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Transcending Bias in the US Trafficking in Persons Report

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivers remarks at the 2016 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report Launch Ceremony at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on June 30, 2016. [State Department Photo/ Public Domain]

Photo: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivers remarks at the 2016 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report Launch Ceremony at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on June 30, 2016. [State Department Photo/ Public Domain]

Earlier this summer, the U.S. State Department released the 2016 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, a document prepared by the State Department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (J/TIP), the annual release of which is often met with criticism on its impartiality and bias. The United States is generally seen as a world leader in the international fight against human trafficking and modern day slavery, and the TIP Report has played a great part in setting standards and best practices for combatting trafficking globally. In September 2012, President Obama stated that “[the] fight against human trafficking is one of the great human rights causes of our time, and the United States will continue to lead it.” Despite this outward commitment to this fight, each year there is controversy surrounding the decisions made by the State Department to upgrade or downgrade certain nations, specifically due to competing interests between foreign policy goals and J/TIP’s commitment to holding countries responsible for their violations.

The ultimate aim of this report is to rank foreign governments’ progress on policies to combat human trafficking. Countries are ranked and placed in three different tiers based on how well they comply with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), a piece of legislation written in 2000 (and renewed in subsequent years) to coordinate anti-trafficking efforts domestically and abroad.

According to the State Department’s methodology:

  • Tier 1 includes “The governments of countries that fully meet the TVPA’s minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking.”

  • Tier 2 includes “The governments of countries that do not fully meet the TVPA’s minimum standards but are making significant efforts to meet those standards.”

  • Tier 2 Watch List is similar to Tier 2, but includes serious concerns regarding the government’s efforts.

  • And Tier 3 includes “The governments of countries that do not fully meet the TVPA’s minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so.”

Countries at the Tier 3 level may be subject to certain sanctions or restrictions by both the United States and the International Monetary Fund or World Bank. However, the TVPA allows the President to waive these restrictions for a variety of reasons – an action frequently taken in the past. Last year all but three Tier 3 countries received these waivers due to certain U.S. policy objectives. Venezuela, for example, received a partial waiver in order to support programs “designed to strengthen the democratic process … promot[ing] the purposes of the Act or is otherwise in the national interest of the United States.”

A 2015 article by Judith G. Kelley, Duke University, and Beth A. Simmons, Harvard University, in the American Journal of Political Science investigates how comparative numerical indicators and rankings have acted as a strong form of social pressure, or “soft power.” They “find evidence that monitoring has important effects: Countries are more likely to criminalize human trafficking when they are included in the U.S. annual Trafficking in Persons Report, and countries that are placed on a ‘watch list’ are also more likely to criminalize.” Indeed, the State Department defines the report as the “U.S. Government’s principal diplomatic tool to engage foreign governments on human trafficking.”

However, with the good comes the bad: controversy surrounding ranking decisions. This year, it centered on the upgrade of Thailand from Tier 3 to the Tier 2 Watch List, despite widespread investigations into labor trafficking within the fishing and seafood industries. Last year, it surrounded the similar upgrades of Malaysia and Cuba. The latter upgrade happened a week after the United States and Cuba reestablished diplomatic ties, whereas the former occurred a few days before President Obama traveled to Hawaii to meet with 11 Pacific nations, including Malaysia, to discuss advancing the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The director of the Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking, Melysa Sperber, told The Guardian, “We are very surprised by this year’s report, which seems to be making blatantly political decisions that we consider will have a really detrimental impact on both the integrity of the report and progress in the global fight to end modern slavery.”

After the release of the 2015 TIP report, Reuters released a special report detailing how the “State Department watered down human trafficking report,” interviewing more than a dozen sources. Their examination “shows that the government office set up to independently grade global efforts to fight human trafficking was repeatedly overruled by senior American diplomats and pressured into inflating assessments of 14 strategically important countries in this year’s [2015] Trafficking in Persons report.” It reported that there were disagreements between J/TIP and U.S. diplomatic bureaus on 17 of the countries’ ratings, and ultimately only 3 of the disputes were won by J/TIP. Some examples are as follows:

One of these three was Thailand, which diplomats had attempted to upgrade from Tier 3 to Tier 2 Watch List. As previously mentioned, the 2016 TIP Report, just one year later, presented this upgrade despite pushback from the international human rights community.

In 2013, Mark P. Lagon, former head of the TIP Office and a primary author of the TVPA, spoke before Congress on “Tier Rankings in the Fight Against Human Trafficking.” During this conversation, he admitted that at times the State Department “pulls punches, typically due to the urging of regional specialists rather than the TIP Office’s dedicated experts on trafficking.”

The State Department has certainly strengthened its efforts to combat trafficking since the initial release of the report in 2001. After controversies surrounding past years’ reports, State has made a point to be more stringent in this year’s edition against some countries who fail to significantly address trafficking, as seen with the downgrade of Burma and Uzbekistan. The Department is also working to be more proactive in the United States’ own initiatives to combat trafficking. For instance, at the 2016 TIP Report Ceremony, Secretary Kerry highlighted President Obama’s appointment of an Advisory Council on Human Trafficking in December 2015 and announced the release of two documents focused on the protection of migrant workers. However, for many advocates in the international anti-trafficking community, this year’s upgrade of Thailand’s ranking raises questions about the U.S. commitment to the issue as a whole.

Throughout history, the United States has used diplomacy as a key tool to wield soft power in support of its foreign policy. If the TIP Report has proven to be an effective form of diplomacy in combatting trafficking, what happens when other U.S. priorities and politics are able to obstruct the impartiality of the report, undermining its legitimacy? A tension arises out of the attempt to balance between a United States working to defend universal rights and a United States attempting to serve certain national interests.

For this tool to actually be more effective in moving beyond “engag[ing] foreign governments” within anti-trafficking, it must be more stringent in the way it grades, and penalizes, these governments. The human rights community, from international organizations and the media to other nations joined in the fight to protect rights, is watching closely. If the United States is to be taken seriously within this community in combatting human trafficking across the globe, it must continue to reevaluate and hone the use of this “diplomatic tool” that allows some of the world’s worst violators to slip up the tiers. If the United States is going to continue to use the TIP Report as a legitimate and effective foreign policy tool, it must make this realignment of priorities happen now.


Ashley Patton is a current Master of Arts candidate in International Relations and International Economics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). She double concentrates in International Law & Organizations and Conflict Management. She is also a research and web assistant at the FPI. She thanks Dr. Carla Freeman (’90, PhD ’99), Carlos Salazar ('08), and Matt Sindelar ('16) for their thoughtful comments on this post.

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