US trade agenda trumps fight against human trafficking

The US State Department has given Malaysia a better grade on fighting human trafficking. That decision has more to do with the president’s trade agenda than human rights, says DW’s Spencer Kimball.

The timing is suspicious.

In June, the United States Congress prohibited President Barack Obama from concluding trade deals with countries that are non-compliant with basic standards on preventing and punishing human trafficking. Malaysia was one of the worst offenders – until the State Department released its 2015 Trafficking in Persons report on Monday.

The Southeast Asian nation has been upgraded from the worst ranking possible to a State Department “watch list.” Reuters broke the news of Malaysia’s pending change in status in early July. In response, 178 members of Congress signed a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry criticizing the upgrade as unwarranted based on Malaysia’s human rights record. NGOs such as Human Rights Watch agree that Malaysia has not made enough of an improvement to deserve an upgrade.

So why did the State Department give Malaysia a better grade? The Obama administration would simply argue that Kuala Lumpur has made modest improvements. But the upgrade also conveniently allows the president to secure Malaysia’s place in the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), the cornerstone of his trade agenda. The TPP includes 12 nations and will cover 40 percent of the global economy.

President Obama recently won fast-track authority to finish negotiating the deal. But he had to fight a bitter battle with members of his own party. American progressives have argued that the TPP will jeopardize American jobs and weaken environmental and labor standards.

Why would the White House allow its trade agenda to take another public bruising with a key country being forced out of the deal over its record on human trafficking?

Strategic ties

Malaysia is important to the administration’s overall strategy in the Asia-Pacific region. President Obama visited Kuala Lumpur in 2014, the first US head of state to do so in half a century. He emphasized the importance of forging strong economic and security ties with Malaysia.

We of course can’t prove that the US played politics with Malaysia’s human trafficking record. There are no Wikileaks or whistleblower disclosures. But ask yourself this question: Would the US have rewarded Malaysia for only minimal gains against trafficking if the president’s Asia-Pacific trade agenda was not at stake?

When nations do business with each other, economic and security interests almost always trump human rights. That remains the sad reality of our world. It should come as no surprise then that two months after Malaysian police uncovered trafficking camps with 139 graves and signs of torture, the State Department upgraded Kuala Lumpur’s ranking in its Trafficking in Persons report.

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