Special Report: State Department watered down human trafficking report

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Human Trafficking in 60 Secs

In the weeks leading up to a critical annual U.S. report on human trafficking that publicly shames the world's worst offenders, human rights experts at the State Department concluded that trafficking conditions hadn't improved in Malaysia and Cuba. And in China, they found, things had grown worse.

The State Department's senior political staff saw it differently — and they prevailed.

A Reuters examination, based on interviews with more than a dozen sources in Washington and foreign capitals, 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 Trafficking in Persons report.

In all, analysts in the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons - or J/TIP, as it's known within the U.S. government — disagreed with U.S. diplomatic bureaus on ratings for 17 countries, the sources said.

The analysts, who are specialists in assessing efforts to combat modern slavery - such as the illegal trade in humans for forced labor or prostitution - won only three of those disputes, the worst ratio in the 15-year history of the unit, according to the sources.

As a result, not only Malaysia, Cuba and China, but countries such as India, Uzbekistan and Mexico, wound up with better grades than the State Department's human-rights experts wanted to give them, the sources said. (Graphic looking at some of the key decisions here: reut.rs/1gF2Wz5)

Of the three disputes J/TIP won, the most prominent was Thailand, which has faced scrutiny over forced labor at sea and the trafficking of Rohingya Muslims through its southern jungles. Diplomats had sought to upgrade it to so-called "Tier 2 Watch List" status. It remains on "Tier 3" - the rating for countries with the worst human-trafficking records.

