Is Human Trafficking a Political Game to the US Government?

In the eyes of some in the west, Burma’s fast track to success is nothing short of a fairytale. But on the ground, Burma’s reality is anything but – a system of impunity and centralized power ensures that government and military leaders operate without significant limits on their authority. Meanwhile, Burma’s people are subject to a whole host of human rights violations, including systemic human trafficking. Unfortunately, the US Administration, instead of extending support to the Burmese government’s many victims, has sided with the Burmese government.

On June 19, the US State Department released its 2013 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report that artificially gave the Burmese government a higher ranking in order to ensure that the Burmese government can continue benefiting from US financial support. The report alleges that Burma is making significant progress in eliminating human trafficking, but it provides no evidence of this progress and instead provides much evidence to the contrary.  The State Department’s ranking of Burma as a “Tier 2 Watch List” nation, as opposed to the “Tier 3” ranking that Burma actually deserves, is a political play to ensure that the US can continue calling Burma a foreign policy success even while the government and military continue to perpetuate and condone human trafficking.

The TIP report does honestly expose a system of human trafficking, impunity, and inaction in Burma, but through the efforts of politicos in the US Administration doctoring the TIP results, Burma miraculously avoided being placed on Tier 3. China, Russia and Uzbekistan, on the other hand, were downgraded to Tier 3 in the 2013 report. Burma’s system of human trafficking is no less pervasive than those of the aforementioned countries. Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, suggested that more countries should be downgraded to Tier 3 and that the State Department report was “pulling punches” by artificially scoring countries according to diplomatic convenience, not according to the State Department’s own TIP rubric.

Indeed, the TIP report irrationally excuses the Burmese government for current abuses and inaction: “The climate of impunity and repression created under the previous government and the lingering lack of accountability in military ranks for forced labor and the recruitment of child soldiers continue to represent the primary causal factors for Burma’s significant trafficking problem; therefore, Burma is placed on Tier 2 watch list for a consecutive year.”

The State Department’s message is that the “current” Burmese government (made up of the same leaders who ran the “previous” government) deserves no responsibility for its own culture of impunity and ongoing human rights abuses – and, apparently, that the current US government has no responsibility to ethically and objectively report on human trafficking.

Trafficking in Persons Report

Each year the U.S. Department of State releases the Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP) aimed at exposing human trafficking (origin and/or destination) in 188 countries. Countries are ranked from Tier 1 to Tier 3 based on government response to human trafficking. A country’s rank is measured using the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s (TVPA) minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking:

               (1) The government of the country should prohibit severe forms of trafficking in persons and punish acts of  such trafficking.

            (2) For the knowing commission of any act of sex trafficking involving force, fraud, coercion, or in which the victim of sex trafficking is a child incapable of giving meaningful consent, or of trafficking which includes rape or kidnapping or which causes   a death, the government of the country should prescribe punishment commensurate with      that for grave crimes, such as forcible sexual assault.

            (3) For the knowing commission of any act of a severe form of trafficking in persons, the government of the country should prescribe punishment that is sufficiently stringent to deter and that adequately reflects the heinous nature of the   offense.

            (4) The government of the country should make serious and sustained efforts to eliminate severe forms of trafficking in persons.

Countries whose governments fully comply with these minimum standards are given a Tier 1 ranking, countries whose governments do not fully comply with the minimum standards but are making significant steps to do so are ranked Tier 2, while countries whose governments do not comply are given a Tier 3 rating.

The Tier 2 Watch List falls between Tier 2 and Tier 3 and includes “countries with governments that do not fully comply with the TVPA’s minimum standards but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance with those standards.”

The US State Department outlines criteria used to differentiate a Tier 2 Watch List Country from a Tier 3 Country:

First, the extent to which the country is a country of origin, transit, or destination for severe forms of trafficking.

Second, the extent to which the country’s government does not comply with the TVPA’s minimum standards and, in particular, the extent to which officials or government employees have been complicit in severe forms of trafficking.

And third, reasonable measures required to bring the government into compliance with the minimum standards in light of the government’s resources and capabilities to address and eliminate severe forms of trafficking in persons.

These criteria dictate that Burma would fall into the Tier 3 category. The TIP report offers little to no explanation of how the Burmese government is currently combating human trafficking or the progress it has made thus far. It merely maintains, “The government of Burma does not fully comply with the minimum standards for elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so.” These “significant efforts” are never explained.

