Amnesty International volunteers tie cloth gags across their mouths during a protest in central Sydney July 30, 2008.
Will Burgess / Reuters

When the State Department’s first Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report was delivered to the House Foreign Affairs Committee in July 2001, it had the single-spaced and typewritten appearance of another drab bureaucratic report destined to gather dust. Modest looks aside, the report is designed to spark global and national action against human trafficking and modern slavery, crimes that the International Labor Organization estimates earns human traffickers $150 billion a year in profits and exploits 21 million people at any one time. And it has: Over a hundred countries have improved laws and policies on human trafficking, and change can be seen on every continent.

But this year’s decision by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and other senior State Department staff to upgrade countries with significant human rights problems, including Cuba, Malaysia, and Uzbekistan is a step in the wrong direction that could diminish the effectiveness of this vital U.S. diplomatic tool. 

The report itself is the result of landmark legislation, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA). The TVPA mandates the annual TIP Report, which assigns countries to one of three tiers based on their protections against human trafficking. Those nations in Tier 3 (the lowest tier) were supposed to be subject to sanctions. The TVPA also authorized foreign assistance programs designed to help countries improve their anti-trafficking records. This combination of pressure and assistance has been vital in improving human rights protections in various countries.

Since the TVPA was enacted 15 years ago, the system has created new avenues for partnership between governments and the private sector, and has given activists around the world a basis for challenging their government’s human rights records. In addition to the change in laws and policies, we have also seen real action: for example, the Czech Republic has created better services for survivors; the Philippines has increased prosecutions of trafficking crimes; South Africa has pursued better training to help government workers identify vulnerable people in South Africa.

A suspected Uighur from China's troubled far-western region of Xinjiang, rests on a ground inside a temporary shelter after being detained at the immigration regional headquarters near the Thailand-Malaysia border in Hat Yai, Songkla March 14, 2014.
A child, thought to be a Uighur from China's troubled far-western region of Xinjiang, rests on a ground inside a temporary shelter after being detained at the immigration regional headquarters near the Thailand-Malaysia border in Hat Yai, Songkla March 14, 2014. 
Athit Perawongmetha / Reuters
 

In short, the TIP Report has resulted in real change. Yet its impact can only be as great as its accuracy. And on that score, after this year’s report, many analysts have serious questions. Several organizations, including Humanity United (with which I work), are incredulous about the decision to move China, India, Malaysia, and Uzbekistan from Tier 3 to the Tier 2 Watch List, or maintain their same ranking, despite their deterioration in actions. These organizations suspect the State Department of letting other political and foreign policy interests trump human rights concerns: better rankings have been proffered for the sake of better trade and commerce. 

Such concerns are well founded. Anyone who follows the State Department’s annual Country Reports on Human Rights would know that regional bureaus clash with the Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor about how specific issues are described, and about what conclusions are rendered. Questions on how to characterize a country’s actions, or whether a particular case was documented enough to be included in the report, are often debated intensely. However, such disputes pale in comparison with the combat waged over the TIP Report. 

Unlike the State Department’s human rights reports, which are drafted by individual embassies abroad, each country’s TIP report is created by experts after a year’s worth of research. Each country’s embassy is then able to comment on the report. The draft narrative and rankings are then subject to review, comment, and dispute resolution between the regional bureaus, the TIP office, and eventually, the Secretary of State’s office, often with the involvement of the Deputy Secretary of State. Undoubtedly, some rankings are heavily negotiated, and sometimes the TIP office is dissatisfied with the final product. But, in general, the TIP office appears to have prevailed as many times as it has not. Indeed, in recent years, the TIP office has done remarkably well: In 2013, it got China, Russia, and Uzbekistan downgraded despite their political importance to other offices in Washington. In 2014, Malaysia and Thailand were downgraded. Both reports were under the stewardship of Secretary of State John Kerry and Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, and many praised their decisions.

Protesters march at a rally organised by pro-democracy group "Bersih" (Clean) in Malaysia's capital city of Kuala Lumpur, August 29, 2015.
Protesters march at a rally organised by pro-democracy group "Bersih" (Clean) in Malaysia's capital city of Kuala Lumpur, August 29, 2015.
Olivia Harris / Reuters
 This year’s report represents a real departure from the historical norm. Take Malaysia, which was upgraded from Tier 3, where it was subject to sanctions, to the Tier 2 Watch List, where the threat of sanctions is removed and is one step before full Tier 2 recognition, where it gets credit for taking significant action against human trafficking. There is a general consensus among international and local civil society organizations that this upgrade was unwarranted. The labor rights monitoring organization Verité estimates that up to one-third of all workers in the Malaysian electronics industry are subject to forced labor. Another expert estimates that over one-third of Malaysia’s four million foreign workers are either trafficked into the country or are otherwise forced to work. As the TIP report even indicates, Malaysia may have had a slight increase in prosecutions for trafficking crimes, but it only had three criminal convictions, a decline from nine in 2013. Progress on providing victims assistance was limited to a pilot program that had a total of four participants. And yet, despite the lack of progress, Malaysia received an upgrade. So what changed? 

