High-ranking Obama administration officials pressured State Department human rights experts to gloss over slavery and other human rights violations in countries with which the United States is seeking to enter lucrative trade and strategic agreements.
Despite President Barack Obama’s claim in a high-profile 2012 speech that human trafficking is “one of the greatest human rights causes of our time,” his administration has cast serious doubts about its commitment to fighting modern-day slavery by overruling its own human rights experts in order to upgrade US ratings of some of the world’s worst trafficking violators in service of American strategic and economic interests.
Reuters reports State Department experts have been asserting that human trafficking conditions have not improved in Malaysia or Cuba, and had deteriorated in China, but that senior political staff overruled their findings and upgraded Malaysia, Cuba and Saudi Arabia in its annual global slavery report. Instead of ranking in ‘Tier 3,’ or the world’s worst trafficking violators—a category which includes North Korea, Syria and Zimbabwe, the upgraded countries are now classified as ‘Tier 2,’ or “improving” nations.
While the US upgrade is widely viewed as a move 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.”
All of these problems persist in 2015, and the report notes there were “only three trafficking convictions” last year, none of them for sex slavery. The improved ranking also comes the same year as Malaysian authorities discovered dozens of mass graves in and near people-smuggling camps containing the remains of migrants, mostly Bangladeshi and Burmese Rohingya, who were fleeing ethnic cleansing and economic despair in their homelands.
But 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, which is also supported by Republicans and leading corporate interests but staunchly opposed by labor, environmental and other progressive activists, 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 perceived expansion in the South China Sea. The TPP is a central component of Obama’s ‘Asian pivot’ strategy.
Human trafficking and slavery are also rampant in Saudi Arabia, where the 2014 State Department trafficking report cited the enslavement of laborers from desperately poor Asian and African nations, “forced prostitution,” and the kidnapping of domestic workers to serve as sex slaves for wealthy men. The 2014 report found Saudi government efforts to fight trafficking “declined,” and although the 2015 report mentions some minor improvements, all of the grave human rights violations from the previous year’s report remained.
But Saudi Arabia is a major source of oil imported into the United States and is an important strategic partner in the fight against Islamist militancy, despite the fact that members of the Saudi royal family and others in elite Saudi society provide substantial financial and other support for Islamist terrorism. The Obama administration is especially keen to mend relations with the wealthy kingdom in the wake of the recent nuclear deal with Iran, which is hugely unpopular in Arab nations.
In Cuba, this year’s State Department report cites persistent child sex trafficking in service of international sex tourism, as well as the alleged trafficking of some doctors and medical professionals abroad, but praises “significant efforts” to combat slavery as justification for the ‘Tier 2’ upgrade. President Obama has made rapprochement with Cuba one of the cornerstones of his foreign policy agenda as he seeks to close one of the final chapters of the Cold War and normalize relations with a neighbor that has suffered tremendously from more than a half century of US policies and actions aimed at toppling the island nation’s communist regime.
According to Reuters, the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (J/TIP), a US government agency established to independently rate countries’ human trafficking records, was repeatedly overruled by senior administration officials and pressured into inflating the ratings of 14 strategically important nations. J/TIP recommended rating China, Cuba, Malaysia, Thailand and Uzbekistan as ‘Tier 3’ nations but of these, only Thailand was actually ranked in the bottom tier.
Uzbekistan, where longtime brutal dictator Islam Karimov has been known to boil his political opponents alive, is an ally in the US-led war against terrorism, and American energy companies have long sought to construct potentially lucrative pipeline projects across the oil- and natural gas-rich Central Asian nation.
J/TIP disagreed with US diplomatic bureaus on trafficking ratings for 17 countries, but its recommendations were followed in only three cases, suggesting significant intervention by higher administration officials. Typically, J/TIP’s recommendations are accepted more than half of the time.
“Certainly we have never seen that kind of an outcome,” one US official with direct knowledge of J/TIP’s work told Reuters of this year’s dispute.
The decision to upgrade Malaysia’s trafficking rating sparked outrage in Congress, where 160 members of the House of Representatives and 18 senators wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry to urge him to keep Malaysia a ‘Tier 3’ nation. Some members of Congress, led by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), even threatened to convene hearings to determine whether the Malaysia upgrade was politically motivated.
“The administration has turned its back on the victims of trafficking, turned a blind eye to the facts, and ignored the calls from Congress, leading human rights advocates, and Malaysian government officials to preserve the integrity of this important report,” Menendez said, expressing his “profound disappointment” that the Obama administration “elevated politics over the most basic principles of human rights.”
But Kerry insisted in the foreword to this year’s trafficking report that the US “places special emphasis on human trafficking in the global marketplace” and that “this is no time for complacency” in combating slavery, and the State Department is denying that its annual trafficking report is politicized.
”As is always the case, final decisions are reached only after rigorous analysis and discussion between the TIP office, relevant regional bureaus and senior State Department leaders,” a State Department spokesperson told the Huffington Post.
Critics were quick to note the hypocrisy of a nation that claims to champion freedom supporting some of the world’s most brutal dictatorships and turning a blind eye toward slavery in pursuit of self-serving strategic and economic objectives. Human rights advocates expressed their disappointment and disapproval at the trafficking upgrades.
Sarah Margon, director of the Washington office of Human Rights Watch, told Bloomberg Business that Malaysia’s record “over the past year is far from sufficient to justify this upgrade, which is also a real blow to the credibility” of the US report.
President Obama’s at least tacit approval of slavery and child soldiers—he has repeatedly issued waivers from the Bush-era Child Soldiers Prevention Act, allowing African and Middle Eastern nations which use children in their armed forces to receive US military aid—have cast dark shadows over his administration’s human rights record and have contradicted some of his own lofty pronouncements condemning some of the very same egregious abuses his administration has chosen to ignore when it suits America’s strategic and economic interests.