Continuing to play politics over human rights, Secretary of State John Kerry praised Malaysia in a meeting this week for their efforts toward eliminating human trafficking in their borders just months after mass graves of suspected trafficking victims were found.

Advocacy groups, activists, and Members of Congress have criticized the State Department’s upgrade of Malaysia in the 2015 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report. The report, released on July 27, states that Malaysia was upgraded due to their efforts in combatting trafficking, such as the government’s consultation with civil society members and amendments that would strengthen their anti-trafficking laws.

But the real reason is likely the Administration’s desire to pass the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement. The decision to upgrade Malaysia from the lowest ranking to a “Watchlist” ranking removed the threat of sanctions and opened the way for Malaysia to join the TPP.

But this shouldn’t have happened. There’s been mounting evidence of trafficking networks, camps, and mass graves in Malaysia. In particular, Malaysia has been heavily implicated in the trafficking of Burmese Rohingya and Bangladeshi asylum seekers and.

There is even concern inside Malaysia. Malaysian MP Charles Santiago stated that the country has not made adequate changes to their trafficking responses.

A recent Reuters report exposed the tension in the Administration around the decision to upgrade Malaysia. The office responsible for the TIP report disagreed with U.S. diplomatic bureaus on 17 rankings in the report, including Malaysia.

During a hearing on the TIP report held by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on August 6 with Under Secretary of State Sarah Sewall, Senator Bob Corker said, “We understand that Malaysia has passed some laws. I’ve looked at the actual effect on people and I see very minimal effect on human beings in Malaysia.”

At the Senate Hearing, Under Secretary Sewall defended the report saying that it was based on “complex criteria”, but would not answer questions on whether senior State Department officials ignored their analysts’ recommendations stating that she was unable to comment on internal processes. The committee was not swayed and demanded that the State Department hand over the documents used to rank countries in the report.

When asked about the upgrade during his visit to Kuala Lumpur on August 5th, Secretary Kerry cited a newly passed law (which hasn’t even been enacted yet) and denied that the upgrade had anything to do with the TPP: “Let me just be crystal clear, because I am the one who approved this. I personally signed off on it. And I had zero conversation anyone in the Administration about the Trans-Pacific Partnership relative to this decision.”

Both Secretary Kerry and Under Secretary Sewall remain unconvincing. It is inexcusable that countries like Malaysia that are at the heart of the trafficking crisis in Southeast Asia could be rewarded in the State Department’s Trafficking in Persons report.

Secretary Kerry’s visit to Kuala Lumpur was an opportunity to address growing trafficking and human rights concerns in Malaysia and across Southeast Asia. Unfortunately, it was an opportunity missed and will likely result in the scenes we’ve seen before with tens of thousands of victims of human traffickers stranded at sea or held as virtual prisoners in trafficking camps.

The Administration has argued that the TPP will advance human rights, but Malaysia’s upgrade shows how thin this promise is as human rights are being traded away for those who are the most vulnerable in Southeast Asia.


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