The State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (TIP), which I headed form 2007-2009, fights the slavery of today, such as sex trafficking and forced labor. Just some of human trafficking’s victims include Dalit bonded laborers in India, prostituted girls from Cancun to Cambodia, legal guest workers in the Gulf, and undocumented apple pickers in Washington State and tomato pickers in Florida. These practices are characterized by deceit, psychological terror and violence—if not actual chains and shackles. .
TIP’s main tool, its annual global report, works because of candor and tough love – offering four rankings of governments based on their efforts against human trafficking. The TIP Report was an invaluable tool handed to the Executive Branch by Congress. It has worked. Political scientists Beth Simmons of Harvard University and Judith Kelley of Duke University established, by rigorous quantitative methods, that its rankings propel countries to strengthen their laws.
The 2008 anti-trafficking reauthorization legislation placed a 3-year time limit on a nation could stay on the second-lowest tier, called the “Tier 2 Watch List.” Nations that did not make improvements while on the “Tier 2 Watch List” within the time limit would be downgraded to the lowest rank (Tier 3) and subject to sanctions. In the upcoming June report, nations facing a potential automatic downgrade include China, Russia, Azerbaijan, Iraq, Republic of Congo and Uzbekistan.
In China, those fleeing North Korea are triply violated. First, political repression and government-spurred economic chaos in North Korea violates their dignity. Second, the Chinese government’s treatment of them as economic migrants rather than refugees creates leverage for traffickers to victimize them as sex slaves, brokered brides or forced laborers. That leverage is given to exploiters by the very real prospect of a third violation: being arrested by Chinese authorities and deported back to North Korea where they face execution or brutal punishment.
Last year the International Labor Organization came out with an estimate that at least 20.9 million people in the world are victims of human trafficking or forced labor. Of those victims, this robust study found that 2.2 million, or over ten percent, suffer from forced labor compelled by governments, militaries and armed groups. A sizable proportion of that global figure is represented by political prisoners in the laogai, or “reeducation through labor” prison camps, in China. Absent addressing these and other problems, China deserves to finally be placed on Tier 3 after eight years on a so-called “Watch List.”
As for Russia, when the US law and UN Protocol on trafficking were fashioned thirteen years ago, the context was females migrating within and from Russia into sex trafficking. Yet economic circumstances are such that in recent years the primary dynamic is trafficking into Russia from other states of the former Soviet Union, and within Russia, for forced labor. Human Rights Watch has highlighted concern about construction in preparation for the Sochi games, to which one must add the propensity for major games -- from the Duban World Cup Soccer to the London Olympics to the New Orleans, Miami, and Indianapolis Super Bowls -- to enlarge sex trafficking. Russia deserves to be downgraded after eight years on the Tier Two Watch List if it does not boost victim protection.
Azerbaijan has been on the Tier 2 Watch List for five years running. The government has been found to be complicit in labor and sex trafficking, including the Internal Affairs Anti-Trafficking Department no less. A similar case of an anti-trafficking department found complicit in the crime landed Moldova on Tier 3 in 2008 under my tenure, despite a Bush anti-trafficking presidential initiative funding that very department. The Tier 3 ranking got Moldova to reverse the corruption. This time Azerbaijan also merits the automatic downgrade.
The most appalling case is Uzbekistan. It retains a vestige of Soviet command economy practices in compelling young people to pick cotton in the harvesting season. A few years ago, the government ratified two ILO Conventions on child and forced labor; however, recent TIP Reports indicate not only is the practice growing but also that the country is blocking ILO inspectors’ access. In the last cotton harvesting season, the government shifted the age of those mobilized into involuntarily labor upward. Yet, despite limiting the number of students under the ages of 16 or 17, it is still forced labor for those older than that.
Moreover, those who do not want to upset Uzbekistan’s cooperation in the Northern Distribution Network getting supplies to troops in Afghanistan are wrong. If an unreconstructed and unrepentant autocracy as Uzbekistan is let off the hook because of its perceived importance as part of a supply mechanism for troops being winnowed from Afghanistan anyway, it would be a travesty. Having all too slowly addressed the injustice and lingering legacies of slavery based on cotton-picking in America, the U.S. Government ought not shirk its duty to address forced labor for cotton in Uzbekistan.
Next, the Iraqi government did not convict any traffickers in the last reporting year. The State Department has gone on record to suggest Iraq’s government should put in place legislation prohibiting all forms of trafficking, decriminalize NGOs assisting sex trafficking victims, and regulate foreign labor brokers recruiting Iraqis into human trafficking conditions.
A Tier 3 ranking does not mean an end to dialogue; it could indeed focus the mind of a U.S. ally facing armed threats, like it did for Israel, South Korea or the Philippines in the past. Moreover, sanctions on Iraq triggered by a Tier 3 ranking can be waived for reasons of national interests, and should be. Yet a ranking should be determined on the merits of a country’s human rights conduct rather than other external considerations.
In these five flashpoint nations, the State Department should resist invoking “strategic interests” and “extenuating circumstances” as an excuse for inflating grades. It would undercut U.S. and universal values of dignity, as well as undercut a great success story to date of effective leverage and public diplomacy.