The US State Department upgraded Malaysia and Cuba Monday in its formal ranking of world nations’ efforts to combat modern-day slavery, but the decision has led to criticisms of political favoritism that cast doubt on the integrity of the rankings.
The US has been steadily improving political ties with communist Cuba after 50 years of frigid relations. Critics also argue that Malaysia’s upgrade is related to its involvement in a US-backed trade agreement among Pacific Rim countries.
John Kerry, the US secretary of State, formally launched the annual US assessment – the Trafficking in Persons report – which analyzes and ranks how 188 governments around the world have invested in fighting human trafficking and other forms of exploitative labor.
Cuba had been held on the lowest ranking, “tier 3,” for years amid allegations of coerced labor with Cuban government work missions overseas. The upgrade comes just a week after the United States and Cuba restored formal diplomatic relations for the first time since the Kennedy administration. The US also recently took Cuba off its list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Under Secretary of State Sarah Sewall denied that political considerations had come into play in the rankings, noting that Cuba was still on tier 2 of the rankings and, while it has made progress in addressing sex trafficking, it has so far failed to address the problem of forced labor.
Malaysia was another contentious upgrade on the list. The country was downgraded with Thailand last year because of pervasive labor abuses in its lucrative fishing industry. While Malaysia was upgraded this year, Thailand was not. Thailand is not part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the proposed Pacific Rim trade agreement that is a key part of President Obama’s Asia policy.
There are 12 nations, including Malaysia, in the partnership. The nations are meeting in Hawaii this week, hoping to close the agreement after years of negotiations.
Both Thailand and Malaysia have faced intense international criticism over the trafficking of stateless Rohingya Muslins from Myanmar and Bangladesh aboard overcrowded boats. Dozens of graves have been found in abandoned jungle camps on both sides of the Thai-Malaysian border.
A bipartisan group of US Senators wrote Secretary Kerry earlier this month, saying that “a premature upgrade of Malaysia would undermine the integrity of the TIP report process and undermine our efforts to fight human trafficking."
Ms. Sewall cited the strengthening of Malaysia’s anti-trafficking law and the increase in the number of trafficking investigations and prosecutions in the period covered by the report. The reporting period ended March 31, almost two months before the discovery of mass graves in Malaysia.
Malaysia, she added, still has “much room for improvement.”
Melysa Sperber, director of the Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking, said that by upgrading Malaysia, the US is “selling out victims of human trafficking,” according to NBC News.
“It also undermines the integrity of the report and jeopardizes the credibility that has been built up over many years,” she added.
The TIP report is one of several annual assessments issued by the State Department on human rights-related issues, but to actually rank nations is unusual and it can often create minor diplomatic controversies.
The Thai Embassy in Washington “strongly disagreed” with its retention on tier 3. In a statement the embassy said the evaluation “does not accurately reflect the reality and fails to take into account significant efforts undertaken by the Thai Government on all fronts during the past year.”
The TIP rankings are even more serious in that a spot on tier 3 gives the US government the right to enact sanctions on that country, including withdrawing US support for loans from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. President Obama now has 90 days to determine if the US will do so, though it is rare that the US ever does pursue such sanctions. Politico also reported that if Malaysia had stayed on tier 3 it could have faced US legal hurdles to its involvement in the TPP deal.
Uzbekistan was also promoted to tier 2 after two years on tier 3, along with Saudi Arabia, Papua New Guinea and the Democratic Republic of Congo. There are now 23 nations on tier 3, including Iran, Libya, North Korea, Russia, Syria, and Zimbabwe.
This report includes material from the Associated Press.