State Department watered down human trafficking report
Special Report: State Department watered down human trafficking report
By Jason Szep and Matt Spetalnick
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – In the weeks leading up to a critical annual U.S.
report on human trafficking that publicly shames the world’s worst
offenders, human rights experts at the State Department concluded that
trafficking conditions hadn’t improved in Malaysia and Cuba. And in
China, they found, things had grown worse.
The State Department’s senior political staff saw it differently — and
A Reuters examination, based on interviews with more than a dozen
sources in Washington and foreign capitals, shows that the government
office set up to independently grade global efforts to fight human
trafficking was repeatedly overruled by senior American diplomats and
pressured into inflating assessments of 14 strategically important
countries in this year’s Trafficking in Persons report.
In all, analysts in the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in
Persons – or J/TIP, as it’s known within the U.S. government — disagreed
with U.S. diplomatic bureaus on ratings for 17 countries, the sources said.
The analysts, who are specialists in assessing efforts to combat modern
slavery – such as the illegal trade in humans for forced labor or
prostitution – won only three of those disputes, the worst ratio in the
15-year history of the unit, according to the sources.
As a result, not only Malaysia, Cuba and China, but countries such as
India, Uzbekistan and Mexico, wound up with better grades than the State
Department’s human-rights experts wanted to give them, the sources said.
(Graphic looking at some of the key decisions here: http://reut.rs/1gF2Wz5)
Of the three disputes J/TIP won, the most prominent was Thailand, which
has faced scrutiny over forced labor at sea and the trafficking of
Rohingya Muslims through its southern jungles. Diplomats had sought to
upgrade it to so-called “Tier 2 Watch List” status. It remains on “Tier
3” – the rating for countries with the worst human-trafficking records.
The number of rejected recommendations suggests a degree of intervention
not previously known by diplomats in a report that can lead to sanctions
and is the basis for many countries’ anti-trafficking policies. This
year, local embassies and other constituencies within the department
were able to block some of the toughest grades.
State Department officials say the ratings are not 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,” State Department spokesman
John Kirby said in response to queries by Reuters.
Still, by the time the report was released on July 27, Malaysia and Cuba
were both removed from the “Tier 3” blacklist, even though the State
Department’s own trafficking experts believed neither had made notable
improvements, according to the sources.
The Malaysian upgrade, which was highly criticized by human rights
groups, could smooth the way for an ambitious proposed U.S.-led
free-trade deal with the Southeast Asian nation and 11 other countries.
Ending Communist-ruled Cuba’s 12 years on the report’s blacklist came as
the two nations reopened embassies on each other’s soil following their
historic détente over the past eight months.
And for China, the experts’ recommendation to downgrade it to the worst
ranking, Tier 3, was overruled despite the report’s conclusion that
Beijing did not undertake increased anti-trafficking efforts.
That would have put China alongside the likes of Syria and North Korea,
regarded by the United Nations as among the world’s worst human right
Typically, J/TIP wins more than half of what officials call “disputes”
with diplomatic sections of the State Department, according to people
familiar with the process.
“Certainly we have never seen that kind of an outcome,” said one U.S.
official with direct knowledge of the department.
ABILITY TO EMBARRASS
The Trafficking in Persons report, which evaluated 188 countries and
territories this year, calls itself the world’s most comprehensive
resource of governmental anti-human trafficking efforts. Rights groups
It organizes countries into tiers based on trafficking records: Tier 1
for nations that meet minimum U.S. standards; Tier 2 for those making
significant efforts to meet those standards; Tier 2 “Watch List” for
those that deserve special scrutiny; and Tier 3 for countries that fail
to comply with the minimum U.S. standards and are not making significant
While a Tier 3 ranking can trigger sanctions limiting access to aid from
the United States, the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank,
such action is frequently waived.
The real power is its ability to embarrass countries into action. Many
countries aggressively lobby U.S. embassies to try to avoid sliding into
the Tier 3 category. Four straight years on the Tier 2 Watch List
triggers an automatic downgrade to Tier 3 unless a country earns a
waiver or an upgrade.
The leverage has brought some success, including pressuring Switzerland
to close loopholes that allowed the prostitution of minors and prompting
the Dominican Republic to convict more child trafficking offenders.
President Barack Obama has called the fight against human trafficking
“one of the great human rights causes of our time” and has pledged the
United States “will continue to lead it.”
But the office set up in 2001 by a congressional mandate to spearhead
that effort is increasingly struggling to publish independent
assessments of the most diplomatically important countries, the sources
The rejection of so many recommendations could strengthen calls by some
lawmakers to investigate how the report is compiled. After Reuters on
July 8 reported on the plans to upgrade Malaysia, 160 members of the
U.S. House and 18 U.S. senators wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry
urging him to keep Malaysia in Tier 3, based on its trafficking record.
They questioned whether the upgrade was politically motivated.
Senator Robert Menendez, a Democrat, has threatened to call for a Senate
hearing and an inspector general to investigate if top State Department
officials removed Malaysia from the lowest tier for political reasons.
The final decision on disputed rankings this year was made in meetings
attended by some of the State Department’s most powerful diplomats,
including Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken, Under Secretary of
State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman and Kerry’s Chief of Staff,
Jonathan Finer, according to the sources.
Sarah Sewall, who oversees J/TIP as Undersecretary of State for Civilian
Security, Democracy and Human Rights, presented the experts’
recommendations, the sources said. The State Department declined to
make any of those officials available for comment.
“NO, NO, NO”
The unprecedented degree of discord over this trafficking report began
to become clear after Reuters early last month revealed plans to upgrade
Malaysia from the lowest Tier 3 rank to Tier 2 Watch List.
