According to news reports, the Obama administration is planning to upgrade Malaysia’s ranking in the State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report. Advocacy groups are complaining that the move is motivated not by an improvement in Malaysia’s practices but by the administration’s desire to include Malaysia in the Trans-Pacific Partnership. These critics are probably right, and it’s all the fault of anti-TPP legislators who tried to scuttle the TPP by linking it to human trafficking.
The trade promotion authority statute passed by Congress earlier this summer prohibitsthe President from negotiating fast-tracked agreements with countries listed as Tier 3 in the trafficking report. This language was added during committee mark up by Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ). The ban is a direct and intentional obstacle to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which includes Malaysia, a Tier 3 country.
The linkage is sorely misplaced. As I’ve noted before, no one who’s worried about human rights and the TPP has explained how U.S. or foreign tariffs improve human rights. Will lowering U.S. and Malaysian tariffs increase the incidence and severity of Malaysia’s human trafficking problems? How so? No, the linkage appears to be driven more by traditional opponents of trade liberalization than by concern for improving the plight of people in Malaysia.
But rather than stop the TPP from moving forward, the trafficking provision has merely required the President to embarrass himself by upgrading Malaysia’s status in this year’s report.
Headlines from left wing media outlets include: “White House So Desperate To Get TPP Approved, It Agrees To Whitewash Mass Graves & Human Trafficking In Malaysia” and “Obama Won’t Let Some Mass Graves Stop the TPP”.
The Christian Science Monitor, in a story titled, “Has US desire for Asia trade deal trumped slavery with Malaysia’s ranking?” reveals how activists feel about the move:
For some human-rights advocates, any upgrade in Malaysia’s ranking in the annual trafficking report would be a blatant act of putting economic interests over human dignity. And it would be a stain on America’s record of human-rights promotion.
“If Malaysia is upgraded … we see an adulteration of the TIP report for financial gains,” says Agile Fernandez, director of the Malaysian human-rights organization Tenaganita. “If it’s true, it’s very clear that trade is more important to the United States of America than the issue of slavery.”
[R]ights advocates like Human Rights Watch’s Mr. Sifton say the moral authority of US evaluations like the Trafficking in Persons report risks being lost if ratings become subject to presidential priorities. And he says no explanation – except a very “alarming” one – will justify a move up for Malaysia in TIP ratings.
“We will view this decision as so extraordinarily unwarranted,” Sifton says, “that political interference can be presumed.”
And similarly from Senator Menendez:
“If true, this manipulation of Malaysia’s ranking in the State Department’s 2015 TIP report would be a perversion of the trafficking list and undermine both the integrity of this important report as well as the very difficult task of confronting states about human trafficking,”
But Senator Menendez should probably consider his own role in creating the problem. The TPP would not have impacted U.S. policy toward human trafficking at all if the senator had not insisted that ignoring Malaysia’s situation be a prerequisite for completing the agreement.
TPP opponents took a gamble when they politicized the human trafficking report. But the President refused to back down, and now they’re stuck with the consequences.
This article originally appeared in Cato at Liberty.