The Cable

Senators Threaten Subpoena in Flap Over Human Trafficking Report

The State Department denies it upgraded Malaysia's human trafficking ranking to bring the Asian country onboard for a trade pact. Senators say the process reeked of politics.

Local Malaysian women watch preparations for the re-burial of remains believed to be those of ethnic Rohingya found at human-trafficking camps in the country's north, at Kampung Tualang some 16kms east of Alor Setar on June 22, 2015. Malaysian authorities on June 22 held a sombre mass funeral for 21 suspected ethnic Rohingya found in human-trafficking graves last month, with fellow Muslims praying for the unidentified victims to find a place in heaven. AFP PHOTO / MANAN VATSYAYANA        (Photo credit should read MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP/Getty Images)
Local Malaysian women watch preparations for the re-burial of remains believed to be those of ethnic Rohingya found at human-trafficking camps in the country's north, at Kampung Tualang some 16kms east of Alor Setar on June 22, 2015. Malaysian authorities on June 22 held a sombre mass funeral for 21 suspected ethnic Rohingya found in human-trafficking graves last month, with fellow Muslims praying for the unidentified victims to find a place in heaven. AFP PHOTO / MANAN VATSYAYANA (Photo credit should read MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP/Getty Images)

Senators threatened Thursday to subpoena documents detailing the State Department’s decision to boost Malaysia’s human trafficking record, and all but accused the Obama administration of being more eager to ink a massive Asian trade bill than to protect millions of sex slaves and migrant workers.

In a blistering, if nearly empty Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, lawmakers noted that Malaysia has done little — if anything — to remedy its dismal trafficking problems over the last year and questioned why the State Department’s annual global report upgraded the Asian nation’s ranking.

Malaysia so far has balked at signing onto the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a major 12-nation trade agreement that is a centerpiece of President Barack Obama’s economic legacy. But several days after the State Department’s July 27 trafficking report was released, the Malaysian trade minister praised parts of the deal that he said would open new markets to his nation.

“Many of us believe that, to use a rhetorical phrase, you sort of threw the trafficking piece under the bus to ensure you were successful with TPP,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the committee’s chairman, said Thursday. He warned Undersecretary of State for Human Rights Sarah Sewall to preserve documents about Malaysia’s new ranking — and said the Senate committee is prepared to take the rare step of issuing subpoenas to get them.

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said the State trafficking report “has been politicized in a way that is not justifiable, and cannot be justified,” and called for an investigation.

“Whether politics played a role or not in the determinations, the perception is that it did,” added Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), the panel’s top Democrat.

Sewell struggled to explain the Malaysian ranking — which she said was based in part on the nation’s new legal commitments to crack down on human trafficking — without disclosing internal State Department conversations she described as confidential.

Her boss, Secretary of State John Kerry, was in Malaysia on Thursday and was confronted on the matter during a press conference in Kuala Lumpur after a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. He said he had “zero” conversations about linking TPP negotiations to Malaysia’s ranking before deciding to upgrade it from a Tier 3 country to a Tier 2 country. The rankings are based on four tiers, and Tier 1 nations are those that comply with minimum standards to eliminate trafficking.

Kerry said Malaysia’s new ranking “actually indicates there’s still a lot of room for improvement.  It’s not a gold seal of approval by any means. It is a sign of movement in the right direction, but it also means there’s a lot of way to go.”

As a Tier 3 nation in the 2014 State report, Malaysia was ranked alongside human rights abusers Zimbabwe and North Korea. Watchdog groups now say Malaysia has not made enough improvements to justify its upgrade.

Corker, Cardin, and Menendez — the only three senators who attended Thursday’s hearing — made clear they agree.

“This is possibly the most heartless, lacking of substance presentation I have ever seen about a serious topic,” Corker said, scolding Sewell. “And I don’t see how anybody could believe that there was integrity in this process.”

Photo credit: Manan Vatsyayana/Getty Images

Siddhartha Mahanta is an associate editor at Foreign Policy. A Texas native and graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, he has also worked for Mother Jones, National Journal, and the PBS Newshour. @sidhubaba

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