By Julian Pecquet - 06/19/13 07:40 PM EDT
The State Department on Wednesday labeled Russia and China as two of the world's worst sex-trafficking offenders, putting them in the same category as a rogues' gallery of 21 nations including Iran, Syria and North Korea.
The two countries were automatically downgraded to the lowest possible tier in the department's annual Trafficking in Persons Report after spending too many years on a watch list without making enough progress towards addressing human rights concerns.
The move opens the two countries to possible sanctions and is almost certain to further strain bilateral relations already tense over Russia's support for Syrian leader Bashar Assad and amid the administration's charges of widespread cyberattacks from China.
“We continue to have concerns about victim care, and the need for victim identification and assistance,” said Ambassador Luis CdeBaca of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.
CdeBaca said the Chinese and Russian governments were appraised by the U.S. embassies in the two countries. He said another 25 countries are at risk of an automatic downgrade next year.
Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), the author of the 2000 law mandating the annual report, applauded this year's findings. He called China the “sex and labor trafficking capital of the world.”
“As a direct consequence of the barbaric one child per couple policy in effect since 1979, China has become the global magnate for sex traffickers,” said Smith, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subpanel on Human Rights. “Women and young girls have been — and are today being — reduced to commodities and coerced into prostitution. Without serious and sustained action by Beijing, it is only going to get worse.”
The report found that Tibetan girls are trafficked to other parts of China for domestic servitude and forced marriage; state-sponsored forced labor is part of a systemic form of repression known as “re-education through labor;” and international criminal syndicates and local gangs play key roles in the trafficking of women and girls both to and from China.
“Traffickers recruited girls and young women, often in rural areas of China, using a combination of fraudulent job offers, imposition of large travel fees and threats of physical or financial harm to obtain and maintain their service in prostitution,” the report says.
The issue has attracted renewed attention over the past year after blind dissident Chen Guangcheng sought refuge at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing before being allowed to come study in the United States. Chen had been beaten and detained for his outspoken opposition to forced abortions, which are technically illegal in China but are believed to be a widespread way for local officials to meet the government's low-birthrate quotas.
The new designation opens China to potential sanctions that include cuts in non-humanitarian foreign aid, diminished support for educational and cultural exchanges and U.S. pressure on the International Monetary Fund and other multilateral financial institutions to deny the country new loans.
“The president will now look at this to see what is in the national interest vis-a-vis the possibility of these kinds of targeted sanctions,” CdeBaca said. “One of our concerns, obviously, is that we don't have a one-size-fits-all approach, that we don't have a heavy-handed approach that would cut off the very thing that we need in order to make the change contemplated by the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.”
The advocacy group Human Rights Watch said the ball is now in Obama's court.
"By moving Russia and China to Tier 3 from Tier 2 Watch List, the State Department has demonstrated that it is prepared to sanction even the most powerful countries in the world if they don’t meet the standards set out under US law," said Asia advocacy director John Sifton. “The president is now obliged to decide within 90 days whether he will allow mandated sanctions to kick in, or execute a waiver.
“The question for the White House is whether they’re prepared to execute the sanctions,” Sifton added. “The question for China, Russia, and Uzbekistan is whether they’re prepared to make commitments in the next 90 days to avoid those sanctions.”
—This story was updated at 4:40 p.m.
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