Malaysia was downgraded to the lowest ranking in the United States’ 2014 annual human trafficking report.
However, in what could be called a quick – and miraculous – improvement, the Southeast Asian nation will soon be upgraded on the watchlist this year – despite the fact that mass graves of trafficking victims and migrants were discovered on the Malaysian-Thai border just in May.
While the move has predictably sparked outcry from human rights advocates, many of who claim that the Malaysia’s slavery record is as abysmal as last year, the decision by the U.S. government was more or less expected, primarily because it would allow President Obama to negotiate a trade deal that could boost American economic growth.
The United States is prohibited from entering into trade agreements with countries that are deemed “Tier 3” nations – the world’s worst offenders of human rights on the list. Apart from Malaysia, the current Tier 3 countries are Zimbabwe, North Korea and Saudi Arabia.
In order to continue with his Trans-Pacific Partnership – a controversial trade pact with Malaysia and 10 other countries that could boost American economic growth – Obama has been fighting to win “fast-track” trade, a move that lets the president a trade deal that Congress can only accept or reject, not amend.
Even as Malaysian police found 139 grave sites and 28 abandoned detention camps used by smugglers and traffickers of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar – indicating slavery still goes unchecked in the country –Obama strived to trade with Malaysia. Eventually on June 29 he signed into law legislation that gives him power to push ahead on the TPP.
Addressing the possibility of upgrading Malaysia, U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) said politically charged categorization would be a "perversion of the trafficking list."
"The deplorable human trafficking crisis in Malaysia merits a global cry for action and justice – not an attempt to sweep them under the rug for political expediency," he said, according to AP.
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Since Malaysia is close to the Strait of Malacca, a key shipping lane for world trade, Obama’s determination to deal with the country is somewhat understandable.
However, to ignore mass human rights abuses for the sake of more dollars raises questions over the credibility of the U.S. which is the self-proclaimed human rights champion of the world.