WASHINGTON • A group of Democratic lawmakers on Monday called for the US State Department's internal watchdog to investigate the removal of Malaysia from a list of worst offenders in human trafficking, following concerns politics may have played a role in the decision.
The State Department's annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, issued in July, upgraded Malaysia from the lowest tier, potentially smoothing the way for a landmark free-trade deal with the South-east Asian nation and 11 other countries.
Six members of the House of Representatives, including outspoken trade critics Rosa DeLauro and Louise Slaughter, wrote to State Department Inspector General Steve Linick requesting a probe into why Malaysia was moved up a rung.
They cited reports that Malaysia was not doing enough to tackle human trafficking as well as a Reuters examination, published last month, that said the State Department office set up to independently rate countries' efforts was overruled repeatedly by senior US diplomats.
"We are concerned about the role that possible political influence may have played in the development and content of the TIP Report, particularly as it relates to Malaysia's status," the letter said.
The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment. State Department officials have denied any political interference in the report.
Secretary of State John Kerry said last month that he had "zero conversation" within the administration about the Asia-Pacific trade talks relative to the decision on Malaysia's upgrade.
The Reuters report said that Malaysia, Cuba and other strategically important countries were among those upgraded, over the objections of the State Department's own experts.
Malaysia stands out because US lawmakers earlier this year passed a trade Bill that would have barred it and other countries that earn the worst US human trafficking ranking from an expedited process to ensure trade deals have a fast track through Congress.
Removing Malaysia from the lowest ranking, known as Tier 3, takes away that hurdle as Washington seeks to complete negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, President Barack Obama's signature trade pact.