Has US desire for Asia trade deal trumped slavery with Malaysia's ranking?

Reports indicate the State Department plans to upgrade Malaysia from last year’s bottom-rung ranking on slavery and human trafficking. Advocates and members of Congress, say, if true, it represents a disregard for human rights in favor of economics.

Olivia Harris/Reuters/File
Workmen walk among coffins in a mass grave of unidentified Rohingya remains found at a traffickers camp in Wang Kelian, at a cemetery near Alor Setar, Malaysia in June.

President Obama says he wants the United States at the forefront of efforts to end the global scourge of slavery and human trafficking.

But at the same time, Mr. Obama is keen to advance international trade and America’s leadership role in the global trading system – particularly by concluding as early as this year a vast free-trade agreement with Asian-Pacific countries known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

Now it appears that those two goals have collided over US relations with Malaysia, following signs that the State Department may have adjusted its evaluation of Malaysia’s track record on human trafficking in the interest of including the Southeast Asian economic powerhouse in the TPP.

The issue of Malaysia’s record on addressing slavery and human trafficking has suddenly become caught up in a complex web of US government actions and priorities. Those include State Department reporting on global slavery and human-trafficking performance, congressional mandates for including human rights concerns in evaluating new trade agreements, and administration goals for boosting America’s role in Asia.

But for some members of Congress and human rights advocates, there’s nothing complicated or nuanced about reports that the State Department plans to upgrade Malaysia from last year’s bottom-of-the-barrel ranking on slavery and human trafficking when it releases its annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report this week.

Instead, they see a shocking disregard for one stated administration priority in the interest of advancing another.  

“It looks to me like a cynical maneuver to get around the will of Congress,” says New Jersey Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez, who added a provision to trade promotion legislation that passed in June barring any country with a bottom-rung human-trafficking record – like Malaysia – from inclusion in fast-track trade deals like TPP.

“The integrity of American international human-rights leadership is at stake,” Senator Menendez says.

A cascade of similarly sharp condemnation of any revision upward in Malaysia’s human trafficking evaluation was set off by a Reuters report last week that two government officials had confirmed the impending upgrade. Both the State Department and the White House refuse to comment and have advised journalists and others to await the report’s release.   

For some human-rights advocates, any upgrade in Malaysia’s ranking in the annual trafficking report would be a blatant act of putting economic interests over human dignity. And it would be a stain on America’s record of human-rights promotion.

“If Malaysia is upgraded … we see an adulteration of the TIP report for financial gains,” says Agile Fernandez, director of the Malaysian human-rights organization Tenaganita. “If it’s true, it’s very clear that trade is more important to the United States of America than the issue of slavery.”

If the State Department does upgrade Malaysia in its report this week to “Tier 2 watch List,” it would be a reversal of its decision just last year to downgrade Malaysia to bottom-rung “Tier 3” status. Last year’s TIP report said Malaysia was being downgraded to the lowest rating, along with North Korea, Syria, and Zimbabwe, as a result of its “limited efforts” to address trafficking and to protect victims of the practice.

Malaysia’s association with human trafficking burst into global public view last month when Malaysian police reported finding the mass graves of more than 100 trafficking victims around trafficking camps near the Thai border. The treatment of trafficking victims from Myanmar and Bangladesh arriving by sea has also been an issue this year.

The State Department had already announced that this year’s trafficking report would be based on information from before a March cut-off date, and that as a result the recent trafficking revelations would not be assessed until next year’s TIP report.

But human rights advocates say that even leaving aside recent troubling revelations about human trafficking in Malaysia, there is nothing in the country’s record of the past year to warrant a higher ranking.

“This is a country with a major problem with trafficking and forced labor,” says John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch in Washington. “There are millions and millions of migrant laborers and refugees … in situations of forced labor,” he adds, “and [the Malaysians] have done very little since they were placed in Tier 3.”

If the State Department does reveal it has upgraded Malaysia when it issues the TIP report this week, the explanation may very likely echo Obama’s justification for so-called “fast track” authority from Congress for completing trade deals like the 12-country TPP.

As he lobbied Congress last month for what is officially called trade promotion authority, or TPA, Obama insisted that trade deals negotiated by the US would go much farther in advancing priorities such as labor standards, human rights, and environmental standards, than trade pacts without America’s high standards.

That argument is especially true in Asia, Obama said, where China is advancing its commercial ties with its neighbors without insisting on respect for laborers or human rights.

The White House could again argue that Malaysia is more likely to respond to US pressure to address human trafficking and improve labor conditions if it is inside TPP – and has signed on to the pact’s standards – than if it is left out.

But rights advocates like Human Rights Watch’s Mr. Sifton say the moral authority of US evaluations like the Trafficking in Persons report risks being lost if ratings become subject to presidential priorities. And he says no explanation – except a very “alarming” one – will justify a move up for Malaysia in TIP ratings.

“We will view this decision as so extraordinarily unwarranted,” Sifton says, “that political interference can be presumed.”

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