- - Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Should the U.S. grant preferential treatment on trade to an egregious human rights violator that allows human traffickers to operate unencumbered within its borders?

The obvious answer would seem to be “No.” Yet largely missing from the debate over granting the President Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) has been any discussion over one of the involved nation’s abysmal human rights record and failure to address rampant human trafficking.

Just last week the New York Times reported the discovery of a mass grave with 139 bodies found in Malaysia. The victims are believed to be migrant workers who were victims of human trafficking and held in labor camps by their smugglers. Yet, the House of Representatives is poised to vote on legislation that will grant President Obama “fast-track” authority to advance trade deals with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which includes Malaysia.

The U.S. State Department established the annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report which classifies every nation in one of three tiers, based on each government’s efforts to comply with the “minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking,” found in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA). A Tier 1 ranking indicates a government has acknowledged trafficking exists and is in full compliance with the TVPA standards. A Tier 2 classification is assigned to nations that have failed to comply with the minimum standards laid out in TVPA, but have taken steps to improve their standing. These nations are placed on a State Department Watch List until they meet the minimum standards. Tier 3 classification is reserved for the most egregious violators of the TVPA standards, meaning the nations with this ranking have failed to do even the bare minimum to combat human slavery and is not taking appropriate steps to combat trafficking.

Malaysia is among the worst 10 percent of nations globally when it comes to addressing human trafficking. Malaysia is joined by some of the most corrupt governments on earth including North Korea, Iran, Libya, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Syria and Cuba. Malaysia was downgraded from the Tier 2 watch list ranking to Tier 3, indicting they are failing to take even the most basic steps to address human trafficking taking place within its borders.

In addition to failing to address slavery taking place inside the country, the Malaysian government has an abysmal track record regarding the millions of migrant workers toiling away, largely hidden from society. Employee mistreatment is rampant in the technology sector in particular. A recent study revealed that as many as 94 percent of migrant workers had their passports confiscated – a key step traffickers use to hold their victims in bondage - severely restricting their freedom of movement and preventing many from returning to their home countries. Foreign workers typically migrate to Malaysia willingly, looking for greater opportunities, but often fall into forced labor or debt bondage. According to the State Department, young women are recruited for legal work in hotels, beauty salons, and restaurants but are then coerced into the commercial sex trade.

When the United States openly welcomes Malaysia – a Tier 3 country and flagrant violator of human rights – as a trading partner, what kind of message are we sending to Tier 2 countries striving to make improvements in their human rights records? Modern day slavery is the great tragedy of our time and the U.S. cannot turn a blind eye to it on our soil or another nation’s.

Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) offered an amendment to the Senate-passed version of TPA that effectively excludes Malaysia and other nations with abysmal trafficking records from “fast track” consideration. However, the Obama Administration strongly opposes the provision. 

I call on my colleagues in the House to support TPA only if Malaysia is removed as a trading partner due to its unacceptable record of human rights violations and for continuing to turn a blind eye to labor and sex trafficking. Further, in the future, the United States should not enter into trade agreements with nations classified with a Tier 3 rating. The U.S. is supposed to be a beacon of hope to the world—the shining city on a hill where freedom is available to all and individual liberties are protected. We send the wrong message to the rest of the world if we reward a nation guilty of abuses that go against everything for which our great nation stands. 

Congressman Mark Meadows (R-NC) serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations. He is also a founding member of the House Freedom Caucus.

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