KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Thursday that Malaysia was upgraded from the lowest ranking in a U.S. human trafficking report because it made significant improvements, not to ensure its continued participation in talks for a U.S.-backed regional trade pact.
Malaysia was upgraded last month from the "Tier 3" ranking it received in last year's State Department report on trafficking. Critics contend that the decision was related to its involvement in negotiations for a Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement that Washington is eager to conclude.
Kerry said he signed off on the trafficking report and had no conversations with anyone about links between it and the TPP talks.
"The government of Malaysia, I am pleased to say, has made significant efforts to comply with the minimum standards," he told reporters after attending a regional security meeting. "Malaysia has passed additional legislation in 2014. They consulted with civil society, drafted amendments to anti-trafficking law in order to allow the country's flawed victim protection regime to change."
Despite the upgrade, Kerry said Malaysia still has "a long way to go" and that it did not mean a "gold seal of approval" from Washington. Malaysia will be demoted next year if it fails to follow through, he warned.
"I made it clear in my meetings, that this is a priority for the United States and that they need to continue to show leadership as they did in the passing of their laws with the full implementation of the laws," he said. "We all need to be true to the principal that although money may be used for many things, we must never allow a price tag to be placed on the heart and soul and the mind of a living person."
Kerry's comments came as congressional pressure in Washington intensified on the administration over alleged political interference in the rankings. The Senate Committee on Foreign Relations said it would be asking the State Department to submit to it all communications related to the devising of the report and that if it failed to do so, it would subpoena the information.
President Barack Obama in late June signed into law legislation that gave him "fast-track" authority to expedite negotiations for the TPP, which involves 12 countries and would cover some 40 percent of the world economy. However, the fast-track authority bars the U.S. from entering into trade agreements with nations that have Tier 3 ranking on the U.S. human trafficking list. Malaysia was the only country in the TPP talks with the Tier 3 ranking.
Human rights groups and dozens of U.S. lawmakers have protested Malaysia's upgrade.
At a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing Thursday, lawmakers voiced deep concern that there had been political interference in the U.S. rankings.
The top-ranking Democrat on the committee, Sen. Ben Cardin, questioned whether after this year's report more congressional oversight was needed before a country was taken off Tier 3.
"There are upgrades in this report that are hard to understand. And I put Malaysia No. 1 on the list," Cardin said. He said legal amendments cited as progress made by Malaysia had not yet been carried out, and the number of trafficking convictions was "ridiculously low."
"How much politics went into this? I hope zero. Because the TIP report is the gold standard," Cardin said, referring to the acronym for the Trafficking in Persons report.
The committee's Republican chair, Sen. Bob Corker, said there was also controversy over the rankings of India, China, Saudi Arabia, Cuba and Mexico.
"If it's true that the administration politicized this report, there are questions about why they chose to significantly diminish a tool that has been effective in fighting slavery around the world," Corker said.
In May, Malaysian authorities found abandoned jungle camps used by human traffickers that contained more than 100 graves suspected to contain Rohingya Muslims from Myammar. It followed a similar discovery by Thailand police. The discoveries have exposed hidden networks of jungle camps run by human smugglers, who have for years held countless desperate people captive while extorting ransoms from their families. Thailand remains in Tier 3 of the trafficking report.
Associated Press writer Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.