Tell The Truth About Human Rights

Recently several human rights groups have documented that the US State Department has upgraded the status of some countries, notably Malaysia and Cuba, regarding human trafficking in order to improve diplomatic relations with those countries. 1 Human trafficking, which is modern day slavery, is the illegal buying and selling of people, typically for forced labor or forced prostitution. According to Reuters, some diplomats privately say that human rights workers are naive “purists” and should recognize that diplomatic interests properly outweigh human rights interests.

I’m not an expert on the countries involved or on the State Department reports involved, but I write to say it is vitally important to tell the truth about human rights and not to falsify official reports about human rights in order to achieve diplomatic goals.

Human rights workers are rarely “purists.” They fight a lonely battle, often knowing there is little they can do in the offending country and knowing that “good” countries such as the US often will choose to elevate diplomatic goals over human rights goals. That is a fact of life. But when we make such choices, we must do so knowingly, with our eyes open, and not falsify reports or documents in order to sanitize our decisions.
Our official reports must have credibility. The whole point of preparing Trafficking In Persons (TIP) reports—or, for that matter, any human rights reports—is to provide a solid basis for analyzing the problem and identifying the countries involved: the countries who either turn a blind eye to trafficking or, worse, just refuse to do anything about it. Once the US is known to “cook the books” on the TIP reports, it loses its moral authority.

Moral authority is, after all, the primary focus in the world of human rights. President Obama, as well as prior presidents, has promised that the US will lead the fight against human rights violations. Yes, yes, we all know the US is not going to declare war on a country because of its terrible human rights record. The real power in human rights is the power to embarrass, to shame. Once TIP reports became known as being accurate, and once it became known that human rights would be a part of the US’s diplomatic calculations, countries tried to avoid being shamed. Two examples, according to Reuters, are that Switzerland closed legal loopholes allowing child prostitution and that the Dominican Republic began more aggressive prosecution of child trafficking, resulting in greatly increased numbers of convictions.

But the reverse is true as well. Once TIP reports are known as being fudged, they will lose their credibility, and thus their power to shame. Offender countries can simply deny the problem, saying the US TIP reports are known not to be credible.

The so-called “realists,” who say the US should attempt to achieve only its own interests and not try to fight human rights abuses in other countries, are flatly wrong. Trafficking in other countries does involve US interests. Child prostitutes and forced laborers are often smuggled into the US. Then, we not only have the duty to be concerned, we have the law enforcement imperative to prosecute the violators and the social imperative to help the victims.

In addition, most of us in the US have no idea how officials in other countries view with alarm the prospect of reports being written to US authorities. When I was a human rights worker in Peru, I asked our Peruvian attorney at my small human rights agency what I could really do. Yes, I was a lawyer in the US but of course I couldn’t practice law in Peru. He told me not only were there many things I could do, but also that my status often could be more important than being a Peruvian attorney. “If you are in a meeting with us and the military,” he said, “the very fact that you’re a North American” human rights worker “might have a restraining effect on” the military. “Even if you don’t ‘do’ anything.” Also, he said, the military and other authorities would be very concerned about any reports I might write. This prediction was later borne out when he himself was improperly charged by the Peruvian government with “aiding and abetting terrorism” for his lawful work as a human rights attorney. I led an international protest effort by human rights groups around the world and the government dropped the charges. Human rights leaders later said this stopped the Peruvian government in its tracks from going after human rights workers.

In the case of Cuba, the US has the goals of ending the embargo, opening the US embassy in Havana, re-establishing diplomatic relationships, and gradually improving trade relationships. I happen to support those goals. But we should not achieve these goals by “upgrading” Cuba’s notoriously horrific human rights record. We may say we will improve relations but we must emphasize we are doing so despite Cuba’s human rights record—and not say we may do so because it’s human rights record has “improved.”

In the case of Malaysia, where dozens of mass graves of migrants have been discovered just this year and where forced labor is common, the US wants to facilitate the Trans-Pacific Partnership with Malaysia and eleven other countries in Southeast Asia. In this case, I’m not sure I support the TPP. I admit I just don’t know enough about it. But even if we decide to improve relations with Malaysia for the TPP, we should not do so at the expense of accurately reporting—and denouncing—its human rights record. We must tell the truth about human rights.


  1. Annie Kelly, “US Human Trafficking Report Under Fire as Cuba and Malaysia are Upgraded, The Guardian (July 27 2015, 10.24 EDT); Jason Szep and Matt Spetalnick, “Special Report—US State Department Watered Down Human Trafficking Report,” Reuters, (Aug. 3, 2015, 21:19 CET)

About johnwagner

John Wagner is a retired lawyer and the author of: 1. Troubled Mission: Fighting For Love, Spirituality, and Human Rights in Violence-Ridden Peru, a memoir about his human rights work in Peru 2. Baby Boomer Army Brat, a coming-of-age memoir

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *