The past year will not be remembered as a great one in the history of the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. Its engaging, consensus-building chief, Ambassador Lou CdeBaca unexpectedly stepped aside in November, soon after his Deputy was abruptly reassigned. In a delay that speaks volumes about the place of trafficking within the broader US political agenda, President Obama only got around to nominating Cdebaca's successor last week. Even allowing for minimal delays in the typically fraught Senate confirmation process, the tenure of Ambassador-to-be Susan Coppedge is likely to be very short.
Such instability is worrying. The Ambassador and his or her small team of administrators and analysts are responsible for producing the annual Trafficking in Persons Report, a detailed assessment of the performance of every country in the world in combatting human trafficking. Strong leadership is vital – very often the Ambassador must battle State Department colleagues to ensure that the integrity of the assessments is not seriously compromised by other priorities and concerns.
Since it was first issued in 2001, the report has had an immense impact. Many governments are deeply offended at the US taking on the role of global sheriff in relation to an issue as complex as human trafficking. For countries ranked at the very bottom, at stake is more than a sense of pride. A poor ranking automatically puts them under a black diplomatic cloud and renders them subject to a range of economic sanctions.
The reaction of the anti-trafficking community to the Reports has been mixed. A general antipathy towards the US throwing its weight around and suspicion about its own human rights credentials and motivations has prejudiced many against the Reports. But others, including myself, have slowly come to appreciate the Report’s irreplaceable role in exposing the long-hidden exploitation of human beings for private profit. Governments that engage in, tolerate or benefit from such exploitation squirm under this uncomfortable spotlight. In some cases the threat of a bad ranking creates a genuine opening for change. Certainly in my frontline work with criminal justice agencies I have come to appreciate that the opportunity to help revise an evidence law; to work on developing interview protocols that protect victims; to encourage fair trials for suspects, may not have arisen if the countries I work with were not conscious of the US looking on and judging their every move.
Earlier this week Secretary of State Kerry launched the fifteenth US TIP Report at a ceremony in Washington. It’s the biggest one yet, and perhaps it is also the most overtly politicized. Malaysia has been bumped off the bottom tier – apparently to facilitate the Obama Administration’s flagship Transpacific Partnership trade deal - despite little evidence of progress in that country’s troubling record of inaction and complicity - and indeed the emergence of new scandals that were disingenuously brushed aside by the State Department as irrelevant because they came to light only after the ‘cut-off date’ for the report. There was always a question around the extent to which Cuba’s persistently bad rating was a reflection of broader US policy. Cuba’s sudden upgrade, coming as it does during a period of historic rapprochement with the US, appears to settle that question once and for all. China continues to enjoy its long-standing, slap-on-the-wrist position on the second-worst tier - thereby escaping sanctions that would be politically and economically unpalatable – notwithstanding compelling evidence of systemic exploitation in a vast range of sectors. Myanmar, an integral factor in the US tilt to Asia, had a similar escape, despite the Government’s failure to acknowledge – let alone address - the trafficking and exploitation of its Rohingya population.
But after many years tracking the ups and downs of the US TIP Report, I’ve come to the conclusion that its inevitable politicization, sweeping generalizations (that, for example, see fit to rate Nepal and the United Arab Emirates equally) and creeping ‘grade inflation’ are not the greatest problems. Much more dangerous is the implicit and mistaken assumption that the Report tells us the whole story of human exploitation. Like its methodologically challenged would-be rival, the Global Slavery Index the TIP Report weaves a simple – and ultimately comforting - tale of trafficking being about bad people doing bad things to good people. It fails to seriously interrogate the deep economy of human exploitation – to ask what would happen to global wealth and productivity if such exploitation were suddenly removed. It ignores the role that labour migration regimes, weighted heavily in favour of developed economies and big business, play in fueling vulnerability to trafficking. It does not even try to explain why governments are so willing to pass strong laws and so unwilling to implement them effectively. Beyond a cursory reference to the now ubiquitous “global supply chains”, corporate complicity in trafficking – and the government corruption that makes this possible - isn’t even on the table.
The task of unraveling the tangled political economy of human trafficking is an urgent one: until we understand not just what is happening but why, our responses will inevitably be faulty and incomplete. It’s too much to expect the TIP Report to shoulder the entire burden – other States, international institutions and an increasingly active civil society all have an important role to play. But this job will be made infinitely easier if the Report – the single most important diplomatic initiative in this area –succeeds in reasserting its now-threatened authority and credibility.
This article is an expanded version of the author's article published in the Guardian