Kerry’s assertions to the contrary aside, credible reports from Reuters citing whistleblowers from within the State Department suggest that, for Malaysia, the upgrade to the Tier 2 Watch List had everything to do with the Trans-Pacific Partnership. When the bill authorizing Trade Promotion Authority passed, it contained a section authored by New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez that ruled that any trade agreement that included a country on Tier 3 of the TIP Report would not be eligible for Fast-Track status. Given the centrality of Malaysia to the TPP, it is not hard to see why it might have been bumped up on the list.

Other factors may have also played a role in Malaysia’s upgrade, and those of other countries. Secretary Kerry has been heavily engaged elsewhere; Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken and Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights Sarah Sewall are new to the process. Moreover, there has been significant turnover in the TIP office report staff. And perhaps most importantly, there has been no presidential appointee heading up the TIP office itself. Ambassador-at-Large Lou CdeBaca stepped down in November 2014. The administration did not name a new nominee (Susan Coppedge, an assistant U.S. attorney from Atlanta) until this past July. And so, during the period in which the TIP office goes through its annual and often bruising negotiations with U.S. embassies and regional bureaus prior to the release of the report, there was no official with a presidential warrant to lead the TIP office. This person would have been the one to make a convincing case as to why certain countries deserved their placement, fighting against the headwinds from other sections of the department. Perhaps it isn’t surprising then, that the TIP office lost out on its opinion on nearly all of contested countries this year. Even bipartisan letters from 160 members of the House of Representatives and 19 senators, expressing concern about news reports that Malaysia would be upgraded, were ignored.

Protesters take photos in front of police barricades ahead of a rally organised by pro-democracy group "Bersih" (Clean) in Malaysia's capital city of Kuala Lumpur, August 29, 2015. 
Will Burgess / Reuters

Unfortunately, the TIP office’s losses may end up being the United States’. After the release of the report, Senator Bob Corker (R, Tenn.) summoned the State Department to explain itself in a hearing before the Foreign Relations Committee. The department sent Sewall, who read unconvincingly from tepid talking points. Corker called her responses “lacking in substance” and threatened to subpoena State Department documents about the ranking process; at one point Senator Ben Cardin (D, Md.) wondered aloud if Congress should get direct oversight over the decision to elevate countries from Tier 3. On August 13, Senator Marco Rubio (R, Fla.) sent a letter requesting all drafts of the Cuba narrative of the TIP Report so that he could see the role of political meddling in the report process.

A press report from Foreign Policy suggests that, in response, Secretary Kerry called a department meeting and threatened to fire anyone who leaked information. Rather than circle the wagons, it is critical that the State Department’s senior staff and regional bureaus learn from this moment. The rankings and subsequent squabbling have weakened U.S. leadership on combatting human trafficking. In Thailand, the country’s leading newspaper called the report “a sham” if Malaysia could be upgraded while Thailand remained at Tier 3. Even the former State Department official responsible for compiling the TIP Report said it takes only one year like this one to undermine its credibility.

The TIP Report has resulted in real change. Yet its impact can only be as great as its accuracy.
There is a chance to make things right. The State Department and embassies around the world will have to increase their diplomacy and outreach to governments that are at risk for demotion or are currently residing at the lowest tiers. They need to show that the United States is serious about fighting human trafficking by providing adequate program funding to assist in strengthening countries’ weak spots while sending a strong message to those countries upgraded this year that they need to make further progress. Increased attention and diplomacy along these lines, particularly in countries that have been given unwarranted upgrades or were held at the previous year’s ranking despite flagging efforts, could have a real impact on millions of people. Kerry’s personal diplomacy in Malaysia earlier this month is a good start, but it must be sustained and carried over to other countries.

Congress has a role to play as well. The Senate must move quickly in September to confirm Coppedge as the new ambassador to the Department of State’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. There is a natural tendency to hold up such appointments in these cases, but this would only undermine efforts to resuscitate the TIP report’s integrity.

Moreover, although a massive legislative overhaul of the TVPA may be premature, Congress should clarify the existing language in the TVPA that says that a country may not be elevated from the watch list to Tier 2 simply for making commitments. In her testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sewall claimed that Malaysia and others had made commitments to address the issue and thus earned or maintained their place on the watch list. Having helped author that provision, the intention of the language was not to provide a basis for a country to remain on the watch list. Rather it was meant to be a warning to the State Department that commitments alone are not enough to merit an upgrade. Congress may have to clarify that intention lest the clause be used for yet more unjustified upgrades. 

It may take years to undo the damage caused by this year’s TIP report. And yet, the integrity of the report and, indeed, the State Department will be rebuilt in time. That drab-looking report that came across desks 14 years ago had power. The sleek, in-depth document that now comes out every summer will continue to influence friends and rivals alike. But senior State Department officials and Congress need to stand up for it and for continued U.S. leadership on combatting trafficking. It is crucial for governments, it is crucial for victims and survivors, and it is critical for those of us who believe that human rights policies and trade politics can be wielded together for the betterment of all.

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  • DAVID ABRAMOWITZ is Vice President for Policy and Government Relations at Humanity United, a U.S.-based foundation dedicated to building peace and advancing human freedom. Prior to joining Humanity United, he served as Chief Counsel to the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
  • More By David Abramowitz