Experts analyze the effectiveness of the State Department’s rankings of countries based on their efforts to combat human trafficking around the world.
The U.S. State Department recently released its 2013 Trafficking in Persons Report, also known as the TIP report, which examines progress in stopping modern slavery, including sex trafficking and other types of forced labor. The International Labor Organization estimates that there are 20.9 million victims of human trafficking in the world. Prosecutions of traffickers and rescues of victims are much lower.
The TIP report includes summaries of the trafficking and forced labor issues faced by countries around the world and explains what their governments are doing to combat the problems. The report also classifies nations into one of four tiers, as mandated by the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) first passed in 2000. A tier 1 rating “indicates that a government has acknowledged the existence of human trafficking, has made efforts to address the problem, and meets the TVPA’s minimum standards.” Tier 2 is for countries that do not meet the TVPA’s minimum standards but whose governments have displayed an effort to make the requisite changes. A tier 2 watch list level was added to include countries that meet the tier 2 description but whose number of trafficking victims is significantly increasing and who have not been able to show evidence that they are increasing efforts to combat trafficking. Tier 3 is for countries that do not meet the TVPA’s minimum standards and are not making efforts to do so. Tier 3 countries may have sanctions placed on them by the United States.
The report serves several purposes. “It gives a sense of what the problem is in particular countries and whether governments are taking basic steps to protect the most vulnerable women, children, migrants, and minorities on their soil,” says Ambassador Mark Lagon, professor at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and former Ambassador to Combat Human Trafficking at the State Department.
It also serves as an impetus for getting countries to make improvements. And the proof is in the rankings. For example, this year, Armenia’s increased prosecutions of traffickers and other efforts led it to be upgraded to tier 1.
Researchers Judith Kelley of Duke University and Beth A. Simmons of Harvard University examined the longer-term effects of the tier rankings in From Scrutiny to Shame: Information as Social Pressure in International Relations, which looks at how the spread of information and peer pressure can affect countries. The report’s authors found that just being included in the report makes countries more likely to take actions on these issues by criminalizing human trafficking, for example. According to the report: “We find robust evidence that ‘information’—even if it is not scientific, even if it is not multilaterally validated—is a powerful policy tool in international relations. States respond to public monitoring and rating information, and they respond even if this information is not singling them out for bad behavior.”
The United States also includes itself in the rankings, which is important, says Lagon. “It’s part of a trend over the last two presidencies of reporting more and more about the United States so that we are an exemplar and not just a crusader.” The United States is ranked in tier 1.
The report is not without its critics, however. Brian Campbell, director of policy and legal programs at the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF), says that while it’s clear that the rankings have helped some countries shape up, there have been indications of political bias in some of the past ratings, which taint the report’s integrity.
He cites the case of Uzbekistan, which was on the tier 2 watch list for years. The ILRF, which is affiliated with the Cotton Campaign—a coalition that aims to end forced labor in the Uzbekistan cotton industry—advocated for the country to be bumped down to tier 3 because of its record. For years, the rating was not changed. Uzbekistan was important to the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan, so there was a perception that that was why the rating was not changed, according to Campbell. “[T]he law wasn’t being properly applied in that case,” he says.
This year, the State Department was forced to make a decision on Uzbekistan because, thanks to a new rule, countries can only stay on the tier 2 watch list for a limited amount of time. The latest report bumps Uzbekistan, Russia, and China down to the lowest tier. “This year was a test [to determine] whether the U.S. government, which was candid in the report, would be all the more candid,” says Lagon, who adds, “I believe it was.”
Campbell applauds the decision to downgrade Uzbekistan, but that “is only the beginning,” he notes. “It is vital that the U.S. government now use all the legal tools at its disposal, including the economic sanctions unleashed by the downgrade decision, to ensure that the government of Uzbekistan and the cotton companies with whom they do business stop profiting from forced labor.”
Campbell’s group has also worked with companies in attempts to decrease the dependence on Uzbekistan cotton in the global supply chain. Campbell points out that there are ways for the U.S. government and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to identify when companies are using cotton that initially came from Uzbekistan, but he notes that it is ultimately up to the companies to be responsible and to take charge of their own supply chains. “There’s a brand reputation issue certainly, and I’m sure that that’s [at the] top of their concerns…. I think the secondary concern is that if Uzbekistan cotton is identified in the finished product and they continue to source from those same people, that might open them up to legal liability, because they would now be on notice that there is a forced-labor-made product coming into the supply chain,” Campbell says.
He says some companies, such as H&M, have been proactive about not using Uzbekistan cotton. “If you take immediate action, it’s less likely you’re going to have legal action taken against you. Prosecutors can be quite overburdened, and I would imagine that they would look kindly upon that,” Campbell says.
Lagon cites Russia as the country that is most markedly going backwards in the issue of helping trafficking victims. “The story today is migrant workers from neighboring countries flowing into Russia [and] getting exploited in forced labor…. The relative strength of the Russian economy in the region [and] the energy resource have meant that it’s been a magnet [for workers], and the lack of rule of law has meant that there are many exploited,” Lagon says.
Additionally, with the construction well underway for structures to use during the Sochi Olympics in Russia next winter, the problems of forced labor on construction crews and sex-trafficking spikes related to the Olympics are particularly troubling.
As Campbell and Lagon indicate, the rankings alone, while potentially effective, are not enough to eradicate the problem. “Laws may exist in countries, and they may ratify treaties. But actually punishing the traffickers and, more importantly, re-empowering the victims sometimes doesn’t happen,” says Lagon.
Multinational companies sponsoring the Olympics or working on related construction projects also “have a responsibility to use their wide visibility to put pressure on the Russian government and Russian businesses” to address the problem, says Lagon.
Tne NGO that organizes such pressure is the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR), a coalition of primarily faith-based institutions that invest in publicly traded companies. These institutions, working through the ICCR, use their shareholder status to try to change company policies related to human rights and other areas. The group also considers the ramifications a company’s operations and supply chains might have on human rights.
For example, ICCR sent an investor statement to participating corporate sponsors of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa asking them to scrutinize hotels where they were staying to make sure that those hotels had policies and training to pinpoint and prevent sexual exploitation of children, says David Schilling, senior program director for the ICCR.
The group has since done the same for the Super Bowl. Schilling adds that leading up to the London Olympics in 2012, the group sent letters to 20 major sponsors outlining the ICCR’s position. Those letters resulted in good conversations with the companies about what those organizations could do to address sex trafficking and slavery throughout their supply chains. ICCR also worked with groups to prevent labor trafficking in preparation for the Olympics.