Kerry 'notes' Malaysian trafficking steps, urges more

Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak (R) listens while U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry talks before a meeting at the prime minister's office in Putrajaya, Malaysia August 5, 2015.
PHOTO: Reuters

KUALA LUMPUR - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak on Wednesday and noted steps his government has taken to address human trafficking but urged it to improve law enforcement and victim protection, a U.S. State Department official said.

Kerry's talk with Najib, on the sidelines of meetings of the Association of South East Asian Nations, came just days after the State Department he heads took Malaysia off its list of worst offenders in human trafficking, removing a potential barrier to a signature Asia-Pacific trade pact, despite opposition from human rights groups and nearly 180 U.S. lawmakers.

The U.S. official said Kerry and Najib also discussed progress on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact. "Both leaders reaffirmed the importance to regional prosperity of getting the trade agreement concluded," the official said.

Kerry thanked Najib for Malaysia's actions to address a recent migrant crisis and its willingness to accept large numbers of Rohingya Muslim refugees from Myanmar. "They agreed on the importance of ensuring good treatment of the refugees, while also finding ways to address the root causes of migration and to bring human smugglers to justice," the official said.

On Tuesday, senior U.S. lawmakers expressed concern about whether the State Department's annual global report on human trafficking may have been watered down due to political considerations and vowed to demand a full accounting at a Senate hearing this week.

Human rights groups called for an investigation into why strategically important countries such as Malaysia and Cuba were upgraded in the report, after a Reuters article chronicled how senior U.S. diplomats repeatedly overruled State Department human rights experts.

The State Department denied that the country-by-country ratings in the latest report had been politicized.

Lawmakers will question Sarah Sewall, who oversees the anti-trafficking office as undersecretary of state for civilian security, democracy and human rights.

A Reuters examination, based on interviews with more than a dozen sources in Washington and foreign capitals, showed that the State Department office set up to independently grade global efforts to fight human trafficking was pressured into inflating assessments of 14 countries in this year's report.

Among the countries that received higher rankings than recommended by the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons were Malaysia, Cuba, China, India, Uzbekistan and Mexico, the sources said.

Kerry said on Tuesday that "good progress" was made last week towards concluding the TPP, the key economic arm of U.S. President Barack Obama's rebalance to Asia in the face of China's growing influence, even though negotiators failed to reach an accord in marathon talks in Hawaii.