Undermining the State Department’s Trafficking Report

In this opinion piece for The Hill, ATEST partner David Abramowitz describes the consequences of prioritizing politics over human rights by upgrading Malaysia in this year’s Trafficking in Persons Report.


By David Abramowitz
Published on July 14, 2015 in The Hill Blog

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Recent press reports suggest that the State Department will recommend that Secretary John Kerry take a shameless and unprincipled stand in this year’s Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP Report) by concluding that the government of Malaysia is making significant efforts to combat human trafficking in its country. Anti-trafficking groups, including the coalition I work with, are urging Kerry to reject this unnecessary capitulation to the government of Malaysia and U.S. government regional and trade experts.

Malaysia has a serious human trafficking problem, which is why last year the State Department downgraded Malaysia to a Tier 3 country in the TIP Report, a level that includes the worst human trafficking offenders in the world. Malaysia — where we see forced labor in agriculture, construction, electronics and textile industries, as well as in domestic service in homes and women coerced into prostitution — deserves to be among them. Steps that might be considered progress have only come in recent days, months after the closure of this year’s reporting period (April 1, 2014 to March 31, 2015), and do not yet demonstrate real resolve by the Malaysian government.

The basis for this cynical and manipulative recommendation is simple: The State Department is trying to ensure that, come what may, Malaysia can stay part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a key trade agreement that is part of the White House’s legacy in the pivot to Asia. Recent fast-track trade legislation signed by the president provided that no trade agreement that includes a Tier 3 country can get fast-track consideration, effectively killing Malaysia’s participation in it. It appears that State Department regional bureaus and trade experts are overruling the trafficking concerns to make sure this doesn’t happen.

These forces seem to be taking advantage of the absence of an Ambassador-at-Large for Trafficking in Persons, a position that has been vacant for more than nine months. This vacancy leaves no dedicated senior official to fight the battles on behalf of the trafficking office — and more importantly, on behalf of victims and survivors.

Supporters for a Malaysia upgrade point to provisions in a recent Malaysian law. These provisions, for example, permit the government to provide assistance to trafficking victims, but unfortunately they leave it to the discretion of Malaysian authorities to actually do so, and there is no guarantee of funds to make such a program a reality. This is of particular concern because in Malaysia, as with many countries, the promise of already existing laws that could make a real impact on human trafficking falters because of poor or nonexistent implementation. What’s more, some press reports suggest that the State Department will discount the mass graves on the Malaysian border because they were discovered after the reporting period, but may now count these even more recent changes because it better serves their interest.

Unfortunately, prioritizing trade over trafficking will undermine the integrity of the TIP Report and will make it more difficult to free the estimated 21 million people who are suffering from human trafficking and modern slavery. And it may undermine the U.S. ability to ensure that Malaysia follows through with its commitments.

What is particularly bewildering about the State Department’s action is that it is wholly unnecessary. Several human rights groups that work to end modern slavery worked with the administration to create an exception to allow Malaysia to stay in the TPP, provided the country takes concrete actions to implement the principal recommendations in the TIP Report. This exception will likely be adopted before the end of the month, giving flexibility to the president and providing additional time for Malaysia to follow through with its commitment to, for example, actually fund new programs for victims under the new law and to pursue traffickers who confiscate documents.

Kerry has a decision to make: undermine global U.S. leadership efforts to combat human trafficking and let Malaysia off the hook, or stand up for not only thousands of victims of human trafficking in Malaysia but millions of people who suffer from modern slavery around the world. The former unprincipled capitulation will tarnish this administration’s many efforts to combat human trafficking around the world, as well as Kerry’s own reputation as a champion in the fight against human trafficking. The latter courageous truth-telling will confirm that the U.S. continues to be a champion in freeing those who are exploited by the more powerful.

The choice is simple, Mr. Secretary.

Abramowitz is the vice president for policy and government relations at Humanity United and former chief counsel to the House Foreign Affairs Committee.