There are more slaves today than were seized from Africa in four centuries of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. In fact, there are more slaves in the world today than at any other point in human history, with an estimated 21 million in bondage across the globe.
Modern-day slavery, also referred to as “trafficking in persons,” or “human trafficking,” describes the act of recruiting, harboring, transporting, providing, or obtaining a person for compelled labor or commercial sex acts through the use of force, fraud, or coercion.
Every year since 2011, the State Department releases the annual Trafficking in Persons Report, a congressionally mandated report that looks at the governments around the world (including the U.S.) and what they are doing to combat trafficking in persons through the lens of the 3P paradigm of prevention, protection, and prosecution.
Countries are ranked in tiers based on trafficking records: Tier 1 for nations that meet minimum U.S. standards; Tier 2 for those making significant efforts to meet those standards; Tier 2 “Watch List” for those that deserve special scrutiny; and Tier 3 for countries that fail to comply with the minimum U.S. standards and are not making significant efforts. As Reuters explains,
While a Tier 3 ranking can trigger sanctions limiting access to aid from the United States, the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank, such action is frequently waived.
The real power is its ability to embarrass countries into action. Many countries aggressively lobby U.S. embassies to try to avoid sliding into the Tier 3 category. Four straight years on the Tier 2 Watch List triggers an automatic downgrade to Tier 3 unless a country earns a waiver or an upgrade.
The leverage has brought some success, including pressuring Switzerland to close loopholes that allowed the prostitution of minors and prompting the Dominican Republic to convict more child trafficking offenders.
President Barack Obama has called the fight against human trafficking “one of the great human rights causes of our time” and has pledged the United States “will continue to lead it.”
If President Obama truly wants to lead on this issue he can start by correcting the scandalous behavior of his own State Department. As Reuters notes in their special report,
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.
In all, analysts in the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons – or J/TIP, as it’s known within the U.S. government — disagreed with U.S. diplomatic bureaus on ratings for 17 countries, the sources said.
The analysts, who are specialists in assessing efforts to combat modern slavery – such as the illegal trade in humans for forced labor or prostitution – won only three of those disputes, the worst ratio in the 15-year history of the unit, according to the sources.
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.
This may sound like a trivial concern, the typical bureaucratic wrangling that occurs in every government agency. But the debate over which “tier” a country should fall in has real world consequences for thousand, maybe even millions, of slaves around the globe. The U.S. has the ability to put pressure on countries to make real progress to protect the most vulnerable. Shouldn’t that trump most every other concerns? How do we tell a 10-year-old sex slave in Cuba that America is more concerned about opening relations with a communist regime than we are in pressuring Castro to secure her freedom?
Perhaps if there was an overriding national security interest the pressure to change the rankings would be defensible. But how do we justify prioritizing a sub-section of a trade deal over the lives of child slaves being held in Malaysia?
Congress created the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons and they need to step in to protect the integrity of the annual report. The State Department must be called to account for this scandal and implement safeguards that will never ensure political infighting doesn’t trump promotion of human rights.
For many slave across the globe, the pressure applied by the U.S. is the only thing that may free them. It’s time for those of us who care about human trafficking to force the Obama administration to answer for their actions. There are too many people in chains that are counting on us for us to remain silent.