WASHINGTON (NYTimes, AFP) - China is among the world's worst offenders for allowing modern slavery to thrive within its borders, according to a strongly-worded State Department report released on Tuesday (June27).
In its annual assessment of global efforts to end human trafficking - with an estimated 20 million people remaining in bondage around the world - the US State Department dropped China to the lowest tier of its ranking this year, as it did with the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Republic of Congo.
Those three nations joined 20 others already in that lowest designation, including Iran, North Korea, Russia and Venezuela. The report pointed to ethnic Uighurs, a Muslim minority in China's west, being coerced into forced labour, and to Beijing's wholesale repatriation of North Koreans without checking to see if they were trafficking victims.
Beijing "does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so," said the report unveiled in Washington by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
It marked the first significant rebuke of China's rights record by the Trump administration, which has avoided harsh criticism of Beijing as the president seeks to establish a working relationship over deep trade differences and North Korea's nuclear programme.
Mr Tillerson linked the problem of human trafficking to his top priority, ending North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile programme. Between 50,000 and 80,000 North Koreans are forced to work overseas, mostly in China and Russia, he said, and their wages are used by the North Korean government to fund its illicit weapons programmes.
Meanwhile Afghanistan was upgraded for its crackdown on the abuse of boys for social and sexual entertainment, and providing shelters for rescued children. Myanmar, heavily criticised in the past for its large numbers of child soldiers, was removed from among the worst offenders to the "Tier 2 Watch List" for its efforts to halt the practice.
But the elimination of both Myanmar and Iraq from a special list of countries which use child soldiers brought a strong condemnation from Human Rights Watch, which called the State Department's claim of their improvement a "lie". The move "flies in the face of evidence that both governments are still complicit in child soldier use," said Ms Jo Becker, Human Rights Watch's advocacy director for children's rights.
"The US provides Iraq with billions of dollars of military assistance each year; in exchange, it should insist the government put an end to child recruitment by its units. Instead, the State Department isn't even acknowledging Iraq has a child soldier problem," she said.
The annual "Trafficking in Persons Report" also found that prosecutions for various forms of human trafficking - which include sex trafficking, including of children; forced and bonded labour; domestic servitude; and the unlawful use of child soldiers - dropped by nearly a quarter between 2015 and 2016, the first time the world had seen such a significant drop in recent years.
"Ending human trafficking is among the top priorities of the Trump administration," Ms Ivanka Trump, the president's daughter and a key adviser, said in an event held on Tuesday morning at the State Department to formally release the 17th annual report on the issue. She singled out child sex trafficking.
"On a personal level, as a mother, this is much more than a policy priority," she said.
President Trump, who joined Mr Tillerson to release the report, said: "It is our hope that the 21st century will be the last century of human trafficking."
Mr Tillerson had previously cautioned that values cannot be an obstacle to national security or economic interests. "Supply chains creating many products that Americans enjoy may be utilising forced labour," Mr Tillerson said while Ms Trump sat nearby.
Ms Trump's shoe brand has come under criticism for its use of Chinese labour as well as the disappearance of three labour activists investigating conditions at the plants making her shoes.