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Senator criticizes US anti-trafficking approach

A senator on Thursday urged reform of an annual report on human trafficking, saying the United States has alienated key allies in Asia through its spirited criticism of their efforts.

US Senator Jim Webb, pictured in 2010, on Thursday urged reform of an annual report on human trafficking, saying the United States has alienated key allies in Asia through its spirited criticism of their efforts.

The State Department last year put a number of Asian nations including Singapore and Thailand on a watch list, saying they failed to prevent foreign women from forced prostitution. Singapore responded indignantly.

Senator Jim Webb, who heads the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on East Asia, said the report lacked clear metrics and caused "confusion and resentment" by lumping together countries with different records.

"I think we all support the intentions of the State Department to prevent trafficking and to assist victims. However, our engagement with Asia is in danger of being hindered by the approach of this report," Webb said.

Webb, a member of Obama's Democratic Party from Virginia, said that a friend in Singapore was "amazed at this categorization when you look at the quality of the government and the order in the society."

"If you compare the stability in Singapore to the United States, with its estimated 20 million illegals, many of whom came here through human trafficking, what's going on?" Webb said at a Senate hearing.

Webb also questioned the downgrade last year for Thailand, which was in the midst of major political upheaval, and asked why Nigeria was ranked higher than Japan.

Luis CdeBaca, the State Department's ambassador-at-large for human trafficking, defended the annual report and said it had led nations to improve their records, whatever their public expressions of dismay.

The fight against human trafficking "can mean telling friends truths they may not want to hear," CdeBaca said at the hearing.

Quoting an unnamed former skeptic, CdeBaca said the report "has made an indisputable contribution to the evolution of a global consensus around the problem of trafficking and, specifically in Southeast Asia, has served as the impetus for major reform initiatives."

He said that Indonesia and Malaysia have both drafted laws against human trafficking in response to the criticism, although enforcement has been inconsistent.

The latest report is due out in June. Last year, the State Department said that South Korea and Taiwan were the sole jurisdictions in Asia that took full-fledged action against human trafficking.

CdeBaca strongly praised Taiwan, saying it increasingly offered support to victims of human trafficking while taking aim at their victimizers.

The State Department put a number of Asian countries on the watch list last year -- Afghanistan, Brunei, Laos, Maldives, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Worldwide, 12.3 million people were victims of trafficking.

Bangladesh, China, India, Micronesia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka stayed on the list, unchanged from a year earlier.

North Korea, Myanmar and Papua New Guinea remained at the bottom level of countries that did not even meet the minimum standards on human trafficking.

The State Department on Friday releases a separate annual report on human rights, often a cause of friction with nations such as China whose records come under criticism.

Webb and other senators questioned why China was not at the bottom of the list on human trafficking.

Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the Asia subcommittee, pointed to the treatment of China's migrant workers and accounts of forced prostitution and labor by the migrants' children.

"As it continues to grow in prominence as an economic player, we cannot turn a blind eye to the acts of coercion and human degradation there, which so clearly define their communist regime," Inhofe said.