The failure of the White House to enforce threatened sanctions against countries that the State Department has accused of doing little to control human trafficking is "appalling," with the Obama administration • much like the George W. Bush administration before it — using "every loophole possible" to issue waivers to avoid punishing the offending nations by cutting U.S. aid, according to elected officials, human rights activists and others.
Of the 23 countries cited by the State Department in a June 2011 report as having failed to meet minimum standards in fighting human trafficking, whose victims are usually women and children, President Obama granted full waivers in September to 13 — including Algeria, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen — and partial waivers to seven others, including Cuba, Iran, Myanmar and Venezuela. Only three countries faced the full force of the sanctions — Eritrea, Madagascar and North Korea — which were not anticipated to get the types of foreign assistance that could be restricted.
The waivers were granted on the grounds that it was in the "national interest" of the United States that the countries not lose their aid despite their poor records on human trafficking.
"They use every loophole possible to get out of punishing countries," said Jesse Eaves, policy adviser for children in crisis at World Vision in Washington, a children's relief, development and advocacy organization. "Every waiver is a missed opportunity."
Mr. Eaves said many countries now think that if they have "some sort of political significance to the U.S.," they won't be held accountable. He said the United States should be using its influence to get the countries to combat human trafficking "instead of giving waivers that give countries a pass."
Rep. Christopher H. Smith, who wrote the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, which requires the State Department to annually rank each country's efforts at controlling human trafficking and provides penalties for those that fail to meet minimum standards, said the lack of implementation is "appalling."
"I don't know a more serious human rights violation than human trafficking, and we should treat it as such," the New Jersey Republican said. "We can't play games with human rights."
Mr. Smith said the issuance of so many waivers "is counterproductive to the intent of the law."
The waivers, he said, are "supposed to be used as an exception, not as a default position."
"When the exception becomes the rule, I think we have a serious problem of implementation," he said. "We don't want countries to think this country is lacking in political will to enforce the law."
In June 2011, the State Department issued its annual Trafficking in Persons report, noting that 23 nations did not meet minimum standards in combating human trafficking, were not making significant efforts to improve and, as a result, were ineligible for assistance from the U.S. government. The report, which analyzed and ranked trafficking in humans in 184 countries, is required by the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. Three months later, Mr. Obama issued his waivers.
Sanctions mean the United States can withhold or withdraw all foreign assistance that is not humanitarian or related to trade. It also can stop funding educational and cultural exchange programs.
Last month, the State Department's 2012 trafficking report cited 17 nations as failing to do enough against human trafficking. Mr. Obama has until mid-September to decide whether to issue new waivers. A White House spokesman referred questions about the waivers to the State Department.
Luis CdeBaca, ambassador at large for the State Department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, defended the waivers by saying the threat of sanctions was "a major motivation for countries to comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking." He said the department works with the various governments to communicate the seriousness of sanctions and that the "potential loss of substantial U.S. government funding greatly improved their anti-trafficking efforts."
"Nevertheless, the [Trafficking Victims Protection Act] provides that governments can receive waivers of sanctions in the national interest," he said.
But Michael Horowitz, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a Washington-based nonpartisan policy research organization, said foreign embassies no longer are worried about enforcement of the act because of the widespread use of waivers.
"Major legislation passed, but it is not being enforced," said Mr. Horowitz, who played a role in passing the original trafficking legislation. "It is not taken seriously by foreign governments." He said the U.S. government's response to human trafficking has become "a series of press conferences with no bite," and described the State Department as "a white noise operation."
Jeffrey J. Schott, sanctions specialist and senior fellow at Washington's Peterson Institute for International Economics, a nonpartisan research institution on international economic policy, said there could be "all matter of complications" behind the waivers, but the State Department's "naming and shaming" puts a spotlight on countries pursuing "outrageous practices" in hope that they will perform.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has equated human trafficking to slavery and said it is likely that more men, women and children around the world are living as human trafficking victims "than at any point in history."
In the department's 2012 trafficking report, she said, 27 million people worldwide are victims, but the United States is "making a lot of progress" in urging countries to upgrade their anti-trafficking efforts.
"We should take a moment to reflect on how far we have come, here in our country and around the world, but how much further we still have to go to find a way to free those 27 million victims and to ensure that there are no longer any victims in the future," she said.
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