For the first time, the State Department on Wednesday declared China and Russia among the worst offending countries on human trafficking, a designation that will lead to sanctions against both countries.
With the release of the State Department’s 2013 report on Trafficking in Persons (TIP), the State Department officially downgraded China, Russia, and Uzbekistan to the lowest possible rating in terms of their handling of human trafficking, known as Tier 3, along with Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Sudan, and Zimbabwe.
“Ending modern slavery must remain a foreign-policy priority. Fighting this crime wherever it exists is in our national interest," Secretary of State John Kerry, who made the final determination, wrote in the introduction to the report. "Human trafficking undermines the rule of law and creates instability. It tears apart families and communities. It damages the environment and corrupts the global supply chains and labor markets that keep the world’s economies thriving ... We also have a moral obligation to meet this challenge head-on."
The new designations require the State Department to prepare a package of sanctions for China and Russia that could include things like canceling cooperative programs between those countries and the U.S. government and a loss of support from the United States for those countries receiving assistance from international financial institutions.
The designations come at an awkward time for both bilateral relationships. President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping just held their first summit in California earlier this month and Obama’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G8 in Northern Ireland on Monday came as U.S.-Russian relations are in tumult over Syria. When the State Department sanctioned Russian officials for other reasons earlier this year, there was significant Russian retaliation.
Political considerations did not factor in to the human-trafficking ratings, said Ambassador Luis CdeBaca, the head of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, in an interview with The Daily Beast.
“You follow the facts and the law to their logical conclusion and sometimes it’s an inescapable conclusion,” said CdeBaca. “I think what we’ll see is that at the end of the day we are not going to flinch from looking at the results on the ground, applying the law, and applying the facts.”
China’s one-child policy, which includes forced abortions and has resulted in a gap in families willing to bring up young girls, has caused a stark gender imbalance in China that creates human-trafficking markets inside China and around the entire region, the State Department determined.
“The Chinese government’s birth-limitation policy and a cultural preference for sons, create a skewed sex ratio of 118 boys to 100 girls in China, which served as a key source of demand for the trafficking of foreign women as brides for Chinese men and for forced prostitution,” the report states.
People who try to call attention to the human-trafficking problem in China are often punished and put into “laogai,” China’s term for their brutal labor-prison camps, CdeBaca said. The prisons themselves are examples of systematic human-rights violations, according to the report.
“State-sponsored forced labor is part of a systematic form of repression known as ‘re-education through labor,’” the TIP report states. “The government reportedly profits from this forced labor, and many prisoners and detainees in at least 320 of these facilities were required to work, often with no remuneration.”
“You follow the facts and the law to their logical conclusion and sometimes it’s an inescapable conclusion.”
For Russia, the predominant human-trafficking problem is related to labor trafficking and as many as 1 million people in Russia are subject to forced labor, according to the State Department.
Construction projects related to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi are among those exploiting workers and Russia is working with the North Korean government to transport large numbers of North Koreans to work in the Russian logging industry under forced labor conditions, the report said.
“We’ve seen backsliding over the last few years. We see Russia as a country where less is happening now than in the past, which is against the trend worldwide,” said CdeBaca. “We have a dearth of victim protection in Russia. Victim identification and victim care are largely nonexistent.”
The State Department’s action was partly because of changes Congress made to the underlying law, called the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which limits the number of years a country can be given the second-worst designation, known as the Tier 2 Watch List. China has been on the Tier 2 Watch List for a total of nine consecutive years; Russia has been on the watch list for eight years.
In 2008, Congress limited the number of times the administration could place a country on the Tier 2 watch list and this year, the State Department had to either promote or demote Russia and China. Both countries failed to meet the minimum standards for proving they were tackling human trafficking, so both were downgraded.
The Republic of Congo, Iraq, and Azerbaijan were all promoted off the Tier 3 watch list and were placed on Tier 2 as of today, a designation that credits them for making some progress on the issue.
The sanctions packages will be finalized over the summer and sent to President Obama around September. Obama has the power to waive the sanctions, but that would not go down well with human-rights leaders in Congress, who plan to hold the administration to account with hearings and oversight.
“We’re going to hold the State Department to account as we ought to,” Rep. Chris Smith (R–New Jersey), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Human Rights Subcommittee and an author of the law, told The Daily Beast in an interview.
“The real challenge now is, What do you do with the designations? The sanctions regime needs to be implemented so it doesn’t become just a naming and shaming,” he said. “If the administration is faithful, this will be the first area where we will take meaningful action on human rights.”