Those human trafficking ratings are so overrated

On Monday, human rights advocates strongly criticized the State Department for upgrading Cuba and Malaysia in its 2015 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report. The promotion, critics charge, was entirely unrelated to actual efforts by the Cuban and Malaysian governments to do anything about human trafficking. Instead, the Obama administration’s higher rankings reflect the current U.S. rapprochement with Cuba and the desire to finalize a trade agreement that includes Malaysia.

In some ways, this news is unremarkable. The annual release of the rankings is typically accompanied by accusations that political motivations shape the placement of countries into different tiers. Indeed, governments themselves often attribute their unfavorable grade to unsavory U.S. motives rather than their countries’ poor record on human trafficking.

Why would anyone care how the United States rates countries in an annual report? After all, it is mostly a symbolic exercise in public shaming. Tier 1 countries are adjudged to meet all the standards set out by the United States, tier 2 countries can be placed on a “watch list,” and tier 3 countries are those “whose governments do not fully comply with the minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so.” Theoretically, tier 3 countries could face sanctions, but those sanctions are typically waived, unless the United States is already sanctioning that country for other reasons.