US Human Trafficking Report Is Both 'Carrot and Stick' in Combating Global Scourge

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (R) presents Susan Ople of the Phillipines with a Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Heroes' award during an event releasing the Annual Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP) Report at the State Department in Washington, DC, on June 19, 2013. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

United States Secretary of State John Kerry launched the 2013 annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report on June 19, making it the 13th report the U.S. Department of State has released since the passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act in 2000. This is the only U.S. government report that ranks governments around the world for their anti-trafficking efforts. This year, 188 countries (up from fewer than 100 in the first report, in 2001) fall into four categories: Tier 1, Tier 2, Tier 2 Watch List, and Tier 3.

The most shocking news in this year's report is perhaps the downgrade of Russia and China to the bottom tier after many years of staying on the Watch List, subjecting the two countries to possible U.S. sanctions, along with the other 19 countries in Tier 3, which include North Korea, Iran, Papua New Guinea, Saudi Arabia, and others. While the human rights community applauds the U.S. government's willingness to shame the two powerful nations, some question whether this will lead them to take any action.

So what has changed since the United States decided to use diplomacy to address one of the world's most challenging human rights violations, by openly praising and criticizing governments?

1. Knowledge

When the Clinton administration took on the issue of human trafficking, the First Lady's office played a key role coordinating the inter-agency policy process. In the State Department, it was first led by the office responsible for women's issues. Understanding of the trafficking issue started with images of forced prostitutes, most of them from Eastern Europe. International legal frameworks, including the UN Protocol and U.S. legislation, clarified the definition of human trafficking to include the recruiting, transporting, harboring, and obtaining of a person by force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of exploitation. This definition includes child soldiers, forced child labor, forced marriage victims, forced laborers, and forced prostitutes, and forced exploited workers. Increasingly, the images of human trafficking came to include children fighting for rebel armies; generations of brick-kiln workers born into slavery; abused domestics such as maids; and forced child workers on cotton-picking farms, among the many other forms of forced labor.

This recognition of the complexity of human trafficking also turns the issue into a focal point for stakeholders who include law enforcement and human rights advocates as well as the development community, the media, and groups dedicated to poverty alleviation and issues surrounding migration and civil society.

2. Political will

The annual TIP Report ranking system compels governments to respond. No governments like to be judged by the United States but the publicity, whether positive or negative, does prompt governments to look at the issue more seriously. Those who strive to be on the Tier 1 list typically seek technical support to create a national legislative and policy framework, to allocate resources, to coordinate inter-governmental efforts, and to incorporate civil society in counter-trafficking measures. This is the ideal outcome of the TIP report. However, those who perceive their lower ranking to be politically motivated retaliate in varying degrees or simply disengage on the issue.

Generally speaking, the amount of legislation created to counter trafficking has increased significantly, which leads to better law enforcement responses, prosecutions, victim identification and protection.

3. Civil society

Civil society is critical to trafficking identification and victim services, as well as prosecution and investigation. Human trafficking as an issue has enabled closer cooperation among governments and civil society groups, helping NGOs to grow and their voices to be heard by the authorities. The TIP Report also encourages such cooperation. For example, in Malaysia, human trafficking as an issue has created more space for NGOs and trade unions, helping the government recognize the value of integrating civil society in its work and policy-making process. Those NGOs also help address other related issues that concern society at large, including corruption, migration, labor, and violence against women.

4. Consumer awareness

One of the most exciting developments is growing consumer awareness and the business community's willingness to be part of the fight against human trafficking and modern-day slavery. Drawing the linkages between individual responsibility, ethical business practice and fair labor as part of the global supply chain has created unprecedented public awareness and a consciousness in society to change consumer behavior, resulting in better business engagement and solutions. This new phenomenon also has the potential to end demand for cheap goods produced by forced and exploited labor.

Thirteen years after the United Nations adopted the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, the world has witnessed significant progress. The annual U.S. Trafficking in Persons report has been an effective diplomatic tool, serving as both a stick and carrot. Clearly, the report alone could not have accomplished as much; however, the momentum and space the report has created for civil society and rights advocates are catalysts for change. This is why the TIP report, while perceived as controversial in the diplomatic community, remains an important and effective tool.

About the Author

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Wenchi Yu is an Asia Society Associate Fellow for the Women Leaders of New Asia initiative and an Asia 21 Young Leader.