01 Jul Poor human trafficking records and implications for ASEAN
In June, the US State Department released its annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, which ranks countries based on their efforts to combat modern slavery. The report did not put any countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) at Tier 1, the rank that acknowledges compliance with minimum standards of fighting human trafficking. What’s more, Malaysia and Thailand were downgraded to Tier 3, the worst possible ranking.
This demotion to Tier 3, a rank that indicates no progress in terms of fighting human trafficking, puts Malaysia and Thailand in the same category as Iran, North Korea and Syria. The TIP report highlighted Thailand and Malaysia’s thriving sex trade, and also focused on forced labour in the agricultural, fishing, domestic work, and textile industries. Additionally, US Ambassador to the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, Luis CdeBaca, stated that “widespread official complicity in human trafficking” was hindering Thailand’s progress.
A Tier 3 ranking can become grounds for economic sanctions, including blocking various types of aid, or withdrawal of US support for loans from the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund. Unsurprisingly, Thailand has gone on the defensive. Acting Foreign Minister Sihasak Phuangketkeow stated the government’s disappointment and disagreement with the downgrade, saying that “suppressing human trafficking” is the government’s “highest priority.” Similarly, Malaysia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared “serious” commitment to combating human trafficking, and accused the US of using “flawed” and “inaccurate” information in its report.
Singapore, which has remained at Tier 2 for the past three years, has also urged the US to “adopt a more objective methodology” to ensure that “a consistent, transparent and measurable standard” is applied fairly to all countries.
ASEAN nations may reject the TIP report findings, but their less than favourable rankings are not shocking. In fact, the low rankings fit within a larger trend of human rights violations in the region. While the 2008 ASEAN Charter refers to protecting human rights and promoting social justice, Article 1 emphasises ASEAN’s commitment to non-interference and national sovereignty. Consequently, tensions and roadblocks arise when ASEAN nations deem human rights issues purely domestic affairs, which are not subject to ASEAN’s supra-national oversight.
In light of mounting pressure to achieve the ASEAN Economic Community in 2015, it is perhaps wise for ASEAN to hold off on addressing sensitive human rights issues. ASEAN should, however, keep in mind that human rights violations have the potential to escalate into destabilising regional conflicts and create animosity between its members. It is imperative therefore, that ASEAN becomes more united, forward-looking, and proactive when handling human rights issues. This will encourage the timely building of ASEAN’s Social-Cultural Pillar as part of the ASEAN Vision 2020, and allow ASEAN to have a greater role in regional and global affairs.
Thailand deeply disappointed with downgrading in US human trafficking report [Straits Times, 21 Jun 2014] (Requires login)
Statement on the US State Department Trafficking in Persons Report 2014 —Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Malaysia) [Malay Mail Online (Malaysia MFA), 22 Jun 2014]
Singapore inter-agency taskforce responds to US report on human trafficking [TODAY, 21 Jun 2014]
Growing an ASEAN Voice?: A Common Platform in Global and Regional Governance by Simon Tay, ERIA Discussion Paper 2013-16
Photo Credit: US State Department