Human trafficking issues around the world

Human trafficking issues around the world
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Special Report: State Department watered down human trafficking report
In this Monday, May 11, 2015, photo 16-year-old Sadik Hussein, left, and 17-year-old Noor Alam, roll-play as they retell how they were beaten at a human trafficking boat, hours after returning to their homes in Thetkabyin Village, north of Sittwe, western Rakhine state, Myanmar. They say they escaped from a human trafficking boat, where they sat for days with their knees bent into their chest, pressed up against other sweaty bodies in the cabin’s rancid heat. They say members of the crew paced back and forth with iron rods and belts, hitting anyone who dared speak or even vomit from the nauseating stench and rolling waves. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)
Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a news conference at the State Department in Washington, Monday, July 27, 2015, where he released the 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report. The State Department has taken Malaysia and Cuba off its blacklist of countries failing to combat modern-day slavery, leaving the U.S. open to criticism that politics is swaying the often-contentious rankings in its annual human trafficking report. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
SHAMLAPUR, BANGLADESH - JULY 4: A photograph of Rohingya trafficking victim Mohammad Aiaz is seen July 4, 2015 in Shamlapur, Bangladesh. On March 5, 2015 Aiaz met a man who promised to take him to a good job in Malaysia for free. He left Bangladesh with 13 other Rohingya. A few days after that his mother, Lila Begum, got a phone call from her son saying he was on the ship and that she needed to pay a man in Teknaf 200,000 taka ($2,570) or he would be killed. She managed to pay 175,000 but she has not heard from her son since. In the past months thousands of Rohingya have landed on the shores of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, many of them by way of Bangladesh. The Rohingya pay up to $2,000 to traffickers, and they sail out from Bangladesh's southern coastline on fishing boats to meet larger ships in the deep sea that will take them to Malaysia. UNHCR estimates that there are more than 300,000 Rohingya living in Bangladesh. (Photo by Shazia Rahman/Getty Images)
In this Thursday, May 21, 2015 photo, Mohammed Elias, 45, displays a photograph of his 14-year-old son, who has been missing in a human trafficking ring in Ukhiya, near Cox's Bazar, a southern coastal district about, 296 kilometers (183 miles) south of Dhaka, Bangladesh. Elias has paid ransom to a lady who collected the money from him faking herself as a beggar at Teknaf in Cox’s Bazar district that borders with Myanmar. The traffickers spun stories that were unimaginable to their listeners, many who hailed from tiny Bangladeshi villages where almost no one earns more than a few dollars a day. As a boat people crisis emerged in Southeast Asia in recent weeks, nearly all the focus has been on the Rohingya: the persecuted Muslim minority fleeing Myanmar. But of the more than 3,000 people who have come ashore this month in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, about half were from Bangladesh, according to the U.N. refugee agency, mainly poor laborers seeking better jobs and a brighter future. (AP Photo/A.M. Ahad)
In this Friday, May 29, 2015 photo, American actor Matt Dillon, right, shakes hands with Noor Alam, a 17-year old Rohingya survivor of human-trafficking at Thetkabyin village, north of Sittwe in the western state of Rakhine, Myanmar. Dillon puts a rare celebrity spotlight on the plight of Myanmar's long-persecuted Rohingya Muslims, visiting a hot, squalid camp for tens of thousands displaced by violence and a port that has served as one of the main launching pads for their exodus by sea. (AP Photo/Robin McDowell)
An armed Malaysian policeman checks a driver's documentations a day after the government announced the discovery of camps and graves, the first such sites found in Malaysia since a regional human-trafficking crisis erupted earlier this month, near Malaysia-Thailand borders in Wang Kelian on May 25, 2015. A total of 139 grave sites and 28 human-trafficking camps have been found in a remote northern Malaysian border region, the country's top police official told reporters. AFP PHOTO / MOHD RASFAN (Photo credit should read MOHD RASFAN/AFP/Getty Images)
A journalist takes photo of 24 alleged human traffickers' pictures displayed on a board, released by Italian police during a press conference in Palermo on April 20, 2015. AFP PHOTO / MARCELLO PATERNOSTRO (Photo credit should read MARCELLO PATERNOSTRO/AFP/Getty Images)
In this Monday, May 11, 2015, photo 16-year-old Sadik Hussein, left, and 17-year-old Noor Alam, hours after returning to their homes in Thetkabyin Village, north of Sittwe, western Rakhine state, Myanmar. They say they escaped from a human trafficking boat, where they sat for days with their knees bent into their chest, pressed up against other sweaty bodies in the cabin's rancid heat. They say members of the crew paced back and forth with iron rods and belts, hitting anyone who dared speak or even vomit from the nauseating stench and rolling waves. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)
In this In this Tuesday, May 12, 2015, photo 17-year old Rorbiza rests at camp home of Dapaing, North of Sittwe, western Rakhine state, Myanmar, after escaping from a human trafficking boat. Brokers promise pretty young girls the prospect of arranged marriages in Malaysia, though activists say in recent years many have instead been sold into prostitution.(AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)
Thai policemen listen to Thai Police chief Gen. Somyot Poompanmoung during a meeting about Anti Human Trafficking at the police headquarters in Bangkok, Thailand , Friday, May 8, 2015. Thailand's national police chief said a powerful mayor was arrested Friday and that more than 50 police officers were under investigation in the country's widening human-trafficking scandal. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)
School girls holding placards react to camera as they walk as part of an awareness campaign against human trafficking in Kolkata, India, Sunday, Feb. 15, 2015. The event was organized by the Diocese of Kolkata as part of their Bicentenary celebrations. (AP Photo/Bikas Das)
Community members holds a candlelit vigil in support of the “safe harbor” legislation for child victims of human trafficking, Thursday, Dec. 11, 2014, in Atlanta. State Sen. Renee Unterman, of Buford, wants child victims of human trafficking to be immune from prosecution in Georgia, building on the state’s 2011 crackdown on prostitution and other sexual crimes. Unterman pre-filed the legislation on Thursday before joining about 50 supporters for a candlelight vigil for victims of sex trafficking at an Atlanta church. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
