The annual US report card on human trafficking draws fire as Malaysia gets a passing grade

John Kerry announces the state department’s new stance on human trafficking in Malaysia.
John Kerry announces the state department’s new stance on human trafficking in Malaysia.
Image: Reuters/Gary Cameron
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The US state department compiles an annual report card scoring countries on their efforts to combat human trafficking. Malaysia rose higher in this year’s rankings, prompting scrutiny from critics who say the state department’s analysis was swayed by political concerns.

Moving Malaysia from “Tier 3,” a category for countries with the worst records on fighting modern slavery, to the “Tier 2 Watch List” of the rankings, suggests the US is playing favorites, critics say. Human Rights Watch’s Sarah Margon told Bloomberg that Malaysia’s record “over the past year is far from sufficient to justify this upgrade,” and as such, the upgrade “is also a real blow to the credibility” of the US report.

Human rights groups say Malaysia’s upgrade was motivated by the White House’s desire to cement the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a mammoth trade pact between 12 countries, including the US and Malaysia. When, in June, US Congress granted authority to president Barack Obama to ”fast track” the deal, it stipulated that Tier 3 countries could not participate.

The state department claims that Kuala Lumpur is making “significant efforts” to comply with minimum standards for the elimination of human trafficking. That judgment, according to the report (PDF, p.55), is “based on commitments by the country to take additional future steps over the next year.”

178 members of Congress wrote the US secretary of state John Kerry earlier this month urging him to keep Malaysia in Tier 3. The country’s massive palm oil industry is seen as heavily dependent on human trafficking (paywall).

Other countries that moved up from the blacklist include Cuba, Papua New Guinea, and Saudi Arabia. The decision to upgrade Cuba’s status was also criticized by lawmakers, including senator Robert Menendez, who told Reuters, “You have to earn your way up the ladder, not just have political expediency be the reason that you get moved from Tier 3.”

Belarus, Belize, Burundi, and South Sudan were among the other countries demoted to Tier 3. The US government can now levy sanctions against these countries at its discretion. Thailand, which faces many of the same human trafficking allegations as Malaysia—including the enslavement of workers in its fishing industry—remains in Tier 3.