Russia and China use human trafficking, it’s not just a human rights issue—it’s a global security issue
July 30 is World Day Against Trafficking in Persons, and as the West builds its strategies to counter Russia and China’s increasingly coordinated military aggressions and invasive intelligence operations, we would do well to take a closer look at how human trafficking fuels both of these state-controlled economies—and revisit a human rights tool that could help us address security threats by hitting at the financial engines of global war machines.
On Feb. 4 of this year, just 20 days before the invasion of Ukraine, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin unveiled an agreement proclaiming there would be “no forbidden areas” of their partnership. Backing from China’s economic powerhouse emboldened Putin’s aggression toward Ukraine, and unsurprisingly, reports suggest that Chinese companies recently ramped up supplying Russia microchips and other components with potential military applications. Every life is valuable, and the lives lost in Ukraine are irreplaceable. Do we want this happening in Taiwan or other countries? Earlier this month, FBI Director Christopher Wray and MI5 Director General Ken McCallum met in London in an unprecedented show of solidarity to announce China’s increasingly aggressive intelligence operations against the West and the imminent security threat they present to the world.
It’s well-known that China exploits at least 1 million Uyghurs under a massively profitable and genocidally-scaled state sanctioned human trafficking scheme. Uyghur trafficking is big business: twenty percent of the world’s cotton supply, or 1 in 5 garments, may be tainted by Uyghur forced labor. It took Uyghur advocates and their American supporters years to see the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act go into effect on June 21. This U.S. policy aims to ensure that goods made by Uyghur-forced labor victims never enter global markets.
But what many in the West may not know is that Russia, too, has a long history of engaging in state-sponsored human trafficking. Until 2018, Russia held a formal agreement with North Korea—a U.S. recognized state sponsor of terrorism that enslaves over 10 percent of its population in forced labor—to receive 20,000 North Koreans every year for labor exploitation. Additionally, last week Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), the sponsor of the original Trafficking Victims Protection Act in 2000, held a hearing on Capitol Hill highlighting China and Russia’s human rights violations in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) mining sector, including child and forced labor. An estimated seventy percent of all the world’s cobalt comes from the DRC, and it is harvested in mines by approximately 40,000 children.
The security of the United States, Europe and the world is threatened by Russia and China’s lucrative systemic human trafficking abuses. The U.S. State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, which was just released, ties U.S. foreign aid to a country’s human trafficking tier ranking. Tier 3 is reserved for countries and territories whose governments do not fully comply with the minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so. Not surprisingly, Russia and China are Tier 3 nations along with North Korea and Afghanistan.
Effective changes in public policy often begin with changes in public opinion. The response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine has demonstrated this. With the voluntary massive withdrawal of over 1,000 businesses and corporations all at once with no mandate or legislative requirement, businesses issued their own version of sanctions against Russia because they recognized the threat and took decisive action. Every Tier 3 country should be viewed as a potential global security threat, and for the sake of both human rights and global security, investors, manufacturers, and consumers should consider a Tier 3 ranking a “red flag” when determining where to source raw materials, hire employees, build factories, produce goods, or send their hard-earned dollars.
Many businesses are to be applauded for their voluntary efforts to withdraw from these countries as a protective measure, but a beneficial prevention measure would be the use of TIP Report tier rankings to aid in the decision of where to conduct business in the future. Let’s sideline countries who exploit human beings while they simultaneously plot the demise of the West.
Rushan Abbas is the founder and executive director of Campaign for Uyghurs, which is a current Nobel Peace Prize nominee. Anne Basham is the chair of the global Task Force on Human Trafficking for the Parliamentary Intelligence Security Forum and the founder of Ascend Consulting, a human rights advocacy firm in Washington, D.C.