Groups demand answers from State Department on human trafficking report
FOIA request highlights lingering concerns over possible political interference in important government publication
WASHINGTON, D.C. — With the support of human rights, labor, faith, trade and democracy reform organizations, Friends of the Earth filed a Freedom of Information Act request demanding the expedited release of all communications by the State Department over the last two years concerning Malaysia’s tier ranking in the recently released 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report. Friends of the Earth filed a separate FOIA request last month demanding the release of all communications by Sarah Sewall, Undersecretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human rights, regarding this matter.
On July 27, the State Department published the 15th installment of the Trafficking in Persons Report. This independent annual publication rates 188 countries on their efforts to combat human trafficking in accordance with standards outlined in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. The TIP Report serves as an important political tool for pressuring countries to take meaningful action to address human rights violations.
Recent media reports indicate that political appointees meddled in the compilation of this publication by challenging State Department human rights experts’ rating recommendations for 17 politically-strategic countries and inflating the assessment of 14 of these.
Malaysia’s unsubstantiated upgrade is particularly alarming to the organizations because of its overt importance to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an expansive trade deal being negotiated by the Obama administration and 11 countries on the Pacific Rim. While the Obama administration recently obtained Fast Track authority to negotiate the TPP, Congress restricted negotiations with countries that have the worst records in combating human trafficking. Malaysia was one of those countries; however, on the eve of the July TPP negotiating round, the State Department took Malaysia off its human rights blacklist by upgrading its status from a Tier 3 to the less incriminating Tier 2 Watch List rating.
The United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations has held hearings into whether political interference occurred in the classification of certain countries in the TIP Report. Last week, six House Democrats wrote to the State Department Inspector General calling for an internal investigation into the State Department’s handling of the 2015 TIP Report as relates to Malaysia’s status within it.
Spokespersons from the organizations issued the following statements regarding this FOIA request:
“The decision to upgrade Malaysia raised serious concerns that the U.S. is willing to sacrifice the rights of workers in order to advance the TPP,” said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. “The public has a right to know exactly who was involved in this egregious decision so those responsible can be held accountable.”
“The United States cannot be a leader in fighting human trafficking if we do not honestly assess the state of the problem for all countries—even trading partners like Malaysia. The U.S. cannot allow political interests to outweigh the safety and freedom of the thousands of trafficked men, women, and children are at in Malaysia every day. We have to hold governments accountable for their actions—and hold our own government accountable when it refuses to do so,” said Melysa Sperber, Director of the Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking (ATEST).
“The implication that the State Department whitewashed Malaysia’s complicity with modern-day slavery in order to ease passage of a trade agreement is something that deserves close investigation,” said Arthur Stamoulis, executive director of Citizens Trade Campaign. “Our government should be acting to improve human rights and working conditions globally, not squashing them so that transnational corporations can make more profits.”
“The facts on the ground make it very clear — Malaysia is in the midst of a human trafficking crises and its government is doing little to stop it. This inaction is devastating to the refugees, migrant workers and others who are ensnared in the human trafficking web. No government should prioritize political gain through a trade agreement over human suffering. It is crucial we get to the bottom of how this harmful decision was made,” said CWA Director of Legislative Affairs Shane Larson.
“The public deserves to know what considerations were used to justify an unsubstantiated upgrade in Malaysia’s human trafficking ranking,” said Luísa Abbott Galvão, climate and energy campaigner at Friends of the Earth. “Reports of political meddling in what should have been an independently-conducted assessment raise chilling questions about the corruptibility of our democracy; if a publication that is instrumental to combating human rights violations around the world can be altered for political convenience, what can we trust?”