Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and other lawmakers blasted the Obama administration for improving the rankings of Cuba and Malaysia on this year’s State Department human trafficking report for political reasons.
Cuba has been Tier 3 — the worst ranking — since the State Department began issuing the report in 2003. Nearly 200 lawmakers lobbied the administration to keep Malaysia at Tier 3 for failing to stop human trafficking. Both appeared in today’s report on the “Tier 2 Watch List.”
According to the State Department, that includes “countries whose governments do not fully comply with the TVPA’s [Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s] minimum standards, but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance with those standards AND the absolute number of victims of severe forms of trafficking is very significant or is significantly increasing; there is a failure to provide evidence of increasing efforts to combat severe forms of trafficking in persons from the previous year; or the determination that a country is making significant efforts to bring itself into compliance with minimum standards was based on commitments by the country to take additional future steps over the next year.”
The Tier 3 ranking is for “countries whose governments do not fully comply with the minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so.” These countries include Russia, Iran, Venezuela and Zimbabwe.
Saudia Arabia also got upgraded from Tier 3 to the Tier 2 Watch List, and Egypt got downgraded to the Tier 2 Watch List from the previous year.
In addition to the administration’s rapprochement with Cuba, Malaysia is among the dozen countries entering the final round of negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. A Menendez amendment prohibiting “fast-track” trade deal approval for a Tier 3 human trafficking nation was passed by Congress and signed into law June 29.
It was soon after that lawmakers began to hear rumblings of an upgrade for Malaysia to keep them in the TPP deal. Several senators sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry on July 15 protesting any concessions. At the time, the report was already five weeks overdue.
Today, Menendez said “the administration has turned its back on the victims of trafficking, turned a blind eye to the facts, and ignored the calls from Congress, leading human rights advocates, and Malaysian government officials to preserve the integrity of this important report.”
“They have elevated politics over the most basic principles of human rights,” he said. “Upgrades for Malaysia and Cuba are a clear politicization of the report, and a stamp of approval for countries who have failed to take the basic actions to merit this upgrade.”
Menendez noted that even in Malaysia, “members of the Parliament, the legal profession, and human rights activists have urged the United States to support their efforts and to maintain the Tier 3 ranking they tell us Malaysia deserves. Today, we have failed them.”
“In Cuba, adults and children are subjected to sex trafficking and the government continues perpetrating abusive practices of forced labor, coercing tens of thousands of its own doctors and medical professionals to serve abroad under conditions that violate international norms. As the State Department’s own report recognizes that there has been no progress on forced labor in Cuba, any upgrade of the country’s ranking challenges common sense,” the senator continued.
Menendez said he intends “to use all of the tools at my disposal – from hearings to legislation to investigations – to challenge these upgrades.”
“The United States’ commitment and credibility in fighting the scourge of modern day slavery is on the line,” he stressed. “We need to make clear that the TIP report must not be subject to political manipulation.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who was among the signatories on the Malaysia letter, said he finds it “difficult to believe that Cuba has been elevated this year from Tier 3 to Tier 2 Watch List solely based on the Cuban regime’s record.”
“It is important that this report be a true reflection of the trafficking situation on the ground and that a country’s rating not be determined by political considerations but by the country’s record on this issue,” he said.
“The report upgraded Malaysia to Tier 2 Watch List despite evidence showing that Malaysia had earned its placement on the lowest rank,” said House Foreign Affairs Committee Ranking Member Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.). “In this regard, I have some serious concerns about this year’s report.”
At a State Department event coinciding with the release of the report this morning, Kerry said he’s “deeply inspired by the efforts that are being made in America and countries on every continent to push back against the bullies and the exploiters.”
“I’m inspired by the leadership that we have seen from our commander in chief, from Congress, from civil society, from the religious community, and from our many overseas partners,” he added.
Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), who was hailed by Kerry at the event as “such a longtime champion” in human rights, in a statement blasted Obama’s “grave disservice to victims of human trafficking in Cuba and Malaysia” for “political reasons alone.”
“This report, the 15th annual report since I first wrote our nation’s anti-trafficking bill, is not only six weeks late,” Smith said, “but it has careened off into a new direction where the facts regarding each government’s actions in the fight against human trafficking are given almost no weight when put up against the president’s political agenda.”
He noted that his Foreign Affairs subcommittee held an April hearing at which “there was no indication in the expert testimony provided that either Malaysia or Cuba had done anything to warrant an upgrade, or to suggest that victims of trafficking are in a better situation in either country than they were last year.”
“It seems quite clear that Malaysia’s role in the TPP and Cuba’s unchecked march to normalized relations have captured the Obama Administration’s ability to properly access the worst of the worst when it comes to fighting to protect trafficking victims and punish the thugs who mastermind this modern day slavery.”