The United States has removed key ally Saudi Arabia from its list of the worst offenders on human trafficking after just a year.
The State Department’s 2020 Trafficking in Persons Report said the country had made “key achievements” in the last 12 months. It implemented its first ever national referral mechanism to provide care to victims of trafficking and the government transparently reported data sets, including increased prosecutions and convictions under its anti-trafficking law, according to the report.
It also said that Saudi authorities had “criminally convicted and sentenced to stringent imprisonment terms two Saudi officials complicit in trafficking crimes during the year.”
As a result, the country was moved from Tier 3 to Tier 2 – but the report said the Saudis still need to make additional reforms to combat trafficking.
Tier 2 countries are not subject to any potential consequences from the US, as the report says they are “making significant efforts” to get into compliance with US standards for combating trafficking. Tier 3 countries, however, may face cuts to “non-humanitarian, non-trade related foreign assistance” and to “government official or employee participation in educational and cultural exchange programs,” the report states.
Saudi Arabia is a close ally whose relationship with the US was complicated by the 2018 murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Despite criticism from congressional Republicans and Democrats, the Trump administration has maintained a close relationship with the country.
Saudi Arabia was one of five countries removed from the list of worst offenders. The others are Bhutan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea and Gambia.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo launched the report at the State Department on Thursday alongside White House senior adviser Ivanka Trump. He did not mention the progress made by Saudi Arabia but did point out that 22 countries had improved their statuses, with 13 of those coming from sub-Saharan Africa.
“We take government-sponsored trafficking very seriously. It’s a perversion of any government’s reason for existence: to protect rights, not crush them,” Pompeo said. “The United States will not stand by as any government with a policy or pattern of human trafficking subjects its own citizens to this kind of oppression.”
Though Pompeo highlighted the nearly half a billion dollars the Trump administration has provided to combat trafficking, the administration has repeatedly tried to slash funding for the office that monitors and combats human trafficking at the State Department.
Last year the actual budget for the office was $61 million, and the Trump administration proposed a cut of more than 60% for 2021 – to just $22 million.
In this year’s report, four countries were added to the list of worst offenders: Afghanistan, Algeria, Lesotho and Nicaragua.
The report says Afghanistan “is not making significant efforts” to eliminate trafficking and that it decreased law enforcement efforts against perpetrators. It also says the Afghan security forces “continued to recruit and use children in combat and non-combat roles with impunity.”
Cuba remained on the list of worst offenders, and Pompeo pointed to the country’s reliance on trafficking as a source of income.
“Up to 50,000 Cuban doctors have been forced by the Castro regime into human trafficking situations in more than 60 countries around the globe. They are the regime’s number one source of income,” he said.
Pompeo also singled out China’s record on trafficking, pointing to the “horrendous conditions on Belt and Road projects” that the Chinese Communist Party forces its citizens to work in.
The State Department provided a briefing on the report to some reporters; CNN was not invited.