US law to combat human trafficking earns an A+, so why doesn’t everyone support it?


Right now a bill reauthorizing the U.S. fight against human trafficking at home and abroad is making its way through Congress. The Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000 is helping the world make progress against the scourge that affects an estimated 21 million children and adults worldwide. The law also has been a remarkable demonstration of American soft power.

It is vital that legislators not only renew the law, but also strengthen it.

Although most countries should detest and seek to eradicate human trafficking, many don’t. Often cultural norms and practices enable some forms of trafficking, and even officials are complicit.


Children are “sent away” to help the family. Young girls are married against their will, domestic servitude is enabled by state laws (as in some Middle Eastern countries), or governments mandate exploitative service to the state (as in Uzbekistan).

Some officials see victims as perpetrators who have defiled religious norms: one Iraqi official called victims of sex trafficking “prostitutes who must die.” Shamefully, human trafficking is an eyesore too conveniently denied — or exploited.

To assess the impact of the TVPA, I have examined thousands of diplomatic cables, case studies and media stories, conducted 90 interviews worldwide and completed a global survey of NGOs.

My research shows the TVPA has delivered good bang for the buck. The act and the efforts of the U.S. State Department are leading more countries to outlaw human trafficking and work to prevent and punish it. More than 120 countries have fully criminalized human trafficking since the policy began.

Nonetheless, the policy is threatened by increasing politicization and pressure to water it down. That’s not only a shame, it’s a travesty against the most marginalized people of the world.

Why do some oppose renewal of the TVPA? Ironically, because it is working, the law is unpopular among some politicians or U.S. diplomats who would rather pursue other priorities with their host governments. But the loudest complaints are coming from governments who do not wish to be embarrassed over their poor performance.

The law uses a unique method to pressure governments to take action. Every summer the State Department publishes a report that describes the efforts of governments around the world to combat trafficking. The report is unique in that every country is graded publicly on its efforts.

High-performing countries are branded Tier One (such as South Korea, France and the Bahamas), struggling countries, Tier Two (Dominican Republic, Mexico and Lithuania, for example), and outright failing countries, Tier Three (China, Syria and North Korea, for example). Countries on the verge of failing are placed on the “Watch List,” which includes Iraq, Nigeria and Thailand.

Many countries take notice. It is not because they worry about the sanctions that the policy could unleash — such punishments are routinely waived. Rather, countries react largely because they don’t want to be stigmatized. They dislike being publicly singled out as low performers and they particularly dislike looking worse than their peers — a fact revealed in their frequent and explicit self-comparison with others.

To avoid this, governments become receptive to U.S. advice, assistance and pressure.

The policy also engages nonprofit organizations and media, creating domestic pressure to improve. In my survey of nearly 500 anti-trafficking NGOs around the world, two-thirds recognized the U.S. influence as important in their countries and view U.S. efforts positively.

The way many countries react shows that they care about their reputation. Time after time, officials discuss the tier ratings with U.S. diplomats, seeking to improve their score, worrying that they won’t. Sometimes top officials defend their government’s record in the media. Their efforts to save face suggest these grades are really getting to them. Even allies like Israel have felt the sting and responded.

However, to continue to succeed, the grades must be fair. The office writing the report is under constant pressure to grade countries of strategic importance more favorably. While some such pressure is inevitable, strengthening the independence of the office and increasing the specificity of what is required for each tier can mitigate this problem.

It’s not too late. Past years have seen some slips, but for the sake of the victims, the credibility of the report can, and must, be bolstered. This reauthorization act does just that.

Judith Kelley, professor at Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy, is the author of "Scorecard Diplomacy: Grading States to Influence Their Reputation and Behavior,” Cambridge University Press, 2017.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.