China and Russia failed to meet minimum standards for fighting human trafficking, according to the U.S. State Department, which dropped the countries to the lowest possible ranking in its 2013 report, released yesterday.
The annual “Trafficking in Persons” report ranks 188 countries on performance in fighting various forms of human trafficking. Promises to improve kept China and Russia on the Tier 2 Watchlist for nine consecutive years. Now, the State Department has dropped the two countries, along with Uzbekistan, to Tier 3, on par with countries such as Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, and Zimbabwe.
The report accused China of state-sponsored forced labor under the name “re-education through labor,” as well as widespread sex trafficking. China’s one-child policy—and the skewed sex ratio of 118 boys to 100 girls it caused—has created a huge demand for the “trafficking of foreign women as brides for Chinese men and for forced prostitution.”
The report cited the Migration Research Center, which estimates that one million people experience “exploitative” labor conditions in Russia. The report accuses Russia of using forced labor for projects related to the upcoming Winter Olympic Games in Sochi and forcing North Koreans to work in logging camps, under an agreement with the North Korean government.
While the report acknowledged some action on the part of both governments, it determined that the plans were either not implemented properly or were ineffective. Neither country is eligible for the waiver that has kept them off Tier 3 for the past two years.
President Barack Obama has 90 days to determine whether to apply sanctions against the 21 countries currently on the Tier 3 list. Sanctions could range from restricting aid to removing U.S. backing for loans from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
Both countries have expressed frustration at the new ranking. Chinese news agency Xinhua said Konstantin Dolgov, the Russian ministry’s human rights envoy, called the decision a “politicization of the trafficking issue” and “arbitrary.” News agency Al Jazeera reported Hua Chunying, a foreign ministry spokeswoman for China, asking the United States to “stop making unilateral or arbitrary judgments of China.”
Activists commended Secretary of State John Kerry for being willing to downgrade powerful nations.
“Frankly, we expected a number of these countries to be upgraded for geopolitical reasons,” said David Abramowitz, director of the U.S.-based Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking. “The Trafficking in Persons report is only effective when it’s honest.”
John Sifton of Human Rights Watch said it remains to be seen whether the White House will implement sanctions. He urged the administration to do so unless the governments in question commit to fight trafficking.
The Trafficking in Persons report is one of several annual assessments issued by the State Department on human rights-related topics. Its rankings often ruffle diplomatic feathers. It is based on the actions governments take, rather than the scale of the problem in their country. There are 25 countries that could find themselves in the same position as Russia and China come next year’s report if governments fail to demonstrate they have a plan and the resources to address human trafficking.