The scramble to secure a controversial trade deal known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is leading to some serious ethical conflicts for the Obama Administration. While many initial objections to TPP were due to concerns about a lack of transparency from the White House as to the contents of the agreement and how it was negotiated, a recent decision by the State Department to change a country’s ranking in a human trafficking report has human rights groups crying foul and citing TPP as the real reason for the change.
On July 27th, the State Department released its annual Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP) that ranks how other countries are dealing with human trafficking related to sexual exploitation or forced labor. One country that received an upgrade in the State Department’s report — from Tier 3 to Tier 2 — was Malaysia.
The upgrade was met with immediate criticism by human rights groups who said there was no evidence to support the claim that Malaysia had improved its human trafficking record — a record that the State Department itself had condemned as recently as 2014.
Critics suggested that rather than being based on the evidence, the decision to upgrade Malaysia was driven by political concerns regarding TPP. If Malaysia had remained at a Tier 3 ranking in the State Department’s human trafficking report, the country might not be eligible to participate in the TPP.
That suggestion has been reinforced by an investigative report by Reuters which revealed that human rights experts within the State Department working on the trafficking report were overruled by senior political staff at the State Department on the rankings of countries in the report, including Malaysia.
A Reuters examination, based on interviews with more than a dozen sources in Washington and foreign capitals, shows that the government office set up to independently grade global efforts to fight human trafficking was repeatedly overruled by senior American diplomats and pressured into inflating assessments of 14 strategically important countries in this year’s Trafficking in Persons report …
As a result, not only Malaysia, Cuba and China, but countries such as India, Uzbekistan and Mexico, wound up with better grades than the State Department’s human-rights experts wanted to give them, the sources said.
The Obama Administration has defended the upgrade of Malaysia with Secretary of State John Kerry telling reporters “The reason I made this decision was based on the recommendations of my team,” with Kerry further claiming that he did not consult with the White House before making the decision on Malaysia’s ranking in the human trafficking report.
For its part, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has announced that it will be investigating the State Department’s decision to upgrade Malaysia in the TIP report and whether concerns about TPP eligibility played a role.
Both the secrecy of the TPP agreement and accusations of playing politics with human trafficking rankings are a problem for the Obama Administration’s public image. President Obama once claimed that his was the “most transparent administration in history,” and has said combating human trafficking is “one of the great human rights causes of our time,” while promising to lead on the issue.
As the pre-TPP 2014 State Department noted, Malaysia has a widespread system of trafficking poor and powerless people into the country for the purpose of using them for sexual exploitation and forced labor — a modern system of chattel slavery. If, as President Obama asserts, the US is going to lead on the issue, it has to do better than lowering standards to declare progress.