California state Senator Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles), left, and Assemblyman Isadore Hall, D-Compton, join prosecutors, lawmakers and police to plot a plan to eradicate human sex trafficking in California and across the nation during the Domestic Human Trafficking symposium in Los Angeles, Friday, April, 25, 2014. According to a 2005 International Labour Organisation paper, human trafficking — or sexual servitude and forced labor — brings in about $32 billion annually, making it the second most profitable criminal enterprise after illegal arms trafficking. The majority of that money, or nearly $28 billion, comes from forced commercial sexual exploitation. The vast majority of those trafficked are women and children, from all milieus of society. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
Alexandro Cross, 5, carries a sign during a rally against human trafficking, Friday, Feb. 14, 2014, in Miami. This event was part of the One Billion Rising for Justice, a worldwide event by supporters demanding the arrest of those who participate in domestic violence and human trafficking. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
A speaker addresses EU and police experts during a conference on trafficking in humans, in Warsaw, Poland, Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2013. (AP Photo/Alik Keplicz
A Georgia State Patrol trooper stands next to a portrait of Archibald Bulloch, Georgia's first President and Commander-in-Chief in 1776, as a poster board stands on display during a press conference announcing a new campaign on human trafficking by state lawmakers and law enforcement officials, Monday, March 18, 2013, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Parents of missing children open doors of a mini-van, covered by photos and informations about abducted and missing children, while they leave an art gallery that holds a painting exhibition of an artist who supports anti-human trafficking campaigns in Beijing, China, Saturday, Jan. 5, 2013. Child buyers in China are not subject to criminal prosecution if they do not obstruct rescue efforts or mistreat the children, and legal experts are pushing for a law revision to make it a crime to buy abducted children, Xinhua reported. (AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan)
Joy Ngozi Ezeilo, U.N. Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons, gestures as she talks about her report on her fact-finding mission in the Philippines Friday Nov. 9, 2012 at the financial district of Makati city, east of Manila. Ezeilo said one of the "issues of concern" is the lack of accurate data and somewhat low-level of awareness knowledge and skills amongst government authorities to identify cases of trafficking in persons. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)
British actress Emma Thompson tells the story of a young woman forced into prostitution during the opening ceremony of Journey, an installation recounting the tale of Elena, a young woman who fell victim to human trafficking, in The Hague, Netherlands, Thursday, Oct. 14, 2010. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)
Los Angeles Police Department Capt. Ann Young, at podium, asks the public to help identify other victims of of alleged child pimp, Leroy Bragg, seen in photo, left, during a news conference on Monday, Oct. 4, 2010, in Los Angeles. The 34-year-old Bragg had befriended girls and young women in the Los Angeles area then forced them to work for him. He has been charged with recruiting a 13-year-old girl into prostitution. He has pleaded not guilty to human trafficking, crimes involving a minor and an unrelated burglary. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
In this photo taken on Jan. 21, 2009, Myanmar refugees participate in a demonstration outside the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Malaysian authorities have arrested five immigration officers suspected of taking part in the trafficking of illegal immigrants from Myanmar, police said Tuesday, July 21, 2009. (AP Photo/Lai Seng Sin)
Mita Mandal, right, narrates her story as Swapna Gayen, left, a sex worker and active worker of their union Durbar Women Co-ordination Committee during a press conference of announcement of Media Award on human trafficking and HIV/AIDS in Calcutta, India, Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2006. The Human Development Resource Network (HDRN), a New Delhi based advocacy and leadership development organization announced four awards for outstanding published reports in print media and four for the Television media covering trafficking and HIV in India, carrying a cash prize of Rupees 25,000 (USD$543) and a certificate each. Mandal was bought by a human trafficker but saved by a women organization and now sings in events supporting social causes. (AP Photo/Bikas Das)
Sex workers and sympathizers demonstrate on April 9, 2015 against the closure of window brothels by the municipality in the red light district in Amsterdam. With Project 1012, the Amsterdam wants to close window prostitution to prevent crime, human trafficking and degradation. AFP PHOTO / ANP / ROBIN VAN LONKHUIJSEN - netherlands out - (Photo credit should read ROBIN VAN LONKHUIJSEN/AFP/Getty Images)
An ethnic Rohingya boy leans on a traffic lane separator used as a partition at a temporary shelter in Langsa, Aceh province, Indonesia, Sunday, May 17, 2015. Boats filled with more than 2,000 Bangladeshi and Rohingya migrants have landed in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, and thousands more migrants are believed to be adrift at sea after a crackdown on human traffickers prompted captains and smugglers to abandon their human cargo. (AP Photo/Binsar Bakkara)
Thai policemen listen to Thai Police chief Gen. Somyot Poompanmoung during a meeting about Anti Human Trafficking at the police headquarters in Bangkok, Thailand , Friday, May 8, 2015. Thailand's national police chief said a powerful mayor was arrested Friday and that more than 50 police officers were under investigation in the country's widening human-trafficking scandal. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)
In this May 5, 2015 photo, forensic police officer collects items left at an abandoned migrant camp on Khao Kaew Mountain near the Thai-Malaysian border in Padang Besar, Songkhla province, southern Thailand. Thailand is eager to show its newfound toughness on human trafficking, taking reporters on patrols and tours of former camps, cooperating with neighboring countries and the U.S., and arresting dozens of officials - including a high-ranking officer in the military that now controls the country. A discovery of 36 bodies at abandoned traffickers’ camps near Thailand’s southern border with Malaysia has intensified international pressure on Thailand to crack down on smugglers. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)
Thai police officials measure a shallow grave in Padang Besar, Songkhla province, southern Thailand, Saturday, May 2, 2015. Police officials in Thailand trekked into the mountains to dig up shallow graves Saturday, after the grim discovery of an abandoned jungle camp renewed calls for a crackdown on the human trafficking networks operating in the Southeast Asian country. (AP Photo/Sumeth Panpetch)
Volunteer officers dismantle an abandoned migrant camp on Khao Kaew mountain near the Thai-Malaysian border in Padang Besar, Songkhla province, southern Thailand, Tuesday, May 5, 2015. Police have found a recently abandoned camp on a forested hillside in southern Thailand believed to have held human trafficking victims, days after the grim discovery of 26 bodies at a separate location exposed a thriving human smuggling network. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

