Testimony from a State Department official Thursday did little to dispel claims that an annual human-trafficking report was driven by politics.
State Department Undersecretary Sarah Sewall defended the integrity of the report, which upgraded the status of Malaysia and Cuba, to three members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by citing the report’s criteria, Secretary of State John Kerry's public comments, and her own assessment — but occasionally declined to comment on internal deliberations. The committee was unconvinced.
“This is possibly the most heartless, lacking-of-substance presentation I’ve ever seen about a serious topic,” Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said. “I don’t see how anybody could believe that there was integrity in this process.”
Committee members claimed both countries' upgrades from Tier 3 to Tier 2 Watch List in the Trafficking in Persons Report were based on politics, allowing the Trans-Pacific Partnership to continue along a fast-track path with Malaysia included, and helping justify recent renewed relations with Cuba.
Corker threatened to subpoena State Department documentation regarding the preparation of the report if it wasn’t promptly turned over.
One of the panel's main points of contention was that the results of the improved human trafficking situation were minimal at best and the upgraded status disincentivized either country from continuing to progress.
Ranking member Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., questioned how, with minimal results, Malaysia had gone from being demoted in 2014 to being promoted in 2015, highlighting how convictions of traffickers decreased during that time.
Sewall’s answers acknowledged Malaysia and other countries needed to improve and that many factors played a role in the decision-making process, but actions taken to improve were one of the primary factors in the decision to upgrade.
“Tier rankings do not assess the severity of human trafficking in a given country, but rather that government’s efforts in addressing human trafficking problems over the current reporting period compared to its own efforts in the prior year,” Sewall said in her opening statement.
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., who has been one of the most outspoken critics of the report and of human rights violations in Malaysia and Cuba, cited a recent Reuters article claiming the TIP office’s recommendations were overruled 14 of 17 times by diplomatic bureaus and that the TIP office recommended that neither country be upgraded.
“We don’t comment on internal deliberations,” said Sewall. “What I can tell you is that the reporting that was done by the TIP office and the team at the state department was thorough and fact-based.”
Only the three senators asked questions as the panel's attendance was decimated by August recess. But the questioning was particularly combative nonetheless.
“I feel for our witness, I know she has to come up here and do what she does,” Corker said. “This may be the worst day she’s ever had in her service to have to say the things that she’s reading to us right now.”
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