By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - This year's U.S. State Department human trafficking report was not watered down because of concerns about how it might affect trade deals or diplomatic relations, State Department officials said on Wednesday.
Members of a House of Representatives subcommittee grilled State officials at a hearing about the Trafficking in Persons report, which has raised concerns that politics trumped human rights in the rankings of countries such as Malaysia and Cuba. (http://1.usa.gov/1l3GLxb)
"We must get the report right. No fudging, no favors to nations based on other agendas, or we risk losing the most effective tool we have to help the more than 20 million victims of trafficking enslaved around the world," said U.S. Representative Chris Smith, the Republican subcommittee chairman and an author of the law that led to the report.
Lawmakers became concerned when this year's report took Malaysia off the list of the worst offenders in human trafficking in July, removing a possible barrier to a major Asia-Pacific trade pact.
The report also upgraded Cuba, as President Barack Obama's administration moved toward more normal relations with the Communist-ruled island.
Reuters reported in August that State Department rights experts had concluded that trafficking conditions had not improved in Malaysia and Cuba. But State's senior political staff pressed them to inflate assessments of strategically important countries.
Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers at the hearing expressed concern that the administration was so eager to reach the trade agreement that it disregarded Malaysia's human rights record.
Kari Johnstone, principal deputy director of the State office that monitors and combats human trafficking, said this year's evaluations were the same as earlier years for all of the countries.
"As in previous years, it was a truly deliberative fact-based process," she said.
Johnstone said trade had not come up in discussions about Malaysia.
She cited what she termed the Malaysian government's "significant efforts" to improve its trafficking record as a reason for the upgrade, although she said the administration continues to have serious concerns.
Alex Lee, deputy assistant secretary at State's Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, said the shift in U.S.-Cuban relations did not influence the decision on Cuba.
"It was completely separate," he told the subcommittee.
(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Tom Brown)