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Critics question motives, effectiveness of U.S. Human Trafficking Report

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WASHINGTON – If it’s wrong to enslave women for prostitution, force domestic servants to work long hours for no pay or recruit children to be soldiers, it shouldn’t be difficult to prosecute those who commit these horrific crimes, pinpoint the countries where they occur in excess and fully abolish slavery.

But as the U.S. prepares to rank approximately 175 countries’ human trafficking status in the annual Trafficking in Persons Report, some say the task of sanctioning allies and suggesting that countries improve their legal systems is often flawed.

Take the case of the United Arab Emirates. U.S. recommendations backfired and  increased the country’s human trafficking problems, said Mahdavi Pardis, an associate professor of anthropology at Pomona College and an expert in human trafficking in the United Arab Emirates.

“They should stop encouraging policies that make life harder, like increased imported police officers and increased prosecutions of sex traffickers,” Mahdavi said.

Mahdavi said when countries hire police officers from other countries to combat trafficking the police are rarely well-educated about the issue, and the United Arab Emirates does not have the proper resources to train them. She said prosecution volume is not an accurate depiction of a country’s anti-trafficking efforts. Frightened victims are sometimes unwilling to testify against their traffickers, making it difficult to prosecute.  Legal systems vary among countries, so U.S. standards may not be adequate for other states.

Click on photo to enlarge or download: Ambassador at Large to Combat Human Trafficking Luis CdeBaca says the U.S. has been a world leader in combating human trafficking. Photo courtesy of the State DepartmentClick on photo to enlarge or download: Ambassador at Large to Combat Human Trafficking Luis CdeBaca says the U.S. has been a world leader in combating human trafficking. Photo courtesy of the State DepartmentAmbassador at Large to Combat Human Trafficking Luis CdeBaca rejected that argument as an excuse. He said in an interview that the TIP Report’s suggestions had the opposite effect in the Philippines, another “microstate” with an inefficient legal system. He said there is no justification for not prosecuting traffickers.

“The Philippines argued for a while that ‘we have a huge backlog in our courts, and you keep putting us on these low tiers.’ We’ve made it very clear to them that’s not an excuse, so they’ve issued a new directive saying TIP cases go to the front of the line,” CdeBaca said.

Some speculate whether the TIP report rankings are based on human trafficking or on which countries are friends and foes of the U.S. Countries are ranked on four levels: Tiers 1 through 3, with Tier 1 the best ranking.

“It’s at risk of becoming a business-as-usual, white-noise, show-and-tell instrument for politicians,” said Michael Horowitz, director of the Hudson Institute's Project for Civil Justice Reform and Project for International Religious Liberty. “This is creating a sense that this kind of slavery will be with us forever, and there is nothing we can do about it, and the people that can to do something about it have other motives than ending slavery.”

Horowitz is a neoconservative who drew attention to the issue of sex trafficking in the late 1990s. His movement sparked the TVPA, which he helped write, the first comprehensive U.S. law against human trafficking.

Countries on the Tier 2 Watch List for two consecutive years are likely to be downgraded to Tier 3 and face sanctions. 2011 is the first year that countries could be demoted to Tier 3 under this provision, because it was added under the 2008 TVPA reauthorization. Russia, China and India have all been on the Tier 2 Watch List for two consecutive years, so it’s likely they will join Iran, Saudi Arabia and North Korea on Tier 3 and be denied non-humanitarian non-trade-related assistance by the U.S.

Mahdavi said she believes Iran’s ranking represents something other than trafficking problems.

“The ranking system is opaque, and it feels very Islam-phobic,” Mahdavi said. “Iran is ranked in Tier 3. They don’t have people coming in or out of the borders, they don’t have a high number of migrant workers and they don’t have a lot of trafficking. They do have a well-developed civil society, so why are they ranked in Tier 3? Every policy-maker I ask that can’t understand and that really undercuts the reliability of the TIP.”

CdeBaca said prostitutes in Iran are being criminalized and some are hanged. He said  prostitutes should be viewed as victims before a country decides if they are guilty of a crime, since many of them are sexually exploited and forced into prostitution.

That’s the question. How politicized are these decisions? I think the insertion of the automatic downgrade will probably generate a new number of countries in Tier 3, and the way those countries are dealt with is highly politicized,” said Joe Parker, professor of intercultural and international studies at Pitzer College.

The report is based on information from academic experts, nonprofit organizations,  foreign embassies in the U.S. and other knowledgeable parties. The U.S. Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons faces obstacles in seeking information from some countries where it does not have a presence, such as North Korea and Iran, CdeBaca said.

In such cases, the office relies on information from outside sources, including non-governmental organizations heavily funded by the U.S. government.

“We end up funding NGOs who are more than willing to tell us the truth as they see it, even if it’s inconvenient to our assumptions or our relationships, and that’s exactly what we want,” CdeBaca said. “If we’re paying for NGOs to tell us what we want to hear, we’re skewing the entire process. … At the end of the day, if our report isn’t accurate it’s not going to help civil society.”

CdeBaca’s staff is receiving the last of the information for the 2011 TIP report, which is due in June.

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