The US just chucked this human trafficking grenade at Russia and China

Well this is awkward.
Well this is awkward.
Image: Reuters / Kevin Lamarque
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The downgrading of an economy is a fairly well-known phenomenon. But there’s a lesser-known equivalent in the world of human rights, brought to you by the US State Department: the Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report. A touchstone for global human trafficking data, this year’s report, out today, did something uncharacteristically interesting: it demoted Russia and China, along with Uzbekistan, to “Tier Three” status, which puts them in the company of countries like North Korea, Iran and Zimbabwe.

Here’s what that means: Tier 1 nations are deemed in full compliance with the State Department’s minimum standards for protection, prosecution and prevention of traffickers. Tier 2 nations aren’t—but they’re at least making a significant effort to comply. About a decade ago, a Tier 2 watch list was created to encourage countries to take urgent steps to avoid being designated as Tier 3. That prompted years of accusations from some lawmakers that various US administrations were gaming the system for political reasons, allowing favored nations to avoid Tier 3 by promising to do better. In 2008, a law was passed creating an “automatic downgrade” for countries that had stayed on the watch list for too long. This year, the clock was up for China, Russia and four other countries, and the State Department was forced to either promote them or implement the automatic downgrade.­­­­­­­

As a result, the three new members of Tier Three are now fair game for US government sanctions. For instance, Washington can oppose International Monetary Fund (IMF) loans, non-humanitarian aid and non-trade related foreign assistance to the countries, as well as certain education and cultural exchange programs.

None of the countries have responded yet, but the timing couldn’t be worse, considering the state of US relations with China and Russia. Obama has been trying to make nice with leaders Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin on all manner of geopolitical issues, but is already facing stiff headwinds. His summit meeting with Xi in California earlier this month was clouded by mutual allegations of cyber-surveillance and hacking. Obama’s meeting with Putin at the G8 summit was even frostier, especially given separate State Department sanctions against Moscow for its support of Syria.

No wonder US secretary of state John Kerry tiptoed around the issue in the cover letter to the report: “This Report is not about pointing fingers. Rather, it provides a thorough account of a problem that affects all countries. It also lays out ways that every government can do better.” Smooth.