Washington: US lawmakers voiced concern Thursday that the State Department upgraded several countries` rankings in its annual human trafficking report for political reasons, particularly Malaysia which is negotiating a sweeping Pacific trade accord.
Undersecretary of state for human rights Sarah Sewall faced a grilling by members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who questioned why Secretary of State John Kerry would reward Kuala Lumpur despite little evidence that the government had taken strides to improve its dismal anti-trafficking record.
"How much politics went into this? I hope zero," the panel`s chairman, Senator Bob Corker, told Sewall at a hearing before expressing concern that Kerry rewarded Malaysia in hopes it would smooth negotiations over the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which if signed would become the largest free-trade pact in history.
"Many of us are concerned that the upgrading of Malaysia had more to do with trying to make sure that TPP was entered into successfully than a care for people being trafficked," Corker said.
"If it is 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."
Malaysia was upgraded from the lowest level, Tier 3, to the "Tier 2 Watch List" in State`s latest Trafficking in Persons Report, released last month. Cuba, which normalized relations with age-old foe Washington just a week before, was also upgraded to the watch list.
Senate Democrat Robert Menendez said sources close to the process reported in recent months that officials compiling the report came "under exceptional pressure to shape the rankings to meet political demands, not the facts on the ground."
Sewall said the complex process allows for "a multiplicity of views" in the secretary of state`s determining the rankings, but that political considerations like trade were not part of the equation.
She highlighted Kerry`s presence Wednesday in Kuala Lumpur, where he pressed authorities to take stronger action against trafficking.
"He conveyed that he had zero conversation about TPP relevant to his decision" to upgrade Malaysia in the report.
According to the International Labour Organisation, trafficking in persons represents a $150 billion-a-year industry, and Washington estimates some 20 million people are victims.