Political Staff Overruled “Purists” at State Department Who Tallied Slavery Problems

A devastating new Reuters story chronicles how political concerns watered down the State Department’s annual report on human trafficking around the world.

US President Barack Obama chats with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razzak as they play golf at Marine Corps Base Hawaii on December 24, 2014.   AFP PHOTO/Nicholas KAMM        (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

A devastating new Reuters story chronicles how political concerns watered down the State Department’s annual report on human trafficking around the world. The story quotes anonymous diplomats as saying that human rights experts shouldn’t be “purists” when it comes to the forced labor policies in foreign countries that amount to modern-day slavery.

The report from Reuters, based on over a dozen sources, alleges that senior personnel at the State Department, up to and including John Kerry’s chief of staff, Jonathan Finer, boosted the grades for 14 countries, over the recommendations of experts at the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, known in Washington as J/TIP. The upgrades included China, India, Mexico, Cuba and Malaysia.

Staying out of the report’s lowest Tier 3 level helps countries avoid U.S. sanctions. In addition, Malaysia’s ascendance to Tier 2 allowed it to remain in Trans-Pacific Partnership talks, after a federal statute barred Tier 3 countries from receiving “fast-track” approval for any trade agreements with the United States.

While politics are always part of the trafficking report, this year’s negotiations featured “a degree of intervention not previously known,” according to Reuters. Critics are frustrated by the damaged integrity of the report.

But the diplomats doing the politicizing were apparently frustrated, too.

“Some diplomats say that J/TIP staffers should avoid acting like ‘purists’ and keep sight of broader U.S. interests,” writes Reuters, “including maintaining open channels with authoritarian governments to push for reform and forging trade deals that could lift people out of poverty.” The article did not name names, noting that “U.S. diplomats are reluctant to openly strike back at critics.”

Calling those concerned about the forced labor of human beings “purists” fits with a long and troubling history of U.S. governments ignoring human rights concerns in partner countries, particularly to advance trade deals. A study by Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s office earlier this year found labor-related human rights abuses in 17 of the 20 countries with whom the U.S. has trade agreements.

Since being organized in 2001, J/TIP has typically won over half the disagreements they have with senior State Department staff in crafting the report. This year, they only prevailed on 3 out of 17 disputes, Reuters said. Past J/TIP officials acknowledged a long history of leniency for countries with diplomatic or trade relationships with the U.S. But the barrage of special treatment this year could undermine the usefulness of a report meant to improve the human rights records of countries around the world.

Photo: Obama golfs with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razzak in Hawaii in December.


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