- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Amid accusations that the Obama administration is whitewashing modern slavery by a potential trading partner, U.S. officials on Tuesday called for countries negotiating a major Pacific Rim free-trade deal to resolve disputes that have stalled the pact.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry said in Singapore that the Trans-Pacific Partnership would benefit people in all 12 of the proposed trading nations and serve as a model for responsible commerce. Talks among the nations’ trade ministers in Hawaii broke off last week without an agreement, just weeks after President Obama won “fast-track” approval in Congress to speed the negotiations.

Details of the TPP remain “to be hashed out,” Mr. Kerry acknowledged, but he said the pact encompassing 40 percent of global trade will be worth the effort.

“It will send a message to people within the TPP and outside of support for good governance, transparency, and accountability,” Mr. Kerry said.

But opponents are intensifying their criticism of the TPP amid reports that political appointees at the State Department downplayed the agency’s annual assessment of human trafficking and gave an improved grade on conditions of modern-day slavery in Malaysia to allow the country to join the pact.

Reuters reported Monday that human rights experts at the State Department concluded that trafficking conditions hadn’t improved in Malaysia and Cuba, and had worsened in China. But senior political staff saw it differently, and successfully pressured the office handling the report to inflate the Trafficking in Persons assessments of Malaysia and 14 other strategically important countries, sources told the wire service.

When the trafficking report was released on July 27, Malaysia and Cuba were removed from the “Tier 3” blacklist, even though the State Department’s trafficking experts believed neither nation had made notable improvements, according to the sources.

The upgrade for Malaysia could smooth the way for completion of the TPP by eliminating a potential barrier to that country’s inclusion in the pact.

A coalition of civil society groups on Tuesday called for an independent investigation of reports of serious human rights and labor abuses at Malaysian plantations operated by Felda Global Venture. The Wall Street Journal documented findings of human trafficking, forced labor and other labor abuses on Felda’s plantations.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is expected to examine Malaysia’s new ranking on human trafficking at a hearing Thursday. Sen. Bob Menendez, New Jersey Democrat and a member of the panel, said he would use “all of the tools at my disposal” to investigate and reverse the new designation for Malaysia.

“The administration has turned its back on the victims of trafficking, turned a blind eye to the facts, and ignored the calls from Congress, leading human rights advocates, and Malaysian government officials to preserve the integrity of this important report,” Mr. Menendez said. “They have elevated politics over the most basic principles of human rights. Upgrades for Malaysia and Cuba are a clear politicization of the report, and a stamp of approval for countries who have failed to take the basic actions to merit this upgrade.”

The White House denied Tuesday that it had any role in influencing the State Department’s decision on Malaysia.

“This a process that lived at the State Department, and the White House was very respectful of the ongoing policy process at the State Department for publishing this report,” said White House press secretary Josh Earnest.

The TPP is the centerpiece of Mr. Obama’s efforts to boost U.S. influence in Asia and to serve as an economic counterweight to China. It would erase most tariffs and other barriers to trade and investment among the partners, which do not include China.

Critics, including progressives in the U.S. and most Democratic lawmakers, have complained that the administration is negotiating the deal in secret and that it favors multinational corporations over workers and consumers.

The TPP has been under consideration since 2002, with the U.S. taking the lead role in the talks since 2008. Participants are the U.S., Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.

Most Democratic lawmakers opposed giving Mr. Obama trade-promotion authority to negotiate the pact without the ability of Congress to amend it later. With the help of Republican leaders, Mr. Obama won the legislative battle in June, but the negotiations have yet to produce a final deal.

“As with any complex negotiation there remain details to be hashed out, but the reasons why each of the TPP countries is pressing on to work through tough negotiations or even some of the most sensitive areas of the negotiations are very, very clear,” Mr. Kerry said. “Because major economies are committing to TPP’s high standards, its influence will be felt not just in the region but beyond.”

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