Penalties for Tier 3 Countries

Why does the US State Department ignore its own research on human trafficking in Burma and list Burma as a Tier 2 country? Because there are real penalties for countries with a Tier 3 ranking. According to the State Department, Tier 3 countries are subject to certain sanctions allowing the US government to “withhold or withdraw non-humanitarian, non-trade-related foreign assistance,” and in addition:

… countries on Tier 3 may not receive funding for government employees’ participation in educational and cultural exchange programs. Consistent with the TVPA, governments subject to sanctions would also face U.S. opposition to assistance (except for humanitarian, trade-related, and certain development-related assistance) from international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

Imposing these financial penalties on Burma would tarnish the international community’s casting of Burma as Asia’s rising star.

Human Trafficking in Burma

The TIP report is riddled with evidence depicting a systemic and unaddressed culture of human trafficking across a multitude of sectors in Burma.

According to the report, Burma is a major source country for sex traffickers. Sex trafficking is rampant, especially in low-income areas, and ethnic women and girls are particularly vulnerable to cross-border sex trafficking where they are forcibly taken to neighboring countries.

Domestic sex trafficking is especially rampant in areas of conflict. The TIP report states, “…Fighting has displaced an estimated 75,000 Kachin and 115,000 Rakhine residents who are highly vulnerable to forced labor and sex trafficking. There were reports during the year that Burmese officials kidnapped Rohingya women from Sittwe and subjected them to sexual slavery on military installations.” We know from independent reports released by ethnic organizations in Burma that Kachin women are also at severe risk of human trafficking.

Burmese government and military officials are major perpetrators of trafficking in the country, particularly involved in sex, child, and manual labor trafficking. The US State Department is well aware of the Burmese government’s activities; the report states, “Military personnel and insurgent militia engage in the unlawful conscription of child soldiers and continue to be the leading perpetrators of forced labor inside the country, particularly in conflict-prone ethnic areas.” The report also notes that “…thousands of children are forced to serve in Burma’s national army in part as a way of offsetting desertion.” Children are physically abused or jailed if they refuse conscription. (It is estimated that more than 5,000 children are currently serving in the Burmese army.)

In addition to the recruitment and use of child soldiers, forced labor is another form of modern day slavery perpetuated by the government, military, and large government-sponsored or favored companies. The report notes cases of people forced to work on agricultural plantations and in other sectors under deplorable conditions. People living in military areas are at the most risk for forced labor, and ethnic minorities and groups denied of citizenship like the Rohingya are extremely vulnerable to both labor and sex trafficking.

The Burmese military operates completely above the law, as noted in the TIP report: “The power and influence of the Burmese military continued to limit the ability of civilian police and courts to address cases of forced labor and the recruitment of child soldiers by the armed forces.” The lack of rule of law coupled with the impunity that the military enjoys allows severe human rights violations to continue. Since the State Department’s own research demonstrates that the military acts above government authority, and government officials themselves are complicit in perpetuating human trafficking, how can the State Department argue that the Burmese government is making “significant efforts” to comply with the minimum standards for elimination of trafficking without offering reasonable evidence?

The State Department’s own analysis points to the Burmese government’s failures to comply with the minimum standards. The report notes, “…limited capacity and training of the police coupled with the lack of transparency in the justice system make it uncertain whether all trafficking statistics provided by the authorities were indeed for trafficking crimes.” How can the Burmese government even begin to address human trafficking if it has not acknowledged or cooperated with establishing the real scope of the problem?

The State Department’s weak efforts to convince the world that Burma is complying with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking are almost laughable: “The government’s law enforcement efforts to combat trafficking within Burma have been consistently weak, but during the year the government reported investigating 19 suspected cases of internal trafficking. It did not provide additional information about the nature of these cases or whether they resulted in any prosecutions or convictions.” As the Burmese government operates with a complete lack of transparency, there is no way of knowing how these cases have been handled. A lack of transparency can in no way be assumed to correlate with progress.

But the US Administration insists on Burma’s Tier 2 Watch List status because it so desperately wishes to portray Burma as a foreign policy success. Unfortunately, success and “significant progress” mean something very different to Burma’s many victims of human trafficking.

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