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Holier than thou?

By David Swartzentruber
AseanAffairs 16 June 2010

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The 10th annual U.S. Trafficking in Persons Report released this past Monday by the U.S. State Department has been criticized by a wide range of countries ranging from Cuba to Singapore.

The U.S. Congress mandated that the State Department establish this report as a kind of moral report card that places the United States in a position of judging other countries on their rank in the worldwide trafficking in human lives.

The categories are 1 to 4, with 1 being the top rating and 4 being the worst.

The 10 members of Asean received these grades: Cambodia and Indonesia, 2; Brunei, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, 2W and Burma, always a stalwart on human rights issues, bringing up the rear with a 3. The W stands for “watch list,” indicating that a country might slip back to a lower rating next year.

Clinton said that for the first time, the State Department will rank the United States using the same standards as it uses for the other countries. The country earned the department’s highest ranking, meaning that the government is in full compliance with U.N. anti-trafficking protocol.

Singapore's government said the report did not show enough evidence to downgrade the nation to the watch list this year. "We have read the latest TIP report. It is rather puzzling because the U.S. has not satisfactorily explained how it had arrived at its conclusions," Singapore's foreign ministry said in a statement.

One might question the usefulness of such a report but according to the State Department’s Ambassador-at-Large Luis CdeBaca, who heads the State Department's anti-slavery efforts, that 116 countries have adopted anti-trafficking laws since the United Nations enacted a law against modern slavery 10 years ago. Last year marked a high-water mark, both in identifying trafficking victims and in mounting successful prosecutions. The number of persons trafficked each year is reported to reach 12 million.

Many countries have protested that the report is unfair and there is a suspicion that they could have a point.

The United States still remains a rather isolated and insulated country, even after 9/11. How many of its citizens can’t distinguish between Taiwan and Thailand? Undoubtedly, in this reporter’s travels, there are many. At a recent gathering, a Thai Ph.D. reported that fully half of the members of the House of Representatives, the lower house in the U.S. government, lacked visas and/or passports for foreign travel.

In the face of Internet competition, international reporting by U.S. media of all types has been cut back. So there is a real question as to what kinds of data the State Department is receiving and how it is obtained and assessed to produce such a judgmental report on other countries.

More transparency in what data is used to assemble the report might quell the number of protesting countries or might even raise the issue of the accuracy and validity of the report and then what country would be “holier than thou?”


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