06.20.134:45 AM ET

Superpowers Face Sanctions Over Trafficking

China and Russia have been downgraded to the worst possible ranking on the State Department’s new Trafficking in Persons report. Nina Strochlic talks to human-rights groups on the possibility of sanctions and how Secretary Kerry stuck up for the victims.

Human-trafficking experts celebrated a major win Wednesday when the U.S. officially called out three strategic allies—China, Russia, and Uzbekistan—for their deplorable human-rights efforts and threatened them with sanctions.

Implicit in the State Department's Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report is the message that holding a country accountable for its human-rights efforts is worth at least as much as a rosy socioeconomic relationship. By downgrading economic powerhouses China and Russia, along with the developing economy of Uzbekistan, America has moved the countries to a level where they could face sanctions over their lackluster attempts to crack down on human trafficking.

This year was a pivotal one for the TIP report, which had six countries facing automatic downgrades for the lack of effort they’re putting into to eliminate trafficking. Iraq, Azerbaijan, and Congo-Brazzaville jumped to the less-offensive Tier 2, but the decision not to upgrade China, Russia, and Uzbekistan—all of which serve as strategic allies to the U.S.—caught many by surprise. For months, human-trafficking activists have been speculating over whether newly appointed Secretary of State John Kerry would go lax on the major global players, and those who spoke to The Daily Beast had expected the Department of State to err on the side of caution.

“We thought it was likely those countries would upgrade,” says David Abramowitz, the director of the Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking and a former chief counsel to the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “Secretary Kerry should be commended for providing a factual assessment-based conclusion ... instead of letting geopolitical factors get in the way.” The ranking, Abramowitz says, “is only effective as it is honest.”

There’s precedent in believing the government might place priority on keeping relations amiable. Two years ago India was saved from Tier 3 due to strategic, non-trafficking-related reasons, says Mark Lagon, a professor at Georgetown School of Foreign Service and former ambassador to Combat Trafficking in Persons. “There are a few cases where punches are pulled,” he says of the players behind the rankings. This year Lagon was worried the rankings would be so pressured by U.S. interests that these countries would avoid the automatic downgrade.

Human-trafficking experts say bumping up major economic players without merit would have devalued the TIP report, which U.S. credibility is bound up in. “We can’t only stigmatize the poor, weak countries—we have to be able to say we have this policy and it applies to everyone, friend and foe,” says Holly Burkhalter, vice president of government relations for human-rights agency International Justice Mission. For the past 10 years, most of the countries populating the Tier 3 “looked more like a list of official enemies than it did a factual representation of countries that are not making the grade on trafficking and slavery,” she notes. “The TIP report cannot be part of diplomatic calculation, as something to give or withhold.”

The TIP report operates with a tiered grading system. Tier 1 shows governments are taking steps in full accordance with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, Tier 2 demonstrates partial compliance with significant efforts to fulfill them, and Tier 3 is basically a fail grade for trafficking efforts. In between is the “Tier 2 Watch List,” a warning zone where countries can only linger for two years before an automatic downgrade. For the past four years, China, Russia, and Uzbekistan have been in that transitional space. Now, in accordance with a 2008 statute requiring an automatic downgrade for countries that had been on the watch list without improvement for two years (and two extra if granted stay by the secretary of State for showing “credible evidence” of efforts), these three key U.S. allies have now been demoted to the bottom rung.

In the report, Kerry wrote of trafficking as "a foreign-policy priority" and called fighting it "in our national interest." Now, it’s in President Obama’s hands, who has between 45 and 90 days to determine the course of action recommended by the Department of State to penalize the offending countries. And there’s a distinct possibility he could waive them.

But the three human-trafficking experts who spoke with The Daily Beast agreed that the message is loud and clear with or without sanctions. “My position has always been, if it’s really important to maintain a relationship with a country, put it on Tier 3, and then if you have to waive, you have to do that, but that is a much better outcome than not telling the truth about the country,” says Abramowitz.

“In the past, a number of countries that have been on Tier 3 have had their sanctions waived, but the real issue is that this is a symbol of ostracization,” Lagon says. “Large countries like Russia and China may not change their behavior because of their downgrade, but it’s all the more reason to make an objective assessment.”

For those working to combat human trafficking on the ground, seeing tangible results from a report like this is long and arduous process—not to mention that progress is hard to measure. Both Russia and China have been notoriously deaf (if not outright hostile) to criticism of their human-rights records in the past. But officially being grouped with some of the world’s worst human-rights-offending countries could be shameful enough to inspire action.

“Russia and China will not say they’re acting because the TIP report, but it’s not what they say, it’s what they do,” Abramowitz notes. He adds he’s heard multiple stories of countries publicly dismissing their rankings, but once the spotlight has faded, turning around and looking into what they can do to avoid embarrassment the next time.

Burkhalter says the demotions may be symbolic, but warns not to underestimate the significance of symbolism. “International public opinion matters a great deal to all three countries and can be very effective—more effective than the withdrawal of aid, which is pretty small in any event,” Burkhalter points out. Aid to these countries is already minimal. In 2012 USAID pulled out of Russia, and between 2001 and 2012, the U.S. has given China a comparatively measly $338 million in assistance.

These policy details aren't enough to dampen her spirits. “This is not a day I’m discouraged,” she says brightly. “No country ever likes to have their human-rights record scrutinized, but it will only be helpful to reformers within those government and, of course, to people who are enslaved.” Which, lest we forget, is what this whole diplomatic debacle is all about.