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US Double Standards on Human Trafficking

This week, the State Department issued its annual report on human trafficking around the world and listed 19 countries as bastions for slave traffickers. Governments in these countries typically make little or no effort to stop such crimes.

As is the case every year, this set off several months of deliberation that will end one day this fall when President Obama decides which of the 19 countries will lose foreign aid because of State’s negative determination.

On that day, the White House press office ought to put up a movie screen in the briefing room and play the movie clip of Casablanca in which Claude Rains famously declares: “Round up the usual suspects.”

Last year’s report listed 15 countries as the worst malefactors, among them Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Algeria—US allies all. But in September the president’s final “determination” listed only Cuba, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, North Korea, Eritrea, Iran, Madagascar, Syria, Sudan, and Zimbabwe.

When the White House publishes this year’s determination next fall, you can safely place money on the assumption that President Obama will list the usual suspects once again. After all, this and previous administrations blacklist the same handful of bêtes noires, plus a few nations of little significance, in almost every annual report they publish—on human rights, drug trafficking, and terrorism, among others. More egregious offenders that happen to be allies or are otherwise important to the US are routinely let off the hook.

Why does this matter? Over the years, Congress and the White House have set up large offices to study and report on these problems. Officers in almost every US embassy do the research and write the reports. Each of these issues is of serious concern to large numbers of people and interest groups in the US and around the world.

Some of these issues, including drug trafficking and terrorism, actually cause grave problems in the US. And the State Department, as it released the trafficking report this week, declared that “up to 27 million people are enslaved” around the world—and yet only 46,000 victims have actually been found and identified.

The new report says: “Women, primarily from Asia and Africa, are believed to be forced into prostitution in Saudi Arabia. Some female domestic workers are reportedly kidnaped and forced into prostitution after running away from abusive employers. Children from Yemen, Nigeria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Chad, and Sudan are subjected to forced labor as beggars and street vendors in Saudi Arabia.”

And in Kuwait, the report adds, men and women from nearby countries come looking for work, but “upon arrival their sponsors and labor agents subject some migrants to conditions of forced labor, including nonpayment of wages, long working hours without rest, deprivation of food, threats, physical or sexual abuse, and restrictions on movement, such as confinement to the workplace and the withholding of passports.”

And yet, year after year, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and several other equally guilty states are forgiven because it’s inconvenient for Washington to penalize them for their crimes. This year, for example, Russia and China are on the list. No doubt, once again Washington will absolve them and several others.

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