By Jason Szep
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. Senate committee may draft legislation seeking to add more transparency to the State Department’s annual human trafficking report following concerns it had been watered down for political reasons, a senior lawmaker said on Thursday.
Senator Bob Corker, Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations panel, said lawmakers remained concerned over the credibility of the report and whether politics trumped human rights in this year’s rankings of strategically important countries such as Malaysia and Cuba. (http://1.usa.gov/1l3GLxb)
Corker and Senator Ben Cardin, the panel's ranking Democrat, both expressed concerns after a closed-door hearing between the Senate Foreign Relations panel and Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken to discuss the Trafficking in Persons report.
“I think what you are going to see happen is likely a legislative push to create some transparency around countries being upgraded so we understand what the dynamic is,” Corker said after the meeting.
Malaysia’s upgrade from the lowest tier on the list of worst human trafficking centers could smooth the way for an ambitious U.S.-led free-trade deal with the Southeast Asian nation and 11 other countries by removing a potential barrier to President Barack Obama's signature global trade deal.
A provision in a related trade bill passed by Congress this year had barred from fast-tracked trade deals Malaysia and other countries that earn the worst U.S. human trafficking ranking in the eyes of the U.S. State Department.
“Nothing was put forth to alleviate those concerns in any way. As a matter of fact, I would say that most people left there with even greater concerns,” Corker said.
Mai Shiozaki, a spokeswoman in the State Department's office that produces the trafficking report, said Blinken "had a productive discussion with senators and appreciated the opportunity to lay out the facts and rationale behind this year’s report."
"CREDIBILITY" IN QUESTION
The hearing followed a Reuters examination published in August that said the State Department office set up to independently rate countries' efforts to fight human trafficking was repeatedly overruled by senior U.S. diplomats in the production of this year’s Trafficking in Persons report.
The Reuters report said that over the objections of the State Department's own experts, Malaysia and Cuba were among countries upgraded from a blacklist of worst offenders in the trafficking report published on July 27.
In total, analysts in the anti-trafficking office disagreed with U.S. diplomatic bureaus on ratings for 17 countries during the decision-making process, according to the Reuters report. The analysts, specialists in assessing efforts to combat modern slavery, prevailed in only three of those disputes, the worst ratio in the 15-year history of the unit.
A congressional aide with knowledge of Thursday’s briefing said Blinken acknowledged there were disagreements within the State Department over some of the country rankings.
The number of rejected recommendations has suggested a previously unknown degree of intervention by top State Department diplomats in a report that can lead to sanctions on countries relegated to the lowest rating, known as "Tier 3."
Testifying before the committee on Aug. 6, Undersecretary of State Sarah Sewall, who oversees the U.S. Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons as undersecretary for civilian security, democracy and human rights, defended the Obama administration under questioning over the upgrades, saying the upgrades were justified.
Corker said his office sent a letter this month to the State Department requesting documents related to the State Department’s decision-making on Malaysia and other diplomatically sensitive countries in this year’s report.
Senator Cardin said the credibility of the report is in question.
"What we are looking at is how we can improve the statutes to provide more transparency when countries are upgraded,” he said in an interview.
Malaysia’s upgrade followed international scrutiny and outcry over the country’s efforts to combat human trafficking after the discovery this year of scores of graves in people-smuggling camps near its northern border with Thailand.
The State Department last year downgraded Malaysia in its annual "Trafficking in Persons" report to Tier 3, alongside North Korea, Syria and Zimbabwe, citing "limited efforts to improve its flawed victim protection regime" and other problems.
(Writing by Jason Szep; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)