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The U.S. Department of State is scheduled to release its annual “Trafficking in Persons” (TIP) report on Thursday, June 20. Judith Kelley, dean of Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, studies international relations with a focus on human rights and democracy. Her most recent book, Scorecard Diplomacy: Grading States to Influence Their Reputation and Behavior, details how the annual TIP Report from the U.S. State Department influences nations to take action to combat human trafficking. She is the principal investigator of a National Science Foundation backed project on human trafficking.

Q. Critics say the TIP report is too influenced by politics and countries can get better grades if the U.S. has a strategic interest at stake. How credible is the TIP report?

A. Judith Kelley: While the report occasionally has been subject to political pressures in the past, overall the report retains great credibility throughout the world. This year’s report is the first 2019 to be released under Ambassador John Richmond, it is eminently important for this report to be credible. Ambassador Richmond has a chance to signal that he intends to hold sacred the report’s objectivity. Doing so will be the single most powerful thing he can do.

Q. The current administration has close relationships with some authoritarian regimes. What effect could this have on the report?

A. Ambassador Richmond will be under pressure to go easy on some authoritarian regimes. The current administration has working relationships with various strongmen that are far friendlier than more recent presidents. With arms deals with Saudi Arabia and a willingness to praise strongmen around the world, it remains to be seen whether this administration will leave Richmond the room he needs to do a balanced job. Human trafficking has historically been one of the most bipartisan issues in Washington, but it is, as we’ve seen in the past, not isolated from political pressure. 

Q.  The United States has problems of its own. Should it get a lower grade?

A. This would be a mistake. While the U.S. can clearly do more, it is already doing a lot once one also considers all the efforts worldwide. It also has gone a long way to having the requisite laws in place. While far from perfect, the U.S. is far ahead of most other countries that are labeled Tier 2. Downgrading the U.S. to Tier 2 would open the door for Tier 2 countries to view themselves as peers of the U.S. and to make excuses about their own performance. It would completely undermine the credibility of the report. Instead, advocates should continue to pressure state and local governments, which is where most meaningful implementation of TIP work occurs, to fight harder.

Q. What recent successes are tied to the U.S. focus on monitoring and publicly grading human rights around the world? How is it making a difference for victims?

A. The biggest overall success is to make sure countries around the world have laws on the books that criminalize trafficking in persons. That was not always the case. The international adoption in 2000 of the Palermo Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children stressed the need for adopting such policies, and the U.S. used the TIP report rating system to great effect in getting such policies passed around the world. Trafficking in persons is a heinous crime that is no more likely to disappear than murder or drug-trafficking, but nowadays, more perpetrators are prosecuted and convicted. We also have higher awareness and more services in place, making sure that survivors are not themselves criminalized but instead provided with support. That said, there is still a long way to go, which is why it’s so important for the U.S. not to bow to pressures.

Q: Around the world, many nations have become less welcoming to refugees who are fleeing war, violence or political, economic or environmental pressures. What does this mean for human trafficking?

A: First, reporters and politicians frequently mix up the terms human smugglers and human traffickers. They are not the same. Trafficking involves coercion. Smuggling involves consent, and often transport in exchange for payment. The rub, however, is that the more people are fleeing and paying for transit services, the more people also are vulnerable to exploitation. Often these people who initially set out for a better life end up becoming victims of human trafficking. Children, of course, are particularly vulnerable.