a broader goal, than it really calls into question—what exactly is that broader goal?" he said. "It seems that human rights and democracy issues should be at the forefront of any policy."