House Dems want investigation of Malaysia's raised trafficking status

Six House Democrats have asked the State Department’s watchdog to investigate the process that led to an upgrade of Malaysia’s human trafficking status.

Reps. Rosa DeLauro (Conn.), Lloyd Doggett (Texas), Alan GraysonAlan GraysonPennsylania Dems file ethics complaint against Rep. Barletta The Hill's 12:30 Report Why Republicans took aim at an ethics watchdog MORE (Fla.), Louise Slaughter (N.Y.), Brad Sherman (Calif.) and Barbara Lee (Calif.) — all opponents of President Obama's trade agenda — are questioning whether the administration promoted Malaysia to preserve fast-track authority for a sweeping Asia-Pacific trade deal.

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“We are concerned about the role that possible political influence may have played in the development and content of the TIP [Trafficking in Persons] report, particularly as it relates to Malaysia's status,” they wrote to State Department Inspector General Steve Linick in a letter sent Monday.

The lawmakers said that given the significance of the report in helping to fight global human trafficking, they want to know if there was any request by officials at the Office of the United States Trade Representative, Commerce Department, or any other federal agency to influence or change Malaysia's standing in the latest report.

They also want information about whether Malaysia’s promotion in status was “unduly influenced” by political considerations instead of unbiased expert analysis.

They argue that Malaysia was upgraded to the Tier 2 Watch List from Tier 3, the lowest level in the TIP Report, even though they say the country has failed to make any substantial improvements to combat human trafficking.

“Just one year ago, the TIP report demoted Malaysia from the Tier 2 Watch List to Tier 3, among the worst offenders, after repeatedly failing to make progress on human trafficking enforcement and legislative efforts,” they wrote.

Part of the concern stems from a provision in the trade promotion authority law that would negate fast-track authority through Congress for any trade agreements, including the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), that include a Tier 3 country.

“The downgrade for Malaysia in the 2014 TIP report was automatically applied after four years of consistently making no attempt to address the well-documented human trafficking epidemic,” they wrote.

The lawmakers wrote that during the past year numerous reports by independent nongovernmental organizations and the media demonstrate that Malaysia’s government has failed to meet the minimum standards in changing trafficking policies that would warrant a promotion.

For example, Malaysia's trafficking convictions actually decreased between 2013 and 2014, they said.

Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezSenate ethics panel resumes Menendez probe after judge declares mistrial Judge declares mistrial in Menendez bribery case Menendez jury deadlocked, ordered to keep trying MORE (D-N.J.) and human rights groups have ramped up their calls for an investigation about how Malaysia's status was elevated, arguing that the U.S. reputation for fighting human trafficking is at stake.

The annual report, which is mandated by the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), details the progress of foreign nations in meeting international standards to end the worst forms of human trafficking.

The lowest performing nations can face restrictions on U.S. foreign aid, so the lawmakers said that the report must be accurate and impartial in its findings.

They cited a special report from Reuters in August finding that senior political staff at the State Department overrode the independent and impartial assessment of the TIP reporting staff on the ratings of 17 countries.

The report found that the "rejected recommendations suggest a degree of intervention not previously know by diplomats in a report that can lead to sanctions and is the basis for many countries' anti-trafficking policies," they wrote.