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Human Trade-Offs

How Washington Put Economics Ahead of Human Rights

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

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