Washington: Washington accused Russia and Thailand of failing to tackle human trafficking Monday, while praising progress in Malaysia and Cuba, in a report on a global scourge decried as "modern slavery."
Venezuela, Iran, Libya, Syria, Yemen, North Korea, Zimbabwe and others joined Russia and Thailand at the bottom of an annual ranking compiled by the State Department and announced by Secretary of State John Kerry.
Countries in "Tier 3," the lowest category, are those whose governments do not respect international norms or laws on trafficking and "are not making significant efforts to do so," the report said.
But the promotion of Malaysia and Cuba one notch from Tier 3 to the "Tier 2 Watch List" drew allegations that President Barack Obama`s administration had politicized the rankings to reward favored capitals.
Malaysia is among Pacific Rim nations currently negotiating a trade accord with Washington, while Cuba and the United States re-established diplomatic ties last week, ending decades of hostility.
Asked whether Malaysia`s role in the trade talks played was a factor, undersecretary of state for human rights Sarah Sewall insisted: "No, no, no."
The report said Kuala Lumpur had made "significant efforts" in fighting trafficking.
While Sewall said the May discovery of mass graves believed to be used by Malaysian people-smugglers near the Thai border was a "core concern" for the State Department, it came after the report`s review period ended in March.
Several US lawmakers expressed concern over the report.
"They have elevated politics over the most basic principles of human rights," said Senate Democrat Robert Menendez, alleging that the leniency towards Malaysia and Cuba was "a stamp of approval for countries who have failed to take the basic actions to merit this upgrade."
The US-based Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking said Obama`s administration "unfairly" upgraded Malaysia by putting trade over human rights.
Russia, where statistics show there are an estimated five million to 12 million foreign workers, has languished in Tier 3 since 2013.
"Many of these migrant workers experienced exploitative labor conditions characteristic of trafficking cases, such as withholding of identity documents, non-payment for services rendered, physical abuse or extremely poor living conditions," the US report stated.
It said Russia lacked a national plan and funds for prevention, and that prosecutions remained far too low.
China rose a notch in 2014 to the Tier 2 Watch List, where it remained this year.
Cuba, after 12 years at Tier 3, was upgraded to the Watch List for 2015, with the report citing the island`s "sustained law enforcement efforts" in prosecuting and convicting sex traffickers.Most Western countries, as well as others like Israel, Taiwan and Armenia, are at Tier 1 for fighting trafficking and remaining in compliance with international standards.
According to the International Labour Organization, trafficking in persons represents a $150 billion-a-year industry, including $99 billion for the sex industry alone.
Washington estimates some 20 million people are victims.
"Trafficking in persons is an insult to human dignity and an assault on freedom," Kerry said in the report`s introduction as he called for a comprehensive "fight against modern slavery."
US ally Thailand slipped from Tier 2 in 2008 and 2009 to Watch List from 2010 to 2013, then Tier 3 for two years.
Thailand`s trafficking problem centers on its extensive sex trade, but there is also reported abuse in commercial fishing.
"Some Thai officials are complicit in trafficking crimes and corruption continues to undermine anti-trafficking efforts," the report said.
Thailand`s foreign ministry rejected the ranking, claiming it "did not accurately reflect the significant efforts" made by the current junta to address trafficking.
Malaysia`s Home Ministry said the country`s upgrade recognised its "commitment and initiative" in fighting trafficking.
But Malaysian labour and refugee rights group Tenaganita called it "a terrifying hypocrisy and a further crippling of global efforts to end slavery".
It said Malaysia has done little to address the scourge or prosecute traffickers and corrupt officials involved, and that abuse and exploitation of trafficked persons remained rife.
"The US claims to value human rights but it is now prepared to barter the freedom, dignity and lives of victims of human trafficking for its own economic gain," it said in a statement.