Originally published at Digital Journal

Republished by Sen. Bob Menendez

Wayback Machine link

The Obama administration is set to remove Malaysia from its list of the world’s worst human trafficking offenders despite the existence of pervasive forced labor and sex slavery in the Southeast Asian nation.

Reuters reports the US will upgrade Malaysia from the lowest tier on its list of the world’s worst countries for human trafficking, a move meant to facilitate Malaysia’s inclusion in the highly controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal.

Just last year, the State Department downgraded Malaysia from ‘Tier 2’ to ‘Tier 3’ in its annual “Trafficking in Persons” report, calling it a “destination, source and transit country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labor and women and children subjected to sex trafficking.” Malaysia has an estimated 2 million undocumented migrant workers and according to the State Department, “a significant number of young foreign women” are “coerced into the sex trade,” with many “forced into prostitution” against their will, often by “large organized crime syndicates.”

The other ‘Tier 3’ nations are North Korea, Syria and Zimbabwe.

Explaining its decision to downgrade Malaysia to ‘Tier 3’ in 2014, the State Department report states that the Malaysian government is “deemed not to be making significant efforts to comply with the minimum standards” to combat slavery and trafficking.

The current upgrade baffles many international human rights observers, especially in light of the recent discovery of dozens of mass graves in people-smuggling camps in northern Malaysia near the Thai border. The graves contained the remains of mostly Bangladeshi and Burmese Rohingya migrants who were fleeing ethnic cleansing and economic despair in their homelands. Many of the victims were beaten, tortured and raped before being murdered.

While Malaysia has taken some steps to improve conditions for human trafficking victims, critics counter the measures are not nearly enough to stem the rampant slavery, exploitation and impunity occurring there. Still, the Obama administration, which has proved its willingness to accept human rights violations including the use of child soldiers when such crimes serve perceived US national interests, values passage of the TPP so much that it is apparently ready to overlook slavery in order to secure Malaysia’s inclusion.

“If true, this manipulation of Malaysia’s ranking in the State Department’s 2015 Trafficking in Persons report would be a perversion of the trafficking list and undermine both the integrity of this important report as well as the very difficult task of confronting states about human trafficking,” Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), who has authored legislation effectively banning the US from entering into trade deals with ‘Tier 3’ violators, said in a statement. “The deplorable human trafficking crisis in Malaysia merits a global cry for action and justice, not an attempt to sweep it under the rug for political expediency.”

But the Obama administration and Republican leaders in Congress have been trying to dilute Menendez’s proposed limits, arguing that the US is unable to press for improved labor conditions in Malaysia until after the country is included in the TPP. Human rights advocates are livid.

“It’s simply incomprehensible to us… why anyone could be against [Menendez’s] amendment,” John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, told the Huffington Post. “These are countries whose governments are often complicit in human trafficking.”

“We believe that upholding human rights and enforceable standards to eradicate human slavery should be at the center of any multilateral trade negotiation, in accordance with each of our religious and moral teachings,” more than a dozen religious organizations wrote in a letter to Obama and congressional leaders. “We worry that the TPP does not uphold these values.”

Why is the Obama administration seemingly willing to excuse slavery in order to facilitate Malaysia’s inclusion in the TPP? Malaysia partially controls the Strait of Malacca, a critical shipping lane for the bulk of Middle Eastern oil going to China. The US Navy currently dominates the strait, and the Obama administration has touted the TPP as a way of countering and containing the rise of China as a global economic and military superpower. Including Malaysia in the pact would increase US leverage in the region, as well as bolster Washington’s ability to pressure and even punish Beijing for activities like its expansion in the South China Sea.

Malaysia isn’t the only potential PTT member that has come under fire for serious human rights violations. Neighboring Brunei, one of the four original PTT signatories, has also been blasted for its recently-approved Islamic penal code, which punishes the ‘crime’ of homosexuality with death by stoning and prescribes harsh punishments for other offenses including adultery and insulting Islam. The communist government of Vietnam, which also wants into the TPP, has been criticized for its political oppression.

The TPP aims to link markets in a dozen Pacific rim nations encompassing some 40 percent of the world’s economy. The agreement is a critical element of Obama’s neoliberal trade agenda and Asian pivot strategy. But opponents have blasted the TPP as one of the worst trade deals in history. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, summed up opposition to the TPP:

The Trans-Pacific Partnership is a disastrous trade agreement designed to protect the interests of the largest multi-national corporations at the expense of workers, consumers, the environment and the foundations of American democracy. It will also negatively impact some of the poorest people in the world.

The TPP is a treaty that has been written behind closed doors by the corporate world. Incredibly, while Wall Street, the pharmaceutical industry and major media companies have full knowledge as to what is in this treaty, the American people and members of Congress do not. They have been locked out of the process.

“When giant corporations see the TPP and the American people don’t, we all lose,” concurred Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), another leading TPP opponent.

But Obama and congressional Republicans insist the deal will be good for everyday Americans. A generation ago, President Bill Clinton made similar claims about the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which united the US, Canada and Mexico in a free trade zone. But according to the Economic Policy Institute, a progressive think-tank, NAFTA has cost as many as 1 million American jobs.

“The TPP would expand the NAFTA ‘trade’ pact model that has contributed to massive US trade deficits and job loss, downward pressure on wages, unprecedented levels of inequality, lagging exports, new floods of agricultural imports, and the disappearance of family farms,” the consumer advocacy think-tank Public Citizen asserted on its website. “These impacts have been felt across all 50 US states.”

But Obama has repeatedly rejected comparisons between the two trade deals.

“The fact of the matter is that TPP will end up being the most progressive trade agreement in our history,” the president said in April, adding that the pact contains robust protections for the environment and workers.

But Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of US trade unions, told the Huffington Post that such assurances are highly dubious, since the office of general counsel for the United States Trade Representative (USTR) previously informed him that “murdering… [and] perpetuating violence against a trade unionist doesn’t violate these agreements.”

Trumka was referring to countries like Guatemala, Honduras and Colombia, the latter a PTT aspirant which signed a free trade agreement with Washington in 2006. Despite Obama administration claims that Colombia would improve labor protections as part of the deal, more than 100 Colombian labor unionists have been murdered since then.

USTR spokesman Andrew Bates countered that assassinations of union leaders have declined from more than 100 annually to less than 30 per year today.