On July 12, the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations held a hearing about the recently released State Department’s 2016 Human Trafficking Report. After opening statements by the Committee’s Chair, Senator Bob Corker (Rep., TN), and its Ranking Member, Senator Ben Cardin (Dem., MD), the only witness was Ambassador Susan Coppedge.
Senator Corker’s Opening Statement
“The integrity of last year’s report was called into question because of controversy over how the Tier Rankings were made regarding certain countries.”
“This report and Tier Rankings are an improvement, and we thank you for your leadership in that regard and the way inter-departmentally people worked with each other. The decisions behind certain upgrades, such as Cyprus and the Philippines, and downgrades, such as Uzbekistan, Burma, and Luxembourg, are more balanced and strategic.”
“In the past, back and forth deliberations between the TIP office and the regional bureaus have been the rule. While less pronounced this year, that pattern still shows in how certain countries, such as India, Mexico and Malaysia, are ranked.”
“Each year, the TIP report makes recommendations for progress and turns these into tailored actions for our embassies. Rigorously applied TIP action plans should inform the tough calls on the Tier Rankings.”
“We encourage you to give a fair assessment of countries efforts to address trafficking this year, and we also hope you are candid with us in describing the challenges that still exist in certain countries.”
“This year’s report focuses especially on preventing modern slavery. This is important and needs to be part of substantially increasing international efforts to end modern slavery, which this committee unanimously supports and hopefully will come to fruition very quickly.”
Senator Cardin’s Opening Statement
“Trafficking in persons is one of the great moral challenges of our time. It destroys people and corrodes communities. It distorts labor markets and undermines stability and the rule of law. Trafficking is fueled by greed, violence, and corruption. According to the International Labor Organization, there are at least 21 million victims of modern slavery in the world. Forced labor alone generates more than $150 billion in profits annually, making it one of the largest income sources for international criminals, second only to drug trafficking.”
Last year, we expressed significant concerns about the neutrality of the 2015 TIP report – primary among them, the decision to upgrade Cuba and Malaysia, from the Tier 3 designation to Tier 2 Watch List.” (Emphasis added.)
“After reviewing the 2016 TIP report, I believe it is a mixed bag. We saw some aggressive evaluations in the 2016 report; yet, we still see remnants of the exact problems we had last year — pending bilateral concerns impacting the quality of the report. Again despite little progress from Malaysia and Cuba, the State Department decided to keep both on Tier 2 Watch List this year after they were upgraded from Tier 3 in 2015. This was unnecessary and unwarranted. By contrast, for example, Uzbekistan was upgraded last year to the Tier 2 Watch List. But, as a result of continued government compelled forced labor by adults in the cotton harvest and aggressive harassment and detention of independent monitors, Uzbekistan was appropriately downgraded this year to Tier 3.”(Emphasis added.)
During the hearing Cardin later said that last year Cuba and Malaysia should not have been upgraded from Tier III to Tier II Watch List and should not have remained on that Watch List this year.
Ambassador Coppedge’s Testimony
In her prepared testimony, Ambassador Coppedge stated, “Of the countries analyzed in the 2016 Report, 36 were placed on Tier 1, 78 on Tier 2, 44 on Tier 2 Watch List, and 27 on Tier 3. In all, there were 27 downgrades and 20 upgrades. No matter which tier a country is placed on, every nation can and should do more to combat human trafficking, which is why the Report offers recommendations for improvements for every country, even Tier 1 countries like the United States.”
In response to questions, the Ambassador described the process of ranking the countries, which involved collaboration among the people in U.S. embassies around the world and the TIP office at the State Department and arriving at consensus for such rankings for almost all countries. For the few instances of no consensus, the Secretary of State is presented optional rankings, and he or she chooses one of those options. She also testified that for the 2016 report there were no instances in which the Secretary rejected the consensus opinion and that there was only “a handful” of instances without a consensus view.
When Senator Menendez suggested possibly amending the governing statute to make the minimum standards stricter, the Ambassador disagreed. She said that the current statutory flexibility was desirable because of the number of issues and countries that were involved.
Most of the senatorial comments and questions focused on India and Malaysia with brief mention of Mauritania. In addition, the Ambassador summarized the reasons for this year’s downgrades of Burma, Haiti and Luxembourg.
Cuba was touched on by Senators Robert Menendez (Dem., NJ) and Marco Rubio (Rep., FL). The Ambassador said she went to Cuba this past January and pressed officials about whether medical personnel on foreign missions were permitted to hold their own passports. She also noted, as stated in the report, that Cuba does not recognize forced labor as a problem, has no laws against that activity and no prosecutions or convictions in that area. Thus, on that issue it does not meet the U.S. statute’s “minimum standards.” Cuba, however, is making progress regarding sex trafficking, including law enforcement training, prosecutions and protection.
There also were cryptic comments about the Committee’s hearing regarding the prior year’s report and to a vigorous, closed hearing with last year’s witness, Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. Senator Corker said in his opinion certain aspects of the 2015 report were driven by political considerations, rather than the TIP statute.
Immediately after the hearing Chairman Corker issued a press release. It said that he had “noted improvements over last year’s report but argued for continued progress to strengthen the integrity of the Tier Rankings that will help support global efforts to fight human trafficking and end modern slavery.“ Corker “noted that more should be done to ensure recommendations from the TIP office about a country’s progress in combating trafficking are not overruled by political appointees within the State Department based upon other diplomatic considerations.”
Prior posts have reviewed the TIP’s reports assessments of Cuba’s record regarding human trafficking in 2015 and 2016 and mounted a vigorous and, in this blogger’s opinion, effective rebuttals of the contentions that Cuba was engaged in illegal forced labor with respect to its medical personnel on foreign missions.
As those prior posts indicate, these foreign medical missions spring from a Cuban objective of being in solidarity with people in need around the world while also building a community of international allies for the island and in more recent years being a major source of revenue for the Cuban government’s exports of services.
According to Granma, the newspaper of the Communist Party of Cuba, the country’s foreign medical missions started in 1960 when a Cuban medical brigade treated the victims of an earthquake in Chile, followed by the sending of another group in 1963, to provide health care in Algeria, then recently liberated from French colonial rule.
Through May 31, 2016, a total of 325,000 Cuban health personnel have provided medical services in 158 countries. There are currently 55,000 Cubans working in 67 countries, including more than 25,000 doctors. The Granma article provides a list of all the 158 countries with the number of Cuban medical personnel who have worked there.
This year’s hearing did not examine those criticisms of the reports’ contention that Cuba was engaged in illegal forced labor on its foreign medical missions. Instead, the apparent assumption of all the senators at the hearings seemed to be that Cuba was so engaged. Nothing, however, was said at this hearing to criticize or invalidate this blogger’s contention that there is no such illegal forced labor by Cuba.
 Cardin Remarks at Trafficking in Persons Report Hearing (July 12, 2016)
 Coppedge, Testimony: Review of the 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report (July 12, 2016); Senate Foreign Relations Comm., Hearing: Review of the 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report (July 12, 2016)(video).
 Senator Rubio’s subsequent press release contained a transcript of his interchange with Ambassador Coppedge. (Rubio, Press Release: Rubio Presses State Department On 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report (July 12, 2016).) Senator Menendez in his press release “criticized the apparent politicization of the U.S. Department of State’s annual [TIP] Report, noting that Cuba, Malaysia and other nations continue to enjoy favorable status despite failures to meet minimum legal standards prescribed by Congress.” Menendez also announced his intent to introduce a bill to change the process for preparing the TIP report. (Menendez: TIP Report Can’t Be a ‘Shell Game’ (July 12, 2016).)