The US is accused of watering down a human rights report for the sake of politics and trade

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Originally published by Quartz on August 4, 2015

An annual human rights report issued by the United States is being watered down by US diplomats in the State Department, according to a report by Reuters.

Recommendations to downgrade China from the second tier to the third—for countries that fail to meet or make any significant effort to meet US standards for preventing human trafficking—were overruled, according to the report. That would have put China in the same category as Syria and North Korea. Mexico, Cuba, India, and Uzbekistan also ended up with better rankings.

As Quartz has reported, Malaysia was upgraded to a ranking of Tier 2, for nations that are making significant efforts to meet US standards for preventing trafficking—despite the discovery of mass graves of trafficked migrants and the continued use of forced labor. Critics say the upgrade was motivated by the administration’s push for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free-trade deal that would have excluded Malaysia had it remained in the report’s third-tier ranking.

“I think it does affect the report’s credibility,” Frances Eve, a researcher for the advocacy group Chinese Human Rights Defenders, tells Quartz. “This is the kind of behavior that makes human rights work so much harder, when democratic countries show that human rights don’t matter when money or politics is involved.”

For the past 15 years, the US’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, known within human rights circles as J/TIP, evaluates and places countries into tiers based on whether they meet US standards for preventing human trafficking. Tier 1 and Tier 2 are for nations that meet or are making “significant efforts” to meet the standards, while Tier 3 is for countries that fail to meet or make real effort to meet them. A Tier 2 “watch list” is for countries that should be monitored.

The official rankings have been used as a reference point for determining foreign aid, the funding of social initiatives in these nations, and for other human rights groups. A Tier 3 ranking can also trigger sanctions from the US, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank.

More alarming may be the revelation that the report is always the result of negotiations between nominally-independent experts and the State Department. The office usually wins “more than half of what officials call ‘disputes’ with diplomatic sections of the State Department,” sources told Reuters. This year was unusually high—with J/TIP only winning three of 17 of these “disputes.”

The State Department vigorously denies the allegations. “As is always the case, final decisions are reached only after rigorous analysis and discussion between the TIP office, relevant regional bureaus, and senior State Department leaders,” spokesman John Kirby told the news agency.

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