Human trafficking is a crime that not only breaks the law but basic human rights. The United States recently released its annual Trafficking in Persons report. Countries are ranked on a scale from Tier 1 to Tier 3. These rankings asses the country’s ability to 1) enact laws and practices that prohibit and prevent human trafficking, 2) enforce and implement these laws, 3) punish the criminals, 4) identify the victims, and 5) provide government assistance to the victims.

The annual release of this report occurred in the wake of giant human trafficking scandal in Thailand. Only days before the report was released, 72 Thais were indicted on charges of international human trafficking. The accused included local government officials, senior police officers, and military officials including Thai Lieutenant General Manas Kongpan. Kongpan’s arrest raises questions if he acted alone. Human rights groups say no, putting the Thai government in a difficult position. This is especially true for Prayut Chan-O-