The United States yesterday named Saudi Arabia and three other Persian Gulf Arab allies as having among the world's worst records in halting human trafficking, a rebuke that could subject the countries to sanctions if they do not act quickly to address U.S. concerns.
The finding, in an annual report issued by the State Department, places Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia in the same category as such countries as Cuba, Burma, North Korea and Sudan. Human rights activists said the inclusion of such close allies in the war on terrorism suggests that the administration is beginning to eliminate from its human rights policy what some have dubbed the "Middle East exception."
Last year, the State Department also faulted Saudi Arabia for the first time for its lack of religious tolerance.
The report said as many as 800,000 people, many of them women and children, are trafficked across international borders as sex workers and forced laborers in a modern-day slave trade. This is the fifth annual report, which was mandated by an act of Congress at the instigation of an unusual coalition of feminists and Christian evangelical groups. President Bush frequently denounced sexual slavery to motivate his evangelical base during the 2004 campaign.
In the report, the Gulf Arab states were cited primarily for practices that allowed the abuse of domestic servants and laborers who came to the Middle East primarily from Asia.
The report said the Saudis, for example, lack laws criminalizing most trafficking offenses, and there is little evidence of whether employers are ever prosecuted. Many of the foreign laborers in Saudi Arabia work as domestic servants, and they are not covered by Saudi labor laws.
In Saudi Arabia, "we have domestic workers being brought in from many countries into domestic servitude, child beggars, a lot of beatings, reports of beatings, and rape -- very difficult to get shelter, no convictions," said John R. Miller, the senior adviser for human trafficking.
"Trafficking in human beings is nothing less than a modern form of slavery," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said. "The United States has a particular duty to fight this scourge because trafficking in persons is an affront to the principles of human dignity and liberty upon which this nation was founded."
Rice has made promotion of democracy and freedom a central tenet at the State Department. A senior department official said she was involved in the decision making on where to rank individual countries and had directed analysts to make recommendations based on the criteria laid out in the law establishing the report.
Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, said the inclusion of the Gulf states in this year's report was significant: "It is another positive sign that the administration is willing to be honest and straightforward about the shortcomings of its allies in the Arab world, including Saudi Arabia."
Other countries listed as poor performers in stopping trafficking include Bolivia, Cambodia, Ecuador, Jamaica, Togo and Venezuela. An additional 27 countries, including China, India and South Africa, were placed on a watch list, meaning they have significant problems but the governments appear to be making an effort to combat them.
Countries that are listed as poor performers can lose non-humanitarian, non-trade-related assistance from the United States, or be deemed ineligible to take part in cultural and educational exchange programs. But countries can avoid sanctions if they begin to take actions to address U.S. concerns in the next few months.
Two years ago, Turkey and Greece, two NATO allies, fell into the bottom category, but they have since improved their standing. Equatorial Guinea and Venezuela have been sanctioned since the reports began.
"The purpose of the law is not to sanction," Miller said. "It is to get progress in freeing the victims and throwing the traffickers in jail."