The improved ranking came in a year in which Malaysian authorities
discovered dozens of suspected mass migrant graves and human rights
groups reported continued forced labor in the nation’s lucrative palm
oil, construction and electronics industries. As recently as April, the
U.S. ambassador to Malaysia, Joseph Yun, urged the country to take
prosecution of human trafficking violations more seriously.
U.S. officials have denied that political considerations influenced
“No, no, no,” said Sewall, when asked by reporters last Monday whether
Malaysia was upgraded to facilitate trade negotiations. She said the
decision was based on how Malaysia was dealing with trafficking.
Representative Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican who authored a 2000
law that led to the creation of J/TIP, said in an interview that the
office’s authority is being undermined by the president’s agenda. “It’s
so politicized,” he said.
If Malaysia had remained on Tier 3, it would have posed a potential
barrier to Obama’s proposed trade pact, the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
That deal is a crucial part of his pivot to Asia policy. Congress
approved legislation in June giving Obama expanded trade negotiating
powers but prohibiting deals with Tier 3 countries such as, at that
Congressional sources and current and former State Department officials
said experts in the J/TIP office had recommended keeping Malaysia on
Tier 3, highlighting a drop in human-trafficking convictions in the
country to three last year from nine in 2013. They said, according to
the sources, that some of Malaysia’s efforts to end forced labor
amounted to promises rather than action.
The analysts also clashed over Cuba’s record with the State Department’s
Western Hemisphere Affairs Bureau, whose view took precedence in the
Human rights groups and people with knowledge of the negotiations over
the rankings said an unearned upgrade for Cuba, especially at a time of
intense attention due to the historic diplomatic thaw between Washington
and Havana, could undermine the integrity of the report.
Cuba had been on the “border line” for an upgrade in recent years, a
former State Department official said. And although Cuba ended up with
an upgrade, the final report remained highly critical, citing concerns
about Cuba’s failure to deal with a degree of alleged forced labor in
medical missions that Havana sends to developing countries.
China was another source of friction. J/TIP’s analysts called for
downgrading China, the world’s second-biggest economy, to Tier 3,
criticizing Beijing for failing to follow through on a promise to
abolish its “re-education through labor” system and to adequately
protect trafficking victims from neighboring countries such as North
Korea. The final report put China on Tier 2 Watch List.
But the candor of J/TIP can run afoul of other important diplomatic
priorities, particularly in countries beset by instability or corruption
where U.S. diplomats are trying to build relationships. That leads every
year to sometimes contentious back-and-forth over the rankings with
far-flung embassies and regional bureaus – the diplomatic centers of
gravity at the State Department.
“There is supposed to be some deference to the expertise of the office,”
said Mark Lagon, J/TIP’s ambassador-at-large from 2007 to 2009 and now
president of Freedom House, an advocacy group in Washington. If the
office is now losing more disputes over rankings than it is winning,
that would be “an unfortunate thing,” he said.
Most U.S. diplomats are reluctant to openly strike back at critics
inside and outside of the administration who accuse them of letting
politics trump human rights, the sources said.
But privately, some diplomats say that J/TIP staffers should avoid
acting like “purists” and keep sight of broader U.S. interests,
including maintaining open channels with authoritarian governments to
push for reform and forging trade deals that could lift people out of
From the start, J/TIP has tried to be impartial. It is based in a
building a few blocks away from State Department, adding to the sense of
two separate identities and cultures.
But establishing genuine independence has been difficult. At first, the
heads of regional bureaus, representing the business and political
interests of U.S. embassies, would join the J/TIP team around a table
and have almost an equal say in deciding country rankings in the final
John Miller, a former Republican congressman from Washington state named
by President George W. Bush to head the bureau from 2002 to 2006,
overhauled that structure.
“I said ‘no way’,” Miller said in an interview. By 2004, decisions on
how to rank countries were made by his office. Diplomats who objected
could appeal to then deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage. “He
rarely overruled me,” said Miller. Armitage, who is no longer in a
government job, did not respond to a request for comment sent through
Laura Lederer, who helped set the office up as senior human trafficking
adviser from 2002 to 2007, said its job was “to assess and rate
countries solely on their progress in addressing the prevention of
trafficking, the prosecution of traffickers, and protection and
assistance of victims.”
But officials who worked in the office over the past 15 years
acknowledge that countries with sensitive diplomatic or trade
relationships with the United States sometimes received special
treatment following pressure from local embassies and other
constituencies within the department.
One such country is Mexico – a key trading partner whose cooperation is
also needed against drug trafficking and illegal immigration. It was
kept at Tier 2 despite the anti-trafficking unit’s call for a worse
grade, according to officials in Washington and Mexico City.
The controversy over this year’s report comes at a time when J/TIP lacks
a congressionally confirmed leader.
The prior chief, ambassador-at-Large Luis CdeBaca, left in November of
last year. His deputy, Alison Friedman, then resigned to join a
non-profit anti-slavery organization. And then it took until mid-July
for Obama to nominate Georgia federal prosecutor Susan Coppedge as the
The lack of a director can increase the unit’s exposure to political
influence, said Lederer.
Some say the perceived hit to the integrity of the 2015 report could do
“It only takes one year of this kind of really deleterious political
effect to kill its credibility,” said Mark Taylor, a former senior
coordinator for reports and political affairs at J/TIP from 2003 to 2013.
(Reporting by Jason Szep and Matt Spetalnick; Additional reporting by
Patricia Zengerle in Washington, Dave Graham in Mexico City, Michael
Martina in Beijing, and Dan Trotta in Havana; Editing by Martin Howell)
Source: Special Report: State Department watered down human trafficking
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