For strategic or other reasons, the United States may have been giving special treatment to major powers China, Russia, and India when evaluating their human trafficking record in a bid to avoid imposing sanctions on them, according to some American lawmakers and former government officials.
In a clash between priorities of national security and foreign policy on the one hand and human rights on the other, U.S. authorities have let even Uzbekistan off the hook apparently because of the repressive nation's cooperation in getting supplies to American troops in Afghanistan, they said.
As Washington assesses steps taken by governments across the world in combating human trafficking, allies Iraq and Thailand too have seen their potential ranking downgrades delayed while Vietnam has won a premature ranking boost allegedly due to strategic considerations, the legislators and ex-state officials charged at a U.S. congressional hearing last week.
The U.S. State Department gives rankings—from Tier 1 to Tier 3—to more than 180 countries every year in its annual report on the state of human trafficking across the world, and the rankings are acclaimed as the international gold standard for anti-trafficking accountability.
Tier 1 countries are judged as fully meeting the minimum standards established by the law. Tier 2 nations may not fully comply with minimum standards, such as protection, prosecution, and prevention, but are seen to be making a significant effort to comply.
Those listed on the worst Tier 3 ranking are open to sanction by the U.S. government.
But much of the ranking controversy revolves around the second-lowest tier—the Tier 2 Watch List created a decade ago in a bid to encourage countries that take anti-trafficking steps late in the evaluation year, especially those countries that took last-minute measures to avoid a Tier 3 designation.
Some countries have exploited a loophole by, in the words of a lawmaker, "gaming the system"—making a habit of last-minute efforts and failing to follow through year after year.
So, in 2008, a law was created for an “automatic downgrade” for any country that had been on the Tier 2 Watch List for two years but had not taken anti-trafficking measures significant enough to move to Tier 2.
The U.S. President can however waive a Tier 3 downgrade for two additional years if there is “credible evidence” that the country has a written and sufficiently resourced plan to meet the minimum standards.
It has now been four years since the two-year limit, or four-years-with-a-waiver limit, was instituted and all eyes are on the State Department's 2013 Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP) to be released in June with the new rankings.
Six nations face a potential automatic downgrade from Tier 2 Watch List to Tier 3 with possible sanctions—China, Russia, Uzbekistan, Republic of Congo, Iraq, and Azerbaijan.
They have now had at least four full years of warning that they would face downgrade to Tier 3 if they did not make significant efforts to prosecute traffickers, protect victims, and prevent trafficking.
"The 'parking lot' is now closed: The [U.S.] Administration can no longer avoid telling hard truths about politically sensitive countries by keeping them indefinitely on the 'Watch List,' which was not part of the original, three-tier structure established [under the law]," Ed Royce, Chairman of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, told the hearing.
"If time-limited countries have not made significant efforts to comply with minimum trafficking standards, they must be downgraded to Tier 3 status," he said.
Another House lawmaker, Chris Smith, said that if the six countries "have once again failed to make significant efforts to meet the minimum standards, the State Department must downgrade them or risk undermining the credibility and demonstrated power of the TIP Report."
He said he is particularly concerned about China's human trafficking record, saying China has been on the Tier 2 Watch List for eight consecutive years but not been making significant efforts to comply with the minimum standards of the law.
It also continues to forcibly repatriate North Korean trafficking victims who face severe punishment, including execution, upon return to their country, said Smith, a rights-crusading lawmaker.
Mark Lagon, a former head of the State Department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons which publishes the annual global trafficking report, acknowledged that "at times" the department "pulls punches" with some countries.
He cited India, "the demographic epicenter of human trafficking in the world," saying the State Department upgraded it from Tier 2 Watch List to Tier 2 in the June 2011 report in a move that "may have had even more to do with strategic relations with India than the merits."
Lagon, who was the head of the anti-trafficking office from 2007 to 2009, also said that he himself had "learned of a Tier 3 ranking being overturned by the very highest level of State Department leadership just days before" he was confirmed to his post.
The State Department declined to comment on the issues raised at the congressional hearing ahead of the publication of the annual human trafficking report in June.
"We can't comment on this year's country assessments before the 2013 TIP Report is released this summer," Luis CdeBaca, Ambassador-at-Large at the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, said in response to a query from RFA.
"State Department staff are working with a wide range of partners to ensure this year's narratives are thorough and take into account all available information," CdeBaca said.
Lagon also cited battles between diplomats and anti-trafficking experts within the State Department over the issue of labor camps in China.
A "sizable portion" of the world's 2.2 million victims of forced labor "compelled by governments, militaries, and armed groups" is represented by those political prisoners in the laogai, or “reeducation through labor” prison camps, in China, according to published data.
"Those responsible for East Asia in the State Department actually temporarily fought with the TIP Office when I was its director as to whether the laogai—documented publicly in the annual Department Human Rights Report —would be considered trafficking victims, as they are," he said.
Lagon, now an international affairs professor at Washington's Georgetown University, was particularly vocal about Uzbekistan's human trafficking record, describing it as "the most appalling case in the neighborhood of the former Soviet Union."
"Let me be plain: There are loud voices within the U.S. Government who say the U.S. must downplay any distraction which might upset Uzbekistan’s cooperation in the Northern Distribution Network getting supplies to troops in Afghanistan," he said.
"China, Russia, and India may predictably avoid downgrades as great powers. But if as unreconstructed and unrepentant an autocracy as Uzbekistan is let off the hook because of a supply mechanism for troops being winnowed from Afghanistan anyway, it would be a travesty."
David Abramowitz, a former State Department official and congressional staffer, said the “automatic downgrade” provision for the trafficking rankings "was viewed with some alarm" among many in the State Department and a number of important countries, such as India, Thailand, China, and Russia that are perennial members of the Tier 2 Watch List.
Abramowitz, now vice-president of Humanity United, a California-based philanthropic organization, warned of "the risk that national security and foreign policy perspectives will trump the human rights considerations that should always be at the forefront of this issue."