BOB CORKER: This is the - possibly the most heartless, lacking of substance presentation I have ever seen about a serious topic.
ARUN RATH, HOST:
Senator Bob on Thursday during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing - the harsh words were for the State Department's annual Trafficking in Persons report. Amid suggestions, the report put politics ahead of human rights. The hearing followed a Reuters investigation by their editor for U.S. national affairs, Jason Szep. When we reached Jason, I asked him to explain the significance of the State Department's Trafficking in Persons report.
JASON SZEP: Well, this report calls itself the world's most comprehensive resource for governmental anti-human trafficking efforts. And rights groups generally agree with that. It organizes countries into tiers based on their trafficking records.
You have a tier one for countries that meet the minimum U.S. standards. There's a tier two for those countries that are making significant efforts to do that. There's a tier two watch list for those that really deserve special scrutiny. And a tier three, which some refer to as the blacklist - a tier three ranking can trigger sanctions. It can limit aid from the United States. It can limit assistance from the IMF or the World Bank. But the real power is in its ability to embarrass countries into some kind of action.
RATH: And this year's report had several high-profile countries improve in their rankings in those tiers. Can you tell us a little bit about that - the ones that are noteworthy?
SZEP: Right. So Malaysia, for instance, was upgraded from the lowest tier. Cuba was upgraded. Uzbekistan, which has a big problem with forced labor in its cotton industry, was upgraded. These are three countries that were on the lowest tier three.
China and India, they ended up staying put effectively on their rankings where they were last year. But the sort of common theme was that very diplomatically important or strategic countries either upgraded or stayed where they were.
RATH: So with this key question, you know, do these countries really deserve to have their ranking upgraded? Let's look at Malaysia in particular, because you've covered Malaysia. What's happening there?
SZEP: Right. So Malaysia is a country that we've been looking at for quite some time. In May, there was the discovery of basically a mass grave for Rohingya Muslims who had been smuggled in traffic from Myanmar through southern Thailand into Malaysia, held in jungle camps against their will until their sort of families put up money, effectively a ransom. And that was happening just at the same time that there were negotiations in Congress over TPP and the fast-tracked legislation.
RATH: The Trans-Pacific Partnership...
SZEP: That's right.
RATH: ...The trade agreement.
SZEP: That's right. And there was a provision that no country that is on tier three could get fast-track approval that was really needed by the administration to push ahead with this trade policy.
RATH: So is the implication there that desire for the Trans-Pacific Partnership is playing a role in these rankings?
SZEP: I mean, that's the number one criticism over this year's TIP report - or Trafficking in Persons report. It raised a lot of skepticism and a lot of concerns of whether politics had been seeping into a process which is really supposed to be kind of independently sort of carried out. So the criticism now is that - that that's not happening - that the process has kind of broken down.
RATH: Now, the State Department strongly disputes that politics has anything to do with these decisions. Secretary of State John Kerry was in Malaysia, and he had this to say during a press conference there.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JOHN KERRY: Let me just be crystal clear, because I am the person who approved this. I personally signed off on it. And I had zero conversations with anybody in the administration about the Trans-Pacific Partnership relative to this decision - zero.
RATH: Jason, looking ahead, you know, with all the controversy around this, would it be unprecedented for the State Department to make changes in these rankings at this point?
SZEP: I don't think they would go ahead and change the rankings. The report is out. It's been signed by John Kerry. It'd be really quite dramatic if they changed the rankings at this stage.
RATH: That's Jason Szep, U.S. national affairs editor with Reuters. Jason, thank you.
SZEP: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.