WASHINGTON – The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing Tuesday to review the State Department’s 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report. The following remarks, as prepared for delivery, were offered by U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.), the Committee’s Ranking Member:
“I want to thank Chairman Corker for calling this hearing today. He and I share a deep commitment to this issue and to ensuring that the integrity of the TIP report and tier ranking system is maintained. This report remains the best tool we have to hold governments accountable for their efforts to end human trafficking.
“Now, some people ask why fighting human trafficking is so important. I believe that trafficking in persons is one of the great moral challenges of our time. It destroys people and corrodes communities. It distorts labor markets and undermines stability and the rule of law. Trafficking is fueled by greed, violence, and corruption. According to the International Labor Organization, there are at least 21 million victims of modern slavery in the world. Forced labor alone generates more than $150 billion in profits annually, making it one of the largest income sources for international criminals, second only to drug trafficking.
“We know that traffickers take advantage of conflict and the collapse of state institutions to prey on vulnerable civilians. We are witnessing terrorist groups like ISIL and Boko Haram build their so-called “states” on the trade in and enslavement of women and children.
“These are just some of the reasons why trafficking is such an enormously important issue, and why members of this committee take the State Department’s annual TIP report seriously.
Last year, we expressed significant concerns about the neutrality of the 2015 TIP report – primary among them, the decision to upgrade Cuba and Malaysia, from the Tier 3 designation to Tier 2 Watch List. We noted then that Malaysia only convicted three traffickers when estimates of trafficking victims number in the hundreds of thousands. In addition, we noted that victim services were almost non-existent.
“After reviewing the 2016 TIP report, I believe it is a mixed bag. We saw some aggressive evaluations in the 2016 report; yet, we still see remnants of the exact problems we had last year — pending bilateral concerns impacting the quality of the report. Again despite little progress from Malaysia and Cuba, the State Department decided to keep both on Tier 2 Watch List this year after they were upgraded from Tier 3 in 2015. This was unnecessary and unwarranted. By contrast, for example, Uzbekistan was upgraded last year to the Tier 2 Watch List. But, as a result of continued government compelled forced labor by adults in the cotton harvest and aggressive harassment and detention of independent monitors, Uzbekistan was appropriately downgraded this year to Tier 3.
“After seeing the 2016 report, I am convinced that Malaysia has not seriously committed to ending human trafficking. We know that countries must meet minimum standards for the elimination of human trafficking, or be making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance. Malaysia is simply not doing enough, and the facts bear this out.
“Since last year’s report, the number of investigations declined and the number of prosecutions significantly declined by 30%. Within the reporting period, Malaysian authorities uncovered 28 suspected human trafficking camps and 139 graves, along the border with Thailand. An operation of this scale cannot operate without official complicity; yet, no officials have been prosecuted in connection with these events. And, only one person, a Burmese, not a Malaysian, has been convicted for his involvement in these crimes.
“I want to point out that the first indicator of serious and sustained efforts to eliminate trafficking is, “Whether the government of the country vigorously investigates and prosecutes acts of severe forms of trafficking in persons, and convicts and sentences persons responsible for such acts…”
That means accountability. Human trafficking will not end until there is honest accountability for those who subjugate, exploit and enslave vulnerable individuals. So it is hard for me to understand how the decision to keep Malaysia’s on the Tier Two Watch List was reached, and I look forward to hearing from Ambassador Coppedge about the decision-making process.
“Finally, I want to take a moment to highlight the bravery of the individuals fighting trafficking and slavery. Last week, I had the great privilege of meeting with two TIP heroes from Mauritania, at the State Department launch of the 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report. At the same time the State Department was honoring these two for working to change the culture of impunity surrounding slavery in Mauritania, the government was detaining nine members of their organization, the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement, the largest anti-slavery organization in Mauritania. These nine abolitionists are still missing. Instead of arresting and harassing those who advocate for universal human rights, Mauritania should direct greater resources to end slavery in their own country.
“So, progress has been slow in coming and we must constantly be vigilant to protect and preserve the gains we have made. I think we are making progress, but much more needs to be done. A global, coordinated effort is desperately needed and long overdue. Here, in the Senate, we must do our part to ensure that the TIP office and other labor and human rights players at State and USAID have the resources and the authority to help partner governments enact necessary reforms.
“I want to thank Ambassador Coppedge for appearing before us today, and I look forward to her testimony.”