Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during an event releasing the Annual Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP) Report at the State Department in Washington on Wednesday. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

by Anne Gearan

The United States accused Russia and China on Wednesday of widespread participation in human trafficking, opening the door to potential sanctions and complicating diplomatic cooperation to resolve crises involving Syria and Iran.

Branding Russia a purveyor of slavery is likely to have the loudest reverberations. The Obama administration is trying to win Russia’s help in ending more than two years of killing in Syria and drawing the Russian-backed Syrian government to the negotiating table.

The black mark, delivered in the State Department’s annual ranking of nations involved in trafficking, comes the same week that President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin disagreed on how to end the Syrian civil war. The leaders met for two hours on the sidelines of the Group of Eight summit in Northern Ireland.

The State Department’s annual report assesses the performance of nearly 190 nations in preventing slavery. The ranking is mandated by Congress, which this year required the State Department to either upgrade or downgrade nations such as Russia and China that have languished for years on a “watch list” that critics called a parking lot.

“Doing the same thing isn’t enough” to avoid a downgrade, said Luis CdeBaca, the State Department official whose office prepares the rankings.

Russia and China, CdeBaca said, both know the scope of the trafficking and slavery problem and have the ability to apply more rigorous prevention measures. Although China approved a promising plan for future action, it came too late to help this year’s ranking, he said.

China condones or fails to prosecute forced labor in numerous manufacturing industries and allows the trafficking of women for domestic servitude, forced marriage and prostitution, the U.S. report said. The government itself participates in forced labor as punishment or “re-education,” the State Department alleged.

“The government continued to perpetuate human trafficking in at least 320 state-run institutions, while helping victims of human trafficking in only seven,” the report said.

Russia has a record of backsliding, with fewer shelters open for victims of trafficking and fewer examples of government intervention, according to the report.

“Russia is a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children who are subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking,” the State Department said. “Labor trafficking remains the predominant human trafficking problem within Russia,” with an estimated 1 million people exposed to exploitation and abuse.

The problem exists inside Russia in the form of exploitation of workers in construction and other trades and outside Russia in the form of Russian women exported for prostitution, the report said.

Both nations reject such assessments as meddlesome or irrelevant, and CdeBaca said his office expects some backlash.

The watch list afforded a gray area for nations whose strategic importance to U.S. foreign policy goals make harsh denunciation difficult. Nations now have a maximum of four years on the watch list.

Russia, China and Uzbekistan, which were downgraded, were always regarded as outside the international standards for recognizing and preventing victimization, said Holly Burkhalter of the International Justice Mission.

“All have truly terrible records,” she said. “If the decisions were factual,” rather than being based on political considerations, she said, it would have been “a no-brainer” to give them the downgraded ranking before now.

Advocates who pushed for the change give the report mixed reviews. In some cases, the new “up or out” requirement has led to pressure for upgrades that advocates say are undeserved.

In Russia’s case, the new assessment comes after a tumultuous and divisive year that saw harsh new restrictions on U.S. charities operating in Russia and the eviction of the U.S. Agency for International Development.