TPP politics? US upgrade of Malaysia’s human trafficking score draws criticism

© Soe Zeya Tun
The US State Department has upgraded Malaysia’s ranking on human trafficking, raising it from the bottom tier and sparking anger from lawmakers and human rights activists who claim the move was made to promote a huge international trade deal.

Released on Monday, the Trafficking in Persons Report saw Malaysia and Cuba rise from Tier 3, the lowest level on the list, to the Tier 2 Watch List, where nations still face scrutiny from the US, but are noted as having made some effort to fight human trafficking. 

In defending the move, Sarah Sewall, Undersecretary for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights, cited an increased number of investigations into human trafficking initiated by the Malaysian government, as well as prosecutions and improved protections for victims.

She noted, however, that the US “remain[s] concerned that low numbers of trafficking convictions in Malaysia is disproportionate to the scale of Malaysia’s human trafficking problem.”

Critics of the move lashed out at the Obama administration, arguing that the decision to upgrade Malaysia had little to do with its government’s efforts to fight human trafficking and more to do with the president’s desire to finalize the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a massive international trade deal involving the US and 10 other Pacific Rim nations that has been criticized for being negotiated in secret.

“Malaysia’s record on stopping trafficking in persons is far from sufficient to justify this upgrade,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement to Reuters. “This upgrade is more about the TPP and US trade politics than anything Malaysia did to combat human trafficking.”

When Congress approved President Obama’s so-called “fast-track” authority to expedite the approval process for the TPP, allowing Congress to vote on the pact but preventing lawmakers from offering amendments, it barred the US from entering into trade agreements with nations on Tier 3 of the State Department’s human trafficking list. Of the 11 countries involved in TPP negotiations, Malaysia was the only one to be found on Tier 3.

Now that the country has been promoted to Tier 2, however, a significant barrier to the TPP has been removed.

Senator Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey), a TPP critic and the lawmaker who authored the amendment barring Tier 3 participation, said he was “profoundly disappointed” by the news and called it a “clear politicization of the report.”

“The Administration has turned its back on the victims of trafficking, turned a blind eye to the facts, and ignored the calls from Congress, leading human rights advocates, and Malaysian government officials to preserve the integrity of this important report,” he said in a statement. “They have elevated politics over the most basic principles of human rights.”

Other lawmakers also echoed Menendez’s opinion.

“Giving countries with clear evidence of human rights violations, like Malaysia, a front-row seat to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership is unconscionable,” said Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), according to The Hill.

“Malaysia is being upgraded, at least in part, to ease passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership,” added Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-Connecticut).

Even before the decision came down, 160 members of the House of Representatives and 18 senators wrote a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry saying Malaysia should remain on Tier 3. They also raised concern that prospects for TPP were being given priority over human rights.

Generally speaking, the fight over TPP has unfolded in a surprising fashion, with Obama’s Democrats rallying against him and the trade deal, while Republicans work with the president to secure its passage. Traditionally liberal constituencies, such as labor unions, have also organized against the president.

“The administration has had difficulty securing approval for fast-track,” said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, according to The Hill. “Today’s cynical upgrade of a nation where forced labor, human trafficking, and exploitation remain pervasive, undermines its promises on labor rights, human rights, and anti-corruption in trade deals and does not bode well for TPP passage.”