State Department Flunks China, Russia on Human Trafficking

Jun 19, 2013

CQ Roll Call -- By EMILY CADEI

The State Department rolled out a report on human trafficking Wednesday that drew cheers from some on Capitol Hill but could complicate diplomacy with Russia and China at a delicate time for bilateral relations with both.

In its annual Trafficking in Persons report, Foggy Bottom is for the first time grouping Russia and China among the worst-performing countries on the practice, a label human rights advocates have long called for. Both countries have notoriously bad protections against labor trafficking — essentially a form of modern-day slavery — but have managed to avoid being dropped into the report’s lowest category of “Tier Three” countries, which includes the likes of Eritrea, Iran and Cuba.

Such countries are subject to sanctions, including a ban on most types of U.S. foreign aid and U.S. opposition to loans or other assistance from international financial institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., lauded the State Department’s move to downgrade the countries for what he called “their atrocious records on human trafficking,” adding that “sanctions should soon follow.”

Governments, Rubio said in a written statement, “need to know that there are severe consequences for not doing enough to combat human trafficking and that a lenient attitude towards tougher enforcement is a recipe for even greater human tragedy.”

Countries lobby fiercely to avoid the stigma of being downgraded, not just to Tier Three status but even being dropped from the first to the second level. That has prompted complaints from lawmakers and human rights activists over the years that, to avoid diplomatic rifts, the State Department has continued to include countries in categories they didn’t deserve.

Mandatory Downgrade

In a 2008 reauthorization of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (PL 110-457), the law that mandates the annual report, lawmakers included a provision requiring that any country ranked on the “Tier Two Watch List” — a step above Tier Three — for more than two consecutive years would automatically have to be downgraded in the third year. It allows the requirement to be waived, however, for another two years.

Both China and Russia have been on the Tier Two Watch List for nine consecutive years, receiving waivers for the last two. They faced an imminent downgrade this year, but activists feared that, given their geopolitical importance and other priorities in Washington’s relationships with both Moscow and Beijing, they would be moved up instead of down on the list.

“The TIP Report is only as good as it is honest, and we commend the State Department for using fact-based analysis — not concern for sensitive geopolitical relationships — when it assigned Tier 3 rankings,” David Abramowitz, director of the Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking, a coalition of human rights organizations, said in a press release.

But House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce , R-Calif., who held a recent hearing on trafficking, called Wednesday’s report “a mixed bag.”

“On the one hand, after I have long called for such action, the State Department today has rightly downgraded some of the world’s worst human trafficking offenders,” he said in a written statement. “Despite this welcome development, other countries known for their egregious human trafficking records, like Vietnam and Laos, have not been downgraded, and Cambodia should be ranked even lower, in Tier 3.”

In addition to Russia and China, the State Department also downgraded Uzbekistan, an important partner for the U.S. military as it moves troops and supplies out of Afghanistan ahead of the 2014 withdrawal deadline.

Prosecutor Kerry

Ambassador Luis CdeBaca, head of the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, credited new Secretary of State John Kerry for backing the moves.

“At the end of the day the secretary’s job here is to apply the facts and the law,” CdeBaca said. And Kerry, he noted, has a long history as a victims’ rights advocate. “People who forget that he was a prosecutor probably do so at their own peril,” he said.

CdeBaca pointed out that there were six countries at risk of an automatic downgrade. But in Azerbaijan, Iraq and the Republic of the Congo, “we really saw positive forward movement,” he said. That was not the case in Russia, China and Uzbekistan.

Kerry, for his part, “immediately understood this ethos” of the report and of prioritizing victims, said CdeBaca.