August 6, 2015
By Dave Boyer
Senators in both parties accused the Obama administration Thursday of putting its trade goals ahead of modern-day slavery.
At a Senate Committee on Foreign Relations hearing, lawmakers threatened to subpoena State Department records on the agency’s upgrade for Malaysia on human trafficking, at a time when that nation is seeking to join President Obama’s cherished Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a massive free trade deal in the Pacific Rim.
Sen. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat, said State’s latest report on human trafficking “was under exceptional pressure to shape the rankings to meet political demands, not the facts on the ground.”
Noting reports that political appointees at State interfered with staff recommendations against improving Malaysia’s ranking, Mr. Menendez said the upgrade appeared to be “the result of external pressure.”
Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Corker, Tennessee Republican, said the administration’s policy “trumped any real regard for humans being trafficked.”
“You sort of threw the trafficking phase under the bus to ensure that you were successful with” the TPP, Mr. Corker told Sarah Sewall, State’s undersecretary of human rights.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry, in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur on Thursday, denied that the country’s upgrade resulted from political pressure.
When Mr. Menendez called on the committee to seek all documents related to the trafficking analysis, Mr. Corker said the panel should even consider a subpoena to do so.
“This is possibly the most heartless, lacking-of-substance presentation I have ever seen about a serious topic,” Mr. Corker said.
Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, Maryland Democrat, asked why Malaysia received an improved ranking “despite having less [criminal] convictions” for trafficking in 2014.
The annual Trafficking in Persons Report, issued July 27, upgraded Malaysia from a “Tier 3” country – the lowest ranking – to the Tier 2 “watchlist.” Congress has barred any Tier 3 country from taking part in the TPP negotiations, but Malaysia is a party to the 12-nation agreement reaching the final stages of talks.
Mr. Obama considers TPP the economic centerpiece of his effort to “pivot” foreign policy toward Asia and serve as a counterweight to China’s influence.
In the House Thursday, Democratic Reps. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, Rosa L. DeLauro of Connecticut and Mark Pocan of Wisconsin asked Mr. Obama and Mr. Kerry for “clarification” of the decision involving Malaysia’s trafficking record.
“We are concerned about the upgrade of Malaysia’s status to the Tier II Watch List,” the lawmakers wrote, calling the upgrade “inconsistent with findings from other reports.”
Earlier Thursday, Mr. Kerry said there was no political influence on the report.
“Let me just be crystal clear, because I am the person who approved this,” Mr. Kerry told reporters in Malaysia. “I had zero conversation with anybody in the administration about the Trans-Pacific Partnership relative to this decision – zero.”
Mr. Kerry said he “personally signed off” on the decision to give Malaysia a better score.
“The reason I made this decision was based on the recommendation of my team, because Malaysia has passed additional legislation in 2014, they’ve consulted with civil society, they drafted amendments to Malaysia’s anti-trafficking law in order to allow the country’s flawed victim protection regime to change,” he said. “I’m confident it was the right decision, and I can guarantee you it was made without regard to any other issue.”
Mr. Kerry said the Tier 2 Watch List ranking “actually indicates there’s still a lot of room for improvement.”
“It’s not a gold seal of approval by any means,” he said. “It is a sign of movement in the right direction, but it also means there’s a lot of way to go.”