By Vicki Needham - 07/27/15 04:50 PM EDT
The State Department’s upgrade of Malaysia’s human trafficking status is setting up another clash between Congress and the White House on global trade.
The Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report released Monday gave Malaysia a boost to the Tier 2 Watch List from Tier 3, the lowest level, a move that could further complicate congressional approval of a massive Trans-Pacific trade pact.
Congressional lawmakers and human rights groups blasted the White House for the report, arguing that there was no justifiable reason to move up Malaysia — one of 12 nations negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) — other than for political motives.
Legislation handing Obama authority to fast-track trade agreements, approved last month, included language barring any Tier 3 nations on the trafficking list from participation in the TPP.
Sen. Bob MenendezRobert MenendezTim Kaine backs call to boost funding for Israeli missile defense GMO labeling bill advances in the Senate over Dem objections Overnight Finance: Trump threatens NAFTA withdrawal | Senate poised for crucial Puerto Rico vote | Ryan calls for UK trade deal | Senate Dems block Zika funding deal MORE (D-N.J) called the upgrade for Malaysia “a clear politicization of the report” and said he would use hearings and legislation to challenge the move.
“The administration has turned its back on the victims of trafficking, turned a blind eye to the facts, and ignored the calls from Congress, leading human rights advocates, and Malaysian government officials to preserve the integrity of this important report,” he said.
“They have elevated politics over the most basic principles of human rights.”
Sen. Sherrod BrownSherrod BrownPortman secures another union endorsement over Democratic challenger in Ohio Sanders aide dismisses challenging Kaine VP spot Union group backs GOP Sen. Portman in Ohio race MORE (D-Ohio) said, “Giving countries with clear evidence of human rights violations, like Malaysia, a front-row seat to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership is unconscionable.”
Sarah Sewall, Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, insisted Monday that Malaysia’s qualification to remain part of the TPP didn’t come into play when evaluating its status.
Sewall said the “watch list” status means there is “still much room for improvement in the government’s anti-trafficking efforts.”
“We’re going to continue to encourage Malaysia and Malaysian officials of civil society to work together to make tangible progress to combat human trafficking,” she told reporters.
She said that Malaysia — one of 44 countries on the Tier 2 Watch List — has made significant efforts, since being downgraded last year, to comply with the minimum standards through several channels, including increasing trafficking investigations and prosecutions as well as providing better victim protections.
Last year, the Malaysian government worked with civil society stakeholders to draft and propose amendments strengthening the existing anti-trafficking law and addressing concerns raised in previous TIP reports, she said.
The amendments were still pending at the end of the reporting period this spring.
Still, criticism — primarily from the political left — piled up in the hours after the report was released.
Rep. Sandy Levin (D-Mich.), the ranking member on the House Committee on Ways and Means, said the “administration’s upgrade of Malaysia in the human trafficking report — without evidence of significant changes on the ground — is extremely concerning.”
Levin, who has traveled to Hawaii for what could be the final round of TPP talks, said that “instead of paving the way for Malaysia’s participation in TPP, we should be working on actions that Malaysia should be taking to come into compliance” with international labor standards that ban forced labor.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), who has been rallying opposition to TPP, said that human trafficking is rife in Malaysia.
“Malaysia is being upgraded, at least in part, to ease passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership,” she said.
Recently, a bipartisan group of 160 House lawmakers — including 14 Republicans and 12 Democrats who supported fast-track legislation — and 19 senators wrote letters to Secretary of State John KerryJohn KerryKremlin: DNC hack claim 'absurd' Pelosi: 'No question' that Russia hacked DNC Kerry: Details on agreement with Russia in Syria could come in August MORE, asking him to keep Malaysia as a Tier 3 country.
Even amid optimism, there are questions about whether the 12 TPP nations can wrap up an agreement because of the number of complex unresolved issues.
House and Senate lawmakers have expressed skepticism about the TPP, calling on U.S. Trade Representative Michael FromanMichael FromanFroman: Too early to start trade talks with the UK Dems push for US, EU cooperation on China's market status US, EU team up on raw minerals trade case against China MORE to keep close tabs on sensitive issues such as tobacco rules, dairy, intellectual property protections, and labor and environmental enforcement.
U.S. negotiators are in Hawaii this week seeking to complete the long-awaited deal.
Kerry is headed to Malaysia next week to attend an Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit.
Meanwhile, the trafficking report out of Foggy Bottom Monday sent fresh ripples of frustration through human rights groups and labor unions.
Alisa Simmons, Deputy Director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, said in a statement that the "administration knows that the TPP will have trouble in Congress, but turning a blind eye to Malaysia’s grave human rights violations in order to include Malaysia in the pact because it’s one of the few TPP countries we don’t already have a trade deal with and keeping the TPP on Fast Track so Congress’ oversight is limited is shameful."
Phil Robertson, Deputy Director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, said that Malaysia’s “record on stopping trafficking is far from sufficient to justify this upgrade by Washington,” and he said it is more about TPP and trade politics.
Shane Larson, Legislative Director of the Communications Workers of America, said that "it shouldn't be a surprise that backers of the TPP would resort to any means possible to finish this deal."
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka called the decision to upgrade Malaysia “wrong and outrageous.”
“The administration has had difficulty securing approval for fast-track,” he said. “Today's cynical upgrade of a nation where forced labor, human trafficking, and exploitation remain pervasive, undermines its promises on labor rights, human rights, and anti-corruption in trade deals and does not bode well for TPP passage.”