State Department officials faced sharp questions from U.S. lawmakers after allegations surfaced that the government's annual report on global human trafficking had been adjusted to further the Obama administration’s international agenda, particularly regarding Malaysia and Cuba.
Reflecting lawmakers' concerns, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee demanded Thursday that the State Department hand over all documents it used to rank countries in the report, and he threatened to subpoena the papers if the department did not comply.
The chairman, Republican Bob Corker of Tennessee, said there would be "serious consequences" if any materials were destroyed.
Corker issued the order as members fiercely questioned Undersecretary of State for Human Rights Sarah Sewall.
In this year's "Trafficking in Persons Report," both Cuba, with which the United States resumed relations this year, and Malaysia, part of a proposed massive free trade pact — the Trans-Pacific Partnership — escaped the harshest judgment.
“Many of us are concerned that the upgrading of Malaysia had more to do with trying to make sure that TPP was entered into successfully than a care for people being trafficked,” Corker said.
The trafficking report ranks more than 180 countries based on what their governments are doing to fight such crimes as slavery and sex trafficking. The lowest-ranking nations are put in a category called "Tier 3" and are subject to sanctions. The next step is the so-called "watch list."
Malaysia was in the Tier 3 category in the 2014 report and was upgraded to the watch list for this year's report.
State Department officials insisted the reporting process was done with diligence and integrity.
“Tier rankings do not assess the severity of a human trafficking problem in a given country,” Sewall said. “The tier rankings assess the government’s efforts in addressing human trafficking problems.
"The secretary of state [John Kerry] is responsible for the 'Trafficking in Persons Report,' and there is no one who can question the secretary’s commitment to the anti-trafficking cause,” she added.
Sewall's testimony seemed not to convince the committee. Corker said he did not think that “anybody in Malaysia that has loved ones who have been sold into sex slavery would be very comforted” by her explanations.
"I don't see how anybody could believe that there was integrity in this process," he added.
Kerry said Thursday at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations talks in Kuala Lumpur that he had "zero conversations" with anybody else in the Obama administration about the Trans-Pacific trade agreement.
"The reason I made this decision was based on the recommendation of my team because Malaysia has passed additional legislation in 2014, they've consulted with civil society, they drafted amendments to Malaysia's anti-trafficking law in order to allow the country's flawed victim protection regime to change," he said.
Kerry said the fact that Malaysia is now on the watch list means there is still a lot of room for improvement.
The committee’s top Democrat, Ben Cardin of Maryland, suggested the law mandating the trafficking report could be strengthened to include congressional oversight of year-to-year adjustments in country rankings.
Human trafficking subjects vulnerable populations on multiple continents to virtual enslavement, a practice the United States fights by shaming offending nations.
The U.S. “has a moral imperative to speak out against trafficking. It involves labor servitude. It involves sex trafficking. It involves financing criminal activities,” Cardin said.
Corker noted that "as many as 27 million human beings live in conditions of modern slavery."
Lawmakers also raised questions about whether politics played a role in the State Department's upgrade of Cuba after 12 years at the lowest ranking. The change removed another obstacle between the two former Cold War foes at a time of rapprochement.
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