U.S. Report on Human Trafficking Upgrades Cuba and Malaysia

John Kerry, right, hosts a State Department ceremony to release "The 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report" in Washington July 27. The United States upgraded Malaysia in the annual report on human trafficking on Monday, despite calls by human rights groups and nearly 180 U.S. lawmakers to keep the Southeast Asian country on a list of worst offenders for failing to suppress trafficking. Gary Cameron/REUTERS

In its annual report on Trafficking in Persons (TIP) released on Monday, the U.S. State Department has upgraded the status of several nations with poor human rights records, most notably Cuba and Malaysia.

According to a story in The Guardian, several rights groups have labeled parts of the report "political," suggesting a connection between the recent opening of Cuba to the U.S. and the island nation's new "Tier 2" label. Malaysia, meanwhile, is currently involved in fast-track negotiations with the U.S. over the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). By law, the agreement cannot be struck with a "Tier 3" nation, according to a CNN report. The upgrading of Cuba and Malaysia to Tier 2 status, critics allege, ignores their actual human rights credentials and efforts to combat trafficking, instead representing a gesture of favor from the U.S. State Department. U.S. lawmakers have criticized the report, with Democratic Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey saying, "Upgrades for Malaysia and Cuba are a clear politicization," according to an AP story.

"Tier 2 does not mean—[and] Tier 2 watch list—does not mean that there's not a problem with a country," said Under Secretary of State Sarah Sewall during Monday's press conference. Sewall emphatically denied that political considerations were part of the TIP report, and said that Cuba and Malaysia's upgraded status reflect the countries' "significant efforts" to address trafficking. When asked about the issue of the TPP, she said, " You would need to ask the folks working on the trade bill. I mean, our concern is really about the TIP Report facts, and those are gathered by the TIP staff over the course of the year working with posts, working with civil society organizations, gathering information from the media."

The controversy stems from the ranking system, which rates nations based on their compliance with U.S. standards of human trafficking prevention. Tier 3 countries are considered the worst, for failing to make efforts to meet the requirements set down by the Trafficking Victims Protection Act passed by Congress in 2000. Tier 3 and Tier 2 nations are usually sources, destinations or transit centers for trafficked victims. Last year's report, which put Thailand in Tier 3, drew a televised response from the Thai ambassador, illustrating how TIP uses global reputation as a strategy to urge governments to act.

Most of the nations in 2015's Tier 1 are drawn from the EU and other Western allies, including the United States.

In addition to the rankings, the report summarizes recent research in human trafficking prevention and addresses causes of trafficking ranging from cultural norms to armed conflict and child soldiers.

Secretary of State John Kerry released the report on Monday morning, opening the document with a strongly worded letter containing language about ending worldwide slavery and citing his background as a sexual assault prosecutor. His opening remarks at the State Department launch ceremony honored eight "TIP report heroes," individuals singled out for their contributions to the fight against trafficking.

.@JohnKerry: We must never, ever, allow a price tag to be attached to heart, soul, freedom of a fellow human being. http://t.co/Un9hkRow2W

— Department of State (@StateDept) July 27, 2015

TIP also lists certain countries under the label "Tier 2 watch list." Watch-listed nations, according to the report, have increasing or high numbers of trafficking victims, and have failed to produce evidence of efforts to combat "severe forms of trafficking." Nations with poor records on managing trafficking, such as Qatar, China and Saudi Arabia, were placed on the 2015 watch list, while many countries with unsteady relations with the U.S.—most notably Russia, Iran, Libya, and North Korea—are in Tier 3, and may face increased bilateral sanctions at the beginning of the fiscal year (on October 1).

But even for the "most compliant" countries, most of which are from the EU, the report contains a strong admonition. "No tier ranking is permanent," the report says. "Every country, including the United States, can do more. All countries must maintain and continually increase efforts to combat trafficking."