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    State Department watered down human trafficking report

    Special Report: State Department watered down human trafficking report
    By Jason Szep and Matt Spetalnick

    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – In the weeks leading up to a critical annual U.S.
    report on human trafficking that publicly shames the world’s worst
    offenders, human rights experts at the State Department concluded that
    trafficking conditions hadn’t improved in Malaysia and Cuba. And in
    China, they found, things had grown worse.

    The State Department’s senior political staff saw it differently — and
    they prevailed.

    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.
    (Graphic looking at some of the key decisions here: http://reut.rs/1gF2Wz5)

    Of the three disputes J/TIP won, the most prominent was Thailand, which
    has faced scrutiny over forced labor at sea and the trafficking of
    Rohingya Muslims through its southern jungles. Diplomats had sought to
    upgrade it to so-called “Tier 2 Watch List” status. It remains on “Tier
    3” – the rating for countries with the worst human-trafficking records.

    The number of rejected recommendations suggests a degree of intervention
    not previously known by diplomats in a report that can lead to sanctions
    and is the basis for many countries’ anti-trafficking policies. This
    year, local embassies and other constituencies within the department
    were able to block some of the toughest grades.

    State Department officials say the ratings are not politicized. “As is
    always the case, final decisions are reached only after rigorous
    analysis and discussion between the TIP office, relevant regional
    bureaus and senior State Department leaders,” State Department spokesman
    John Kirby said in response to queries by Reuters.

    Still, by the time the report was released on July 27, Malaysia and Cuba
    were both removed from the “Tier 3″ blacklist, even though the State
    Department’s own trafficking experts believed neither had made notable
    improvements, according to the sources.

    The Malaysian upgrade, which was highly criticized by human rights
    groups, could smooth the way for an ambitious proposed U.S.-led
    free-trade deal with the Southeast Asian nation and 11 other countries.

    Ending Communist-ruled Cuba’s 12 years on the report’s blacklist came as
    the two nations reopened embassies on each other’s soil following their
    historic détente over the past eight months.

    And for China, the experts’ recommendation to downgrade it to the worst
    ranking, Tier 3, was overruled despite the report’s conclusion that
    Beijing did not undertake increased anti-trafficking efforts.

    That would have put China alongside the likes of Syria and North Korea,
    regarded by the United Nations as among the world’s worst human right
    abusers.

    Typically, J/TIP wins more than half of what officials call “disputes”
    with diplomatic sections of the State Department, according to people
    familiar with the process.

    “Certainly we have never seen that kind of an outcome,” said one U.S.
    official with direct knowledge of the department.

    ABILITY TO EMBARRASS

    The Trafficking in Persons report, which evaluated 188 countries and
    territories this year, calls itself the world’s most comprehensive
    resource of governmental anti-human trafficking efforts. Rights groups
    mostly agree.

    It organizes countries into 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.

    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.”

    But the office set up in 2001 by a congressional mandate to spearhead
    that effort is increasingly struggling to publish independent
    assessments of the most diplomatically important countries, the sources
    said.

    The rejection of so many recommendations could strengthen calls by some
    lawmakers to investigate how the report is compiled. After Reuters on
    July 8 reported on the plans to upgrade Malaysia, 160 members of the
    U.S. House and 18 U.S. senators wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry
    urging him to keep Malaysia in Tier 3, based on its trafficking record.
    They questioned whether the upgrade was politically motivated.

    Senator Robert Menendez, a Democrat, has threatened to call for a Senate
    hearing and an inspector general to investigate if top State Department
    officials removed Malaysia from the lowest tier for political reasons.

    The final decision on disputed rankings this year was made in meetings
    attended by some of the State Department’s most powerful diplomats,
    including Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken, Under Secretary of
    State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman and Kerry’s Chief of Staff,
    Jonathan Finer, according to the sources.

    Sarah Sewall, who oversees J/TIP as Undersecretary of State for Civilian
    Security, Democracy and Human Rights, presented the experts’
    recommendations, the sources said. The State Department declined to
    make any of those officials available for comment.

    “NO, NO, NO”

    The unprecedented degree of discord over this trafficking report began
    to become clear after Reuters early last month revealed plans to upgrade
    Malaysia from the lowest Tier 3 rank to Tier 2 Watch List.

    The improved ranking came in a year in which Malaysian authorities
    discovered dozens of suspected mass migrant graves and human rights
    groups reported continued forced labor in the nation’s lucrative palm
    oil, construction and electronics industries. As recently as April, the
    U.S. ambassador to Malaysia, Joseph Yun, urged the country to take
    prosecution of human trafficking violations more seriously.

    U.S. officials have denied that political considerations influenced
    Malaysia’s rankings.

    “No, no, no,” said Sewall, when asked by reporters last Monday whether
    Malaysia was upgraded to facilitate trade negotiations. She said the
    decision was based on how Malaysia was dealing with trafficking.

    Representative Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican who authored a 2000
    law that led to the creation of J/TIP, said in an interview that the
    office’s authority is being undermined by the president’s agenda. “It’s
    so politicized,” he said.

    If Malaysia had remained on Tier 3, it would have posed a potential
    barrier to Obama’s proposed trade pact, the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
    That deal is a crucial part of his pivot to Asia policy. Congress
    approved legislation in June giving Obama expanded trade negotiating
    powers but prohibiting deals with Tier 3 countries such as, at that
    time, Malaysia.

