WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration will remove Malaysia from its official list of the world's worst human trafficking offenders, according to Reuters, a move human rights advocates fear will damage U.S. credibility.
The maneuver would allow the administration to continue negotiating a controversial trade agreement with Malaysia and 10 other Pacific nations. Legislation authored by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) effectively bars the U.S. from enacting trade deals with countries deemed "Tier 3" violators of human trafficking standards -- the worst of the worst in the State Department's formal reckoning of governments that facilitate modern-day slavery.
Malaysia earned its spot on that list, alongside Iran and North Korea, from years of human trafficking, including rampant sex slavery and forced labor in the agriculture and the textile industries, according to 2014 State Department documents. Malaysia's electronics industry also is rife with forced labor. This year, mass graves for trafficking victims were discovered in Malaysia near its northern border with Thailand.
Reuters reports that Malaysia will soon be upgraded to a "Tier 2" country, allowing it to sidestep the ban imposed by the Menendez legislation. The State Department said it does not comment on its human trafficking list before it is formally issued. In a statement to HuffPost, Menendez said the maneuver would undermine the international legitimacy of America's human rights efforts.
"If true, this manipulation of Malaysia’s ranking in the State Department’s 2015 TIP report would be a perversion of the trafficking list and undermine both the integrity of this important report as well as the very difficult task of confronting states about human trafficking," Menendez said in the statement. "The deplorable human trafficking crisis in Malaysia merits a global cry for action and justice -- not an attempt to sweep them under the rug for political expediency."
Malaysia passed a law in June amid international controversy over its human trafficking record that would provide additional protections for victims. Human trafficking has long been illegal in Malaysia, however. The country's critics -- including the State Department -- have not focused on its legal standards, but on its willingness to enforce those standards.
Human Rights Watch has persistently criticized Obama administration efforts to undermine the Menendez language.
Malaysia partially controls the Strait of Malacca, a key shipping lane for Middle Eastern oil bound for China. The Obama administration has repeatedly argued that its Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact is designed to contain China's growing economic clout.