The slap at the two powers comes at a time when President Obama is seeking to engage the countries’ leaders on key divisive issues. Mr. Obama struggled to find common ground this week in Europe with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the crisis in Syria, and last week in California with Chinese President Xi Jinping on cybersecurity.
In its annual report on worldwide trafficking in persons (TIP) the State Department does highlight some bright spots:
• More countries are prosecuting traffickers and providing services to the rescued victims of trafficking and slavery.
• And the number of convictions worldwide in trafficking cases, once rare, jumped by 20 percent last year.
"When we think of the scale of modern-day slavery, literally tens of millions who live in exploitation, this whole effort can seem daunting, but it's the right effort," Secretary of State John Kerry said in releasing the report Wednesday.
"There are countless voiceless people, countless nameless people except to their families or perhaps a phony name by which they are being exploited, who look to us for their freedom," he said.
The report also highlights the cases of individual “heroes” from around the world who went out of their way to assist trafficking victims, bring violators to justice, or challenge the impunity that too often stymies anti-trafficking efforts.
There’s the case of Mohammed Bassam Al-Nasseri, an Iraqi migrant worker specialist who played a critical role in passage and implementation of Iraq’s 2012 comprehensive anti-trafficking legislation – and who rescued 35 Bulgarian and Ukrainian construction workers from virtual imprisonment at an Iraqi construction site.
And then there’s Susan Ople, who founded a Philippine non-profit that helps exploited and stranded Overseas Filipino Workers – so numerous they are referred to as OFWs.
But the annual report is also about signaling the laggards in the global fight against people trafficking, and perhaps also about prompting action as a result of the shame of being labeled as insufficient in anti-trafficking laws and practices.
That’s where cases like those of China and Russia come in. In addition to the two global powers, Uzbekistan was also downgraded to “tier 3,” the report’s lowest level.
China is “a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking,” the report finds. It also points out that China has been on the report’s trafficking “watch list” for the past nine years.
As for Russia, labor trafficking remains the “predominant” trafficking issue, according to the report, with an estimated 1 million people in Russia subject to conditions – such as forced labor, withholding of documents, nonpayment for services, physical abuse, or extremely poor living conditions – characteristic of modern-day slavery.
Some NGOs had earlier expressed concerns that the US might use the excuse of “sensitive geopolitical relationships” to spare China and Russia the downgrading. Instead, they offered praise for the report’s findings.
“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 to Russia, Uzbekistan, and China,” said David Abramowitz, director of The Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking (ATEST), a coalition of 12 US-based human rights organizations.
“China, Russia, Uzbekistan and other countries that have largely turned a blind eye to modern slavery deserve the condemnation of the United States and the international community.”
Another human rights group focusing on trafficking and slavery issues, the International Justice Mission, said the State Department’s willingness this year to downgrade China and Russia marked “a welcome course correction to the political drift of tier rankings in recent years.”
Calling the report and its ranking system “a tool that benefits government reformers, anti-trafficking activists, and most of all, enslaved children, women and men,” the organization’s vice-president for government and advocacy, Holly Burkhalter, said honest appraisals of trafficking in each country will be a boon not just to trafficking victims, but to targeted countries over all.
“Grade inflation is no service to slavery-burdened countries,” says Ms. Burkhalter. “It is in every government’s best interest to build law enforcement institutions with the will and capacity to professionally apprehend and prosecute criminals who sell human beings so that this violent crime simply dries up.”
This year’s report, which evaluates 188 countries, places 30 countries, including the US, in the top level, or “Tier 1,” for most closely meeting a set of anti-trafficking and victims-services standards.
But the State Department’s ambassador-at-large to monitor and combat trafficking in persons, Luis CdeBaca, says that no country has a pristine record in a world where an estimated 27 million people are victims of some form of trafficking and slavery.
“Even the US has a long way to go,” he says. The indictments this week of nine owners and managers of 7-11 stores in New York and Virginia, charged with running a “modern-day plantation system” to operate the stores with illegal immigrants from Pakistan and the Philippines, provide just one example of the problem in the US.
The report places 92 countries in “Tier 2,” which means “they are doing a lot, but are not yet there,” Ambassador CdeBaca says.
Including China, Russia, and Uzbekistan, 21 countries landed in Tier 3.
The annual report includes a “Tier 2 watch list” which serves as a kind of warning to countries that are doing very little about grave trafficking problems and that thus risk falling to Tier 3. This year 44 countries are on the watch list.
One reason China, Russia, and Uzbekistan fell to the lowest rung is that congressional efforts in 2008 limited to four years the length of time a country could remain on the watch list. These were three countries that had to move either up or down this year, and State Department officials determined there was no justification for moving them up.
China has created a working group on trafficking issues this year, Cdebaca notes, but he says that fledgling effort came too late to count in this year’s report, which concerns events in 2012.