    Congressional sources and current and former State Department officials
    said experts in the J/TIP office had recommended keeping Malaysia on
    Tier 3, highlighting a drop in human-trafficking convictions in the
    country to three last year from nine in 2013. They said, according to
    the sources, that some of Malaysia’s efforts to end forced labor
    amounted to promises rather than action.

    The analysts also clashed over Cuba’s record with the State Department’s
    Western Hemisphere Affairs Bureau, whose view took precedence in the
    final report.

    Human rights groups and people with knowledge of the negotiations over
    the rankings said an unearned upgrade for Cuba, especially at a time of
    intense attention due to the historic diplomatic thaw between Washington
    and Havana, could undermine the integrity of the report.

    Cuba had been on the “border line” for an upgrade in recent years, a
    former State Department official said. And although Cuba ended up with
    an upgrade, the final report remained highly critical, citing concerns
    about Cuba’s failure to deal with a degree of alleged forced labor in
    medical missions that Havana sends to developing countries.

    China was another source of friction. J/TIP’s analysts called for
    downgrading China, the world’s second-biggest economy, to Tier 3,
    criticizing Beijing for failing to follow through on a promise to
    abolish its “re-education through labor” system and to adequately
    protect trafficking victims from neighboring countries such as North
    Korea. The final report put China on Tier 2 Watch List.

    SHOWING DEFERENCE

    But the candor of J/TIP can run afoul of other important diplomatic
    priorities, particularly in countries beset by instability or corruption
    where U.S. diplomats are trying to build relationships. That leads every
    year to sometimes contentious back-and-forth over the rankings with
    far-flung embassies and regional bureaus – the diplomatic centers of
    gravity at the State Department.

    “There is supposed to be some deference to the expertise of the office,”
    said Mark Lagon, J/TIP’s ambassador-at-large from 2007 to 2009 and now
    president of Freedom House, an advocacy group in Washington. If the
    office is now losing more disputes over rankings than it is winning,
    that would be “an unfortunate thing,” he said.

    Most U.S. diplomats are reluctant to openly strike back at critics
    inside and outside of the administration who accuse them of letting
    politics trump human rights, the sources said.

    But privately, some diplomats say that J/TIP staffers should avoid
    acting like “purists” and keep sight of broader U.S. interests,
    including maintaining open channels with authoritarian governments to
    push for reform and forging trade deals that could lift people out of
    poverty.

    From the start, J/TIP has tried to be impartial. It is based in a
    building a few blocks away from State Department, adding to the sense of
    two separate identities and cultures.

    But establishing genuine independence has been difficult. At first, the
    heads of regional bureaus, representing the business and political
    interests of U.S. embassies, would join the J/TIP team around a table
    and have almost an equal say in deciding country rankings in the final
    report.

    John Miller, a former Republican congressman from Washington state named
    by President George W. Bush to head the bureau from 2002 to 2006,
    overhauled that structure.

    “I said ‘no way’,” Miller said in an interview. By 2004, decisions on
    how to rank countries were made by his office. Diplomats who objected
    could appeal to then deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage. “He
    rarely overruled me,” said Miller. Armitage, who is no longer in a
    government job, did not respond to a request for comment sent through
    his office.

    Laura Lederer, who helped set the office up as senior human trafficking
    adviser from 2002 to 2007, said its job was “to assess and rate
    countries solely on their progress in addressing the prevention of
    trafficking, the prosecution of traffickers, and protection and
    assistance of victims.”

    But officials who worked in the office over the past 15 years
    acknowledge that countries with sensitive diplomatic or trade
    relationships with the United States sometimes received special
    treatment following pressure from local embassies and other
    constituencies within the department.

    One such country is Mexico – a key trading partner whose cooperation is
    also needed against drug trafficking and illegal immigration. It was
    kept at Tier 2 despite the anti-trafficking unit’s call for a worse
    grade, according to officials in Washington and Mexico City.

    The controversy over this year’s report comes at a time when J/TIP lacks
    a congressionally confirmed leader.

    The prior chief, ambassador-at-Large Luis CdeBaca, left in November of
    last year. His deputy, Alison Friedman, then resigned to join a
    non-profit anti-slavery organization. And then it took until mid-July
    for Obama to nominate Georgia federal prosecutor Susan Coppedge as the
    next ambassador-at-large.

    The lack of a director can increase the unit’s exposure to political
    influence, said Lederer.

    Some say the perceived hit to the integrity of the 2015 report could do
    lasting damage.

    “It only takes one year of this kind of really deleterious political
    effect to kill its credibility,” said Mark Taylor, a former senior
    coordinator for reports and political affairs at J/TIP from 2003 to 2013.

    (Reporting by Jason Szep and Matt Spetalnick; Additional reporting by
    Patricia Zengerle in Washington, Dave Graham in Mexico City, Michael
    Martina in Beijing, and Dan Trotta in Havana; Editing by Martin Howell)

    Source: Special Report: State Department watered down human trafficking
    report – Yahoo News –
    http://news.yahoo.com/special-report-state-department-watered-down-human-trafficking-192533858.html;_ylt=AwrC1CltmcBVCQ8AjgrQtDMD;_ylu=X3oDMTBzdWd2cWI5BGNvbG8DYmYxBHBvcwMxMAR2dGlkAwRzZWMDc3I-

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