The Obama Administration’s recent move to upgrade Malaysia from the lowest ranking in the State Department’s 2015 report on human trafficking has raised concerns among many human rights activists. On Tuesday August 11, representatives from groups including TradeJustice New York Metro, MoveOn NYC and others came together in protest of this change, which came less than three months after the discovery of 139 bodies in a mass grave in that country. Activists argued that the upgrade was a political decision based on Malaysia’s involvement in the Trans-Pacific Partnership,free trade agreement which the country would be barred from participating in if remained in its Tier 3 ranking on the U.S. human trafficking list. (Click here to see the State Department's 2014 report on Malaysia and human trafficking.)
At the rally, organizers stood behind images of the Malaysian mass graves, holding signs with slogans such as, "Kerry, don't cover up human trafficking in Malaysia", and chanting, among other things, “No more mass graves, no more traffic slaves!" According to organizer Stephanie Low, the main goal of the event, which was held in front of Malaysia's consulate in mid-Manhattan, was to raise awareness of the issue and motivate people to educate themselves about the TPP, despite the fact that many details of the agreement have still not been clarified for the public.
“[The TPP] will jeopardize millions of American jobs, it will jeopardize the health care of millions of Americans and millions of people all over the world, it will do detrimental things to our environment—just about everything you point to is horrible,” said Jamie Kemmerer, Regional Organizer for MoveOn Councils NYC. He continued, “Not only will out jobs disappear, but in losing millions of jobs we may also be losing millions of people by sending them into wage slavery and human trafficking.”
Bernadette Ellorin, Chairperson for BAYAN USA, an alliance of 18 progressive Filipino organizations in the U.S., has been part of the fight to hold human traffickers in the region accountable, but said to the crowd, “This is virtually impossible in this day and age, because when the U.S. government says that it will cover up [human trafficking], that is tantamount with granting impunity for human traffickers."
Other speakers at the rally highlighted the need for transparency and accountability in government negotiations.
"We are now witnessing, as a nation, the fallout from hidden, non-transparent negotiations," said Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson II, Director of the Presbyterian Church Office of Public Witness in Washington, D.C. "We are calling on the Obama administration to step back for a minute [and] rethink Malaysia’s participation in TPP. I want to believe that we are a better nation than our actions represent in these trade negotiations."
Imam Abdul Bakif of the Islamic Leadership Council continued on this note. "I hope that the cameras, and I hope that anyone who’s walking by today understands that these words aren’t words. I hope that they’re looking at these pictures," he said, pointing at the images of the mass graves, "because these pictures are the manifestation of this greed, of this exploitation, of this absence of transparency. This is what it looks like.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has denied the links between the trafficking upgrade and the TPP negotiations, and told reporters earlier this month that the change is in response to "significant efforts" made by the Malaysian government in dealing with this issue.
Attendees at the rally, however, were not convinced. “As the Secretary of State is oversees representing us, or pretending to represent us," said Kemmerer, "hopefully he can find the courage to hear the words that we’ve heard today and actually talk about what’s really happening in Malaysia, and realize that we as a nation do not represent these things.”