In the early 2000s, an unusual alliance across feminists and evangelicals repackaged human trafficking into the leading human rights issue of our time. These extraordinary origins permit the trafficking problem uncommonly high levels of bipartisan support.
Unbeknownst to most observers of politics, Donald Trump did not just carry on this bipartisan tradition, but he also made the fight against modern slavery one of his administration’s signature issues. He is leaving behind an underappreciated legacy on this human rights problem. Biden should take notes on what Trump has done well, particularly in the area of foreign policy.
Even a brief look at Trump’s work on anti-trafficking makes his record difficult to minimize.
A record-breaking nine pieces of bipartisan legislation went into effect during the Trump administration. Impressively, Trump’s recent Department of Justice anti-trafficking grant is the largest in history. Several weeks ago the administration rolled out a National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking, the first of its kind. We have also seen the emergence of the Public-Private Partnership Advisory Council to End Human Trafficking to advise the President’s Interagency Task Force to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. Comments provided by the heads of US agencies at last month’s presidential task force meeting demonstrate high levels of coordination across a wide range of US federal government agencies. These are the same agencies that Trump instructed in his first month of office to use whatever means necessary to end human trafficking.
Perhaps most unexpected is Trump’s willingness to dedicate his own time to listening to trafficking survivors. Trump is the only president to hold a White House summit on human trafficking (an event Ivanka Trump spearheaded), and the two-hour program included survivor testimonies. At the summit Trump issued an executive order that tackles the growing problem of online child sex trafficking and created the first White House employee position devoted to combating trafficking in persons.
Trump implemented a whole-of-government approach to stop trafficking at a level that outshines previous administrations. The efficacy of certain new initiatives is still up in the air, but the administration deserves recognition for its attention to anti-trafficking.
Shifting to Trump’s foreign policy on trafficking, in June the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons released the twentieth-anniversary edition of its acclaimed Trafficking in Persons Report. This famous report is the centerpiece of US foreign policy on human trafficking. In it, the State Department ranks other countries on their efforts to comply with widely recognized anti-human trafficking standards. Sanctions are a possible penalty for states with failing or blacklist grades.
The timely release of this year’s trafficking report in the midst of COVID-19 is an indicator that the report’s grades on other countries are free of serious politicization. Too often, a late release correlates with disputed or politicized grades.
The 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report is a prime example of this unfortunate phenomenon. Human rights experts slammed the 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report for its politicized rankings. Senior Obama officials overruled recommendations from the State Department’s trafficking office and upgraded countries like Malaysia to make way for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Obama refused to blacklist China despite human rights and faith-based organizations calling for China’s downgrade. Following his détente with Cuba, Obama upgraded the communist country after 12 years on the blacklist. Bipartisan outrage over these and many other 2015 politicized rankings was so intense that it led to congressional hearings.
Yet none of the trafficking reports under the Trump administration underwent similar scrutiny—and human rights organizations are notoriously quick to point out instances of potential politicization. Over the last few years, the trafficking report grades have recovered much of their credibility. This is largely because the Trump administration graded countries more fairly than the previous administration.
Unlike Obama, Trump swiftly called out China for its complicity in human trafficking. He immediately downgraded China to the blacklist in the Trafficking in Persons Report. The blacklist is where China genuinely belongs for its unbridled forced labor and the ongoing arbitrary detention of over a million Uighur Muslims and other ethnic and religious minorities.
Also bolstering credibility was the administration’s willingness to downgrade allies like Germany, Denmark, and Italy. Conversely, the administration recognized hard work. Just this past year Namibia became the first African country to achieve a Tier 1 grade (the highest mark) since 2012. In another act that furthered integrity, in this year’s trafficking report the US gave itself the most recommendations for improvement.
Still, this does not mean that the Trump administration’s trafficking reports were completely devoid of harmful politicization. Although Trump did the right thing by blacklisting Saudi Arabia in 2019, that report omitted a recommendation from John Cotton Richmond, ambassador-at-large over the State Department’s trafficking office, to include Saudi Arabia in a list of counties that uses child soldiers. This omission may have been due to Trump’s hesitancy to compromise bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia.
Balancing strategic interests with human rights priorities is a messy business. In the context of anti-trafficking, Trump navigated these challenges extraordinarily well. Obama’s politicization of the trafficking report was so deliberate it was embarrassing. Yet Trump usually disaggregated strategic interests from trafficking report rankings. This type of foreign policy decision-making is what human rights communities often clamor for, yet rarely receive.
Joe Biden should follow Trump’s example, and not Obama’s, in his foreign policy on human trafficking. He should remember the scar that Obama’s politicization left on the trafficking report’s credibility. He should look at how blacklisting China restored a sense of international confidence in US foreign policy on human trafficking.
Luis C. deBaca, who served from 2009–14 as ambassador-at-large over the State Department’s trafficking office, recently stated that, as vice president, Biden “was more than willing to raise uncomfortable conversations about human trafficking with his foreign counterparts, even when it could make a bilateral relationship very uncomfortable.”
Let us hope this holds true and Biden is willing to hold serious violators accountable for barbaric disregard of human dignity.