By Brendan Krisel
Since its release in July, the State Department’s Trafficking in Persons (TiP) report— which documents countries’ efforts to combat human trafficking—has come under heavy criticism from human rights groups. These groups have accused the department of politicizing the report by using it to advance the Obama administration’s foreign policy goals. Perhaps the most controversial part of the report was the decision to upgrade Malaysia from the bottom tier, making it easier to include them in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), one of Obama’s remaining foreign policy priorities.
The three tiers of the TiP report are based on government’s compliance with the minimum standards of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act—a law passed in 2000 that established the TiP and the President’s Interagency Task Force to Monitor and Combat Trafficking. Tier one countries fully comply with standards, tier two countries do not, but are making significant efforts, and tier three countries do neither. Additionally, a tier two watch list is reserved for countries that despite significant efforts to meet minimum standards, still face serious hurdles. Brad Adams, Asia Director for Human Rights Watch, said that the merits of the TiP’s tier system is an ongoing debate among anti-trafficking groups, but that when countries are downgraded, they generally increase their efforts to combat the issue. Many countries also try to avoid placement in the bottom tier, Adams said. Countries in tier three face both international embarrassment and the withholding of non-humanitarian foreign assistance from the U.S.
In 2014, Malaysia was deservedly in the bottom tier. Malaysia is a destination country for an estimated four million exploited workers from Indonesia, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Nep al, Burma, and other Southeast Asian countries, according to the TiP report. Malaysia is also a destination country for trafficked Rohingya, the persecuted Muslim minority in Burma. The Rohingya, who are common victims of religious violence, believe leaving the country with traffickers is their last chance for survival, only to be later exploited by their smugglers, Adams said.
As a destination for trafficked workers in Southeast Asia, and a stage for the devastating Rohingya humanitarian crisis, it is surprising that Malaysia would be upgraded in the TiP report. Furthermore, Adams said that there is no evidence or data to support the fact that the Malaysian government has significantly cracked down on trafficking. “There is no way that the camps where [trafficking victims] are held and subsequently killed, or allowed to die from starvation, there’s no way the Malaysian government didn’t know about it,” Adams said.
Since there is no evidence that Malaysia is making significant strides to crack down on human trafficking, the upgrade was likely a result of pressure from State Department officials to further U.S. foreign policy. In an Aug. 3 special report by Reuters, analysts from the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons and senior State Department officials disagreed on rankings for 17 countries. Senior State Department officials “overruled” the analysts tasked with the creation of the report—all specialists in human trafficking—on 14 of the 17 countries. In the history of the report, there has never been more involvement from senior officials.
This heavy-handed approach by State Department officials comes at a time when Obama is advocating for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), one of his remaining policy priorities before leaving office in 2016. The TPP, which has been under secret negotiation for a decade, is a massive free trade treaty that comprises 12 Pacific-rim countries and about 40 percent of the world’s economy. However, in today’s economy, free trade is a misnomer, said Jim Nolt, a World Policy Institute fellow. “We’re way beyond free trade now, because basically the major U.S. negotiating points now are not free trade but monopoly,” Nolt said.
The TPP would provide poorer countries like Vietnam access to new markets for their exports, and would enforce strict intellectual property rights that would benefit large corporations in Japan and the U.S. by protecting their patents, trademarks, and copyrights abroad. The irony is “the U.S. market is already very open, so in a sense the U.S. is asking for a lot and doesn’t have much left to give,” Nolt said.
As a result, large multinational corporations based in Japan and the U.S. have the most to gain. These large corporations would see a surge in income by being able to enforce their patents and copyrights abroad. In turn the TPP would reduce the number of knock-offs in foreign markets and prevent the illegal pirating and sale of patent and copyright protected products and software.
By upgrading Malaysia in this year’s TiP report, the State Department has prioritized a trade agreement designed to benefit multinational corporations over the protection of international human rights. Adams says the upgrade was “an entirely political decision based on no evidence and entirely related to the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement.” By using the TiP to further U.S. foreign policy objectives and trade agendas, the State Department has weakened its own ability to combat human trafficking. As a tool used to pressure countries into fixing their behavior regarding standards for fighting human trafficking, the TiP must remain credible, or else countries will not have any incentive to crack down on trafficking.
“There will always be foreign policy motivations for [the State Department] to make the wrong decisions, so that’s really nothing new,” Adams said. “But what’s new is that they gave in to those incentives, and they convinced themselves they needed to do it.”
Brendan Krisel is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.
[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]