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Human Trafficking Center

New Outrage at Old Problems in the TIP Report


Aug 2015



By David Esarey, Senior Associate

This year’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report came out a few weeks later than usual this year, and in its wake came pointed criticism from high-ranking officials that is years overdue.  

The United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations held a hearing soon after the release of the State Department report. The catalyst for this particular hearing was the considerable outrage over the perceived political influence on the Tier rankings, particularly with regards to Malaysia. The senators cited numerous complaints, including a lack of transparency in the ranking system, apparent contradictions in how the distinction is made between Tiers 3 and 2 Watch List, and the presence of factors irrelevant to trafficking in the decision-making process. These concerns are justified, but what is curious is that they are far from new. Malaysia may be the latest example of the things that are wrong with the TIP Report, but these problems have been around as long as the report itself.

In January of this year, I wrote a blog discussing some of the weaker aspects of the TIP Report. Much like the senators at the hearing, I expressed my concerns over a lack of transparency and the political nature of the Tier ranking system in general. Examining the former, I was disappointed when I was unable to secure any information from the TIP office on the details of their methodology when I was writing an assessment of their report. It is alarming on an entirely different level when Under Secretary Sarah Sewall avoided answering senators’ questions by simply stating, “We do not comment on internal deliberations.” If a report that is supposed to be based on the best available data is so opaque that not even a congressional hearing can elicit any meaningful information, there is going to be serious doubt cast on the reliability of that instrument, undermining the report’s objectivity in critiquing other countries’ anti-trafficking efforts.

Looking at the political pressures that often drive the Tier rankings, the Human Trafficking Center published a piece earlier this month examining the situation in Malaysia and the reasons why the United States should not let any issues unrelated to trafficking determine a country’s score for its anti-trafficking efforts.

When it proceeded to do just that, the TIP office was met with impassioned outcry in the Congressional hearings. This is justified and may spark reforms in the system. It is curious, however, how absent these voices have been during the previous fourteen editions of the report. The Tier system has always been scrutinized for being a political tool, but has seldom been met with such an uproar, especially so publicly from seats of power. Take for example Haiti in 2003. Due to various political considerations (including Haiti’s strategic location for America’s War on Drugs), then-Secretary of State Colin Powell had Haiti’s ranking upgraded from Tier 3 to Tier 2. And yet there was no investigation, no hearing, no notable negative response from either the public or Congress.

As I noted in my previous post, approvals for country rankings cross the desk of no fewer than two dozen government officials, many of whom have no expertise in human trafficking. It is puzzling that now of all times the problems that are deeply ingrained in the system are moving people to action. Whether it is the political controversy surrounding the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), better-reported violations in Malaysia, or a combination of other factors, it is encouraging to finally be seeing an effort to address long-standing issues.

What remains to be seen is whether there is enough political will to see it through and produce a report that cannot be written off by the very countries the report purports to critique.

Photo via United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. Use of this photo does not indicate their endorsement of views expressed in this post.

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2 Responses to “New Outrage at Old Problems in the TIP Report”

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