EVERY YEAR, pursuant to a law passed in 2000, the State Department ranks governments’ efforts to combat human trafficking. Last week Russia, China and Uzbekistan were downgraded from the Tier 2 Watch List to Tier 3, the lowest ranking possible. In China, the report details instances of forced labor in brick kilns, coal mines and among prisoners as part of a systematic form of repression known as “re-education through labor” — the intent of which is only to generate government profits. Chinese women and girls are recruited in rural towns and are transported to urban cities where they are sexually exploited.
Internal debate at the State Department preceded the issuance of the flunking grades. In Russia’s case, for example, some officials warned that feathers would be ruffled and cooperation imperiled. But the definition is clear: Tier 3 countries’ governments “do not fully comply with [the law’s] minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so.” Russia earned its ranking with its woeful response to human trafficking; pretending otherwise would have devalued the rankings and ill-served the Russian people.
The report describes labor trafficking and exploitation of migrants in the construction, manufacturing, agriculture and domestic-service industries. North Korean citizens are subjected to forced labor in Russia’s Far East logging industry through arrangements with the North Korean government. The report also describes widespread sex trafficking of Russian women and children domestically and abroad. Though the incidence of such crimes has increased, prosecutions have remained flat. Meanwhile, President Vladimir Putin’s oppression of civil society is harming local nonprofit organizations that seek to help victims of trafficking. His petulant prohibition of U.S. adoptions of Russian orphans was another blow, especially because that population group is targeted by traffickers.
Under the law, a Tier 3 ranking opens the way for the United States to withhold non-humanitarian, non-trade-related foreign assistance, though President Obama may choose not to impose sanctions. Whatever the practical consequences, the report’s authors were right not to fudge the evidence.
Tier 3 countries have governments either too fragile to combat trafficking or too indifferent to make it a priority. Russia, like China, falls into the second category. Twenty-first-century trafficking reminiscent of 19th-century slavery demands engagement. Russia’s demotion is another sign that its government is floating away from the world order in a manner harmful to its people.