WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration outraged human rights advocates on Monday by removing Malaysia from its list of the world's worst human trafficking offenders -- a move that the activists said damages U.S. credibility -- simply to boost the president's trade agenda.
"The Administration has turned its back on the victims of trafficking," Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said in a written statement. "They have elevated politics over the most basic principles of human rights."
Hundreds of Democrats and a handful of Republicans had previously urged the State Department to maintain Malaysia's ranking as a "Tier 3" human trafficking violator. For years, the Malaysian government has largely turned a blind eye to sex slavery involving men, women and children. Forced labor is rampant in several sectors of the country's economy, particularly the electronics industry. In April, mass graves holding more than 130 human trafficking victims were discovered near the country's northern border with Thailand. That same month, the U.S. ambassador to Malaysia said the government needed to take human trafficking prosecution more seriously.
Nevertheless, the State Department officially upgraded Malaysia's status to Tier 2 on Monday.
"Malaysia's record on curbing human trafficking is just not sufficient to justify an upgrade," said Sarah Margon, Washington director at Human Rights Watch. "And I think it's damaging to the integrity of the report."
The country's new status effectively makes it eligible for inclusion in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a major trade deal between the U.S. and 11 other nations. Obama considers the pact a top priority for his second term. But a law that Obama signed in June bars Congress from voting on trade pacts with Tier 3 countries using fast-track procedures, which prevent lawmakers from amending or filibustering the deal. The TPP almost certainly cannot pass Congress without fast-track aid.
"It is easier to lower the standard than to insist that Malaysia protect trafficking victims," Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) said of Malaysia's upgraded status. "This report is another indication that the Trans-Pacific Partnership is not being used to bring about meaningful change on critical issues."
"It's crucial that we maintain the integrity of the Trafficking In Persons report, and I remain concerned that this upgrade is unwarranted," Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said in a statement provided to HuffPost.
Several Democrats noted that the upgrade appears to conflict with years of promises from the administration that the TPP will include tough, meaningful labor and human rights protections. If the U.S. needs to fudge its policies on modern-day slavery to let Malaysia into the deal, they said, it's hard to see the pact improving the plight of workers abroad.
"Instead of paving the way for Malaysia’s participation in TPP, we should be working on actions that Malaysia should be taking to come into compliance with these standards," said Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.), the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, which oversees international trade issues. Levin called the upgrade "extremely concerning."
The State Department's Trafficking In Persons report has been an important diplomatic tool in the promotion and protection of human rights abroad. A low ranking on the report carries an international stigma and pressures governments to reform their policies. Margon said the report has contributed to concrete improvements in multiple countries. But she worried the 2015 report has been deeply polluted by politics. In addition to the change on Malaysia, Cuba received an upgrade after the U.S. reopened diplomatic relationships with the island nation, while Saudi Arabia received an upgrade amid tension over the Obama administration's nuclear deal with Iran.
But Malaysia's new Tier 2 status appeared to generate the most indignation from human rights advocates.
"Upgrades like this seriously weaken the U.S. government's credibility as it works to combat human trafficking around the world," said Bradley Myles, CEO of Polaris, a nonprofit group that focuses on human trafficking. "The country has not taken concrete steps to merit a higher ranking."
The official reporting period for the 2015 report ended in March, before the discovery of those mass graves in Malaysia. But a new Malaysian law expanding protections for trafficking victims also missed the March deadline. In any case, Malaysia's human trafficking troubles have long been due to weak enforcement of its laws, which do, in fact, ban human trafficking. Monday's report from the State Department seemed to acknowledge the weak prosecution record.
"Malaysia more than doubled the number of trafficking investigations and substantially increased prosecutions, but the government convicted only three traffickers for forced labor and one for passport retention, a decrease from the nine traffickers it convicted in 2013," the report reads.
"It is unconscionable to turn a blind eye to Malaysia’s human rights abuses in order to further a trade agenda that fails to live up to our country’s values," said Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.).
This story has been updated to include comment from Sen. Rob Portman.