Holly Burkhalter is vice president for government relations at International Justice Mission, a nongovernmental organization focused on human rights.
When Russian President Vladimir Putin banned U.S. adoptions of his country’s orphans in December, he consigned thousands of children who might have had families to institutions where they are abused, neglected and all too frequently trafficked into sexual exploitation. The U.S. government now has a choice: It can pressure Russian authorities to end orphan trafficking by giving Russia the lowest possible ranking in the State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons(TIP) report due out next month. Or it can reward Russia with an undeserved passing grade.
When Congress created the State Department Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons in 2000, it authorized a global report on trafficking and slavery and a tiered ranking process that provides diplomats with an effective tool for encouraging foreign governments to rescue children, women and men in bondage and to punish traffickers and slave owners. The report has contributed to substantial improvements in dozens of countries.
Ten years ago, Cambodia was a disaster. Prepubescent children were easily purchased for sex, and the country was a haven for foreign pedophiles. Facing the likely loss of U.S. foreign aid because of its designation as Tier III, the lowest ranking, Cambodia changed course. Its national anti-trafficking police unit has rescued hundreds of children from sex establishments, and its courts have convicted scores of perpetrators. International Justice Mission, the human rights nongovernmental organization for which I work, recently conducted a prevalance survey in three Cambodian cities. It showed that there are virtually no young children to be found in the bar, brothel or other establishment-based sex industry, and there are dramatically fewer older teenagers. The achievement is Cambodia’s, but the TIP office, with its fearless reporting and strong diplomacy, deserves some praise.
When assigned honestly, the TIP tier rankings have encouraged significant reforms. The office’s candor on labor trafficking in Gulf Cooperation Council countries contributed to Middle Eastern governments acknowledging problems and, beginning in 2009, widening political space for nongovernmental organizations, unions and migrant-worker associations. The Philippines, which stood a real chance of losing U.S. foreign aid in 2011 if it fell to Tier III, cracked down on sex traffickers, creating effective anti-trafficking units and adopting victim-friendly court procedures.
But while other countries are improving, Russia is moving backward. By Russian police estimates, there were 50,000 sex-trafficking victims — the majority of them age 16 or younger — in Moscow in 2007, according to the organization MiraMed. Hundreds of girls have disappeared from orphanages into prostitution, some lured with promises of jobs and others abducted. Many of them are trafficked abroad: The Protection Project, a Washington-based human rights institute, ranks Russia among the top 10 countries of origin for trafficked human beings.
Meanwhile, Russian authorities are methodically dismantling the country’s once-robust civil society. Human rights groups are required to register as foreign agents if they receive foreign assistance, and their leaders are increasingly harassed, hounded and jailed. The U.S. government has financially supported Russian anti-trafficking organizations in the past but can no longer do so because of restrictions enacted in November.
Russia has been on a ranking watch list for nine years and, under the law, must be moved either up to Tier II or down to Tier III. Diplomats recognizing that the United States needs Russian cooperation on a host of national security matters aren’t eager to irritate Putin. Obama administration officials are reportedly debating whether to graduate Russia to Tier II or to rank the country where Russia watchers understand it belongs — and risk roiling a complicated bilateral relationship.
It is clear from the tension within the executive branch on this issue that tier rankings matter tremendously to foreign governments. This should be good news: When leaders care about their trafficking record, they are much more likely to do something about it. But the United States will have little influence on Russian trafficking issues if Moscow gets a pass in the State Department’s upcoming report. It would be manifestly dishonest to give Russia Tier II status — and nobody knows that better than Putin.
The TIP tier rankings should not be used as a diplomatic carrot to reward countries for progress they haven’t made. To counter this trend, Congress should upgrade the trafficking office to a State Department bureau so that our country’s leading experts on slavery can sit at the grown-ups’ table when issues such as Russia’s record are being discussed. In the meantime, Secretary of State John F. Kerry and President Obama should tell the truth about slavery and let the chips fall where they may.