The number of rejected recommendations suggests a degree of intervention not previously known by diplomats in a report that can lead to sanctions and is the basis for many countries' anti-trafficking policies. This year, local embassies and other constituencies within the department were able to block some of the toughest grades.

State Department officials say the ratings are not politicized. "As is always the case, final decisions are reached only after rigorous analysis and discussion between the TIP office, relevant regional bureaus and senior State Department leaders," State Department spokesman John Kirby said in response to queries by Reuters.

Still, by the time the report was released on July 27, Malaysia and Cuba were both removed from the "Tier 3" blacklist, even though the State Department's own trafficking experts believed neither had made notable improvements, according to the sources.

The Malaysian upgrade, which was highly criticized by human rights groups, could smooth the way for an ambitious proposed U.S.-led free-trade deal with the Southeast Asian nation and 11 other countries.

Ending Communist-ruled Cuba's 12 years on the report's blacklist came as the two nations reopened embassies on each other's soil following their historic détente over the past eight months.

And for China, the experts' recommendation to downgrade it to the worst ranking, Tier 3, was overruled despite the report's conclusion that Beijing did not undertake increased anti-trafficking efforts.

That would have put China alongside the likes of Syria and North Korea, regarded by theUnited Nations as among the world's worst human right abusers.

Typically, J/TIP wins more than half of what officials call "disputes" with diplomatic sections of the State Department, according to people familiar with the process.

"Certainly we have never seen that kind of an outcome," said one U.S. official with direct knowledge of the department.


The Trafficking in Persons report, which evaluated 188 countries and territories this year, calls itself the world's most comprehensive resource of governmental anti-human trafficking efforts. Rights groups mostly agree.

It organizes countries into tiers based on trafficking records: Tier 1 for nations that meet minimum U.S. standards; Tier 2 for those making significant efforts to meet those standards; Tier 2 "Watch List" for those that deserve special scrutiny; and Tier 3 for countries that fail to comply with the minimum U.S. standards and are not making significant efforts.

While a Tier 3 ranking can trigger sanctions limiting access to aid from the United States, the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank, such action is frequently waived.

The real power is its ability to embarrass countries into action. Many countries aggressively lobby U.S. embassies to try to avoid sliding into the Tier 3 category. Four straight years on the Tier 2 Watch List triggers an automatic downgrade to Tier 3 unless a country earns a waiver or an upgrade.

The leverage has brought some success, including pressuring Switzerland to close loopholes that allowed the prostitution of minors and prompting the Dominican Republic to convict more child trafficking offenders.

President Barack Obama has called the fight against human trafficking "one of the great human rights causes of our time" and has pledged the United States "will continue to lead it."

But the office set up in 2001 by a congressional mandate to spearhead that effort is increasingly struggling to publish independent assessments of the most diplomatically important countries, the sources said.

The rejection of so many recommendations could strengthen calls by some lawmakers to investigate how the report is compiled. After Reuters on July 8 reported on the plans to upgrade Malaysia, 160 members of the U.S. House and 18 U.S. senators wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry urging him to keep Malaysia in Tier 3, based on its trafficking record. They questioned whether the upgrade was politically motivated.

Senator Robert Menendez, a Democrat, has threatened to call for a Senate hearing and an inspector general to investigate if top State Department officials removed Malaysia from the lowest tier for political reasons.

The final decision on disputed rankings this year was made in meetings attended by some of the State Department's most powerful diplomats, including Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman and Kerry's Chief of Staff, Jonathan Finer, according to the sources.

Sarah Sewall, who oversees J/TIP as Undersecretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights, presented the experts' recommendations, the sources said. The State Department declined to make any of those officials available for comment.

"NO, NO, NO"

The unprecedented degree of discord over this trafficking report began to become clear after Reuters early last month revealed plans to upgrade Malaysia from the lowest Tier 3 rank to Tier 2 Watch List.

The improved ranking came in a year in which Malaysian authorities discovered dozens of suspected mass migrant graves and human rights groups reported continued forced labor in the nation's lucrative palm oil, construction and electronics industries. As recently as April, the U.S. ambassador to Malaysia, Joseph Yun, urged the country to take prosecution of human trafficking violations more seriously.

U.S. officials have denied that political considerations influenced Malaysia's rankings.

"No, no, no," said Sewall, when asked by reporters last Monday whether Malaysia was upgraded to facilitate trade negotiations. She said the decision was based on how Malaysia was dealing with trafficking.

Representative Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican who authored a 2000 law that led to the creation of J/TIP, said in an interview that the office's authority is being undermined by the president's agenda. "It's so politicized," he said.

If Malaysia had remained on Tier 3, it would have posed a potential barrier to Obama's proposed trade pact, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. That deal is a crucial part of his pivot to Asia policy. Congress approved legislation in June giving Obama expanded trade negotiating powers but prohibiting deals with Tier 3 countries such as, at that time, Malaysia.

Congressional sources and current and former State Department officials said experts in the J/TIP office had recommended keeping Malaysia on Tier 3, highlighting a drop in human-trafficking convictions in the country to three last year from nine in 2013. They said, according to the sources, that some of Malaysia's efforts to end forced labor amounted to promises rather than action.

The analysts also clashed over Cuba's record with the State Department's Western Hemisphere Affairs Bureau, whose view took precedence in the final report.

Human rights groups and people with knowledge of the negotiations over the rankings said an unearned upgrade for Cuba, especially at a time of intense attention due to the historic diplomatic thaw between Washington and Havana, could undermine the integrity of the report.

Cuba had been on the "border line" for an upgrade in recent years, a former State Department official said. And although Cuba ended up with an upgrade, the final report remained highly critical, citing concerns about Cuba's failure to deal with a degree of alleged forced labor in medical missions that Havana sends to developing countries.

China was another source of friction. J/TIP's analysts called for downgrading China, the world's second-biggest economy, to Tier 3, criticizing Beijing for failing to follow through on a promise to abolish its "re-education through labor" system and to adequately protect trafficking victims from neighboring countries such as North Korea. The final report putChina on Tier 2 Watch List.


But the candor of J/TIP can run afoul of other important diplomatic priorities, particularly in countries beset by instability or corruption where U.S. diplomats are trying to build relationships. That leads every year to sometimes contentious back-and-forth over the rankings with far-flung embassies and regional bureaus – the diplomatic centers of gravity at the State Department.

"There is supposed to be some deference to the expertise of the office," said Mark Lagon, J/TIP's ambassador-at-large from 2007 to 2009 and now president of Freedom House, an advocacy group in Washington. If the office is now losing more disputes over rankings than it is winning, that would be "an unfortunate thing," he said.

Most U.S. diplomats are reluctant to openly strike back at critics inside and outside of the administration who accuse them of letting politics trump human rights, the sources said.

But privately, some diplomats say that J/TIP staffers should avoid acting like "purists" and keep sight of broader U.S. interests, including maintaining open channels with authoritarian governments to push for reform and forging trade deals that could lift people out of poverty.

From the start, J/TIP has tried to be impartial. It is based in a building a few blocks away from State Department, adding to the sense of two separate identities and cultures.

But establishing genuine independence has been difficult. At first, the heads of regional bureaus, representing the business and political interests of U.S. embassies, would join the J/TIP team around a table and have almost an equal say in deciding country rankings in the final report.

John Miller, a former Republican congressman from Washington state named by President George W. Bush to head the bureau from 2002 to 2006, overhauled that structure.

"I said 'no way'," Miller said in an interview. By 2004, decisions on how to rank countries were made by his office. Diplomats who objected could appeal to then deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage. "He rarely overruled me," said Miller. Armitage, who is no longer in a government job, did not respond to a request for comment sent through his office.

Laura Lederer, who helped set the office up as senior human trafficking adviser from 2002 to 2007, said its job was "to assess and rate countries solely on their progress in addressing the prevention of trafficking, the prosecution of traffickers, and protection and assistance of victims."

But officials who worked in the office over the past 15 years acknowledge that countries with sensitive diplomatic or trade relationships with the United States sometimes received special treatment following pressure from local embassies and other constituencies within the department.

One such country is Mexico – a key trading partner whose cooperation is also needed against drug trafficking and illegal immigration. It was kept at Tier 2 despite the anti-trafficking unit's call for a worse grade, according to officials in Washington and MexicoCity.

The controversy over this year's report comes at a time when J/TIP lacks a congressionally confirmed leader.

The prior chief, ambassador-at-Large Luis CdeBaca, left in November of last year. His deputy, Alison Friedman, then resigned to join a non-profit anti-slavery organization. And then it took until mid-July for Obama to nominate Georgia federal prosecutor Susan Coppedge as the next ambassador-at-large.

The lack of a director can increase the unit's exposure to political influence, said Lederer.

Some say the perceived hit to the integrity of the 2015 report could do lasting damage.

"It only takes one year of this kind of really deleterious political effect to kill its credibility," said Mark Taylor, a former senior coordinator for reports and political affairs at J/TIP from 2003 to 2013.

(Reporting by Jason Szep and Matt Spetalnick; Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle in Washington, Dave Graham in Mexico City, Michael Martina in Beijing, and Dan Trotta in Havana; Editing by Martin Howell)

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