Thinking Aloud: 2015 Trafficking in Persons, A Flawed Report

Aug. 4, 2015 by Darius 

Every year, the US State Department publishes the Trafficking in Persons report, a major report grading every country in the world for its success, or lack thereof, at combating human trafficking.  The report is prepared by career diplomats who specialize in human rights and trafficking issues; it is as impartial as the US government gets.  Rights groups and NGOs consider the Trafficking in Persons report to be the most comprehensive report on human trafficking in the world.  This year, though, something rather out of the ordinary happened: in no fewer than 14 cases, senior State Department officials intervened to artificially inflate the human trafficking rankings of politically sensitive countries.

Among the most consequential of the 14 are Cuba, Malaysia, and China.  Malaysia and Cuba were both upgraded from the worst category, known as Tier 3, despite the fact that the State Department’s experts concluded that neither country had done anything meaningful to combat human trafficking, nor were any reforms on the horizon.  Why?  The US is trying to build on the improvement in relations with Cuba following the reestablishment of diplomatic ties.  Meanwhile, Malaysia is critical to the success of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free-trade agreement that President Obama sees as central to his foreign policy legacy.  Similarly, the experts wanted to downgrade China to Tier 3 in light of the fact that the Chinese government has made no attempt whatsoever to reform the country’s huge gulag system.  Senior State Department officials intervened to ensure that China remains in the middle category to avoid embarrassing Beijing.

Political calculations certainly do have a place in US diplomacy.  However, while policy may be watered down, reports like the State Department’s annual human trafficking report shouldn’t be.  The report itself is rarely tied to any concrete consequences.  Instead, it serves to embarrass and shame countries into getting their act together to get themselves upgraded from Tier 3.  In effect, the State Department report tells the world’s human trafficking offenders that the United States knows who they are and what they are doing.  If the United States isn’t coming after them right now, well, maybe that’s a temporary situation.  But by watering down the report’s findings because some countries are politically sensitive, we risk going so far down the rabbit hole of “realist” foreign policy that we lose sight of facts themselves.  Yes, it is often necessary to engage with distasteful partners in foreign policy—but that is no excuse to hide the fact that they are distasteful in the first place.

This year’s report also harms the United States itself.  In today’s world, billions of people worldwide have access to far more information in minutes than did their ancestors in their lifetimes.  As a result, public diplomacy has never been more important.  The world quickly finds out when the US does something like coddling human traffickers.  If the United States wants to be regarded as leading the world’s fight for human rights, it needs to show it.  Watering down reports like the Trafficking in Persons report is no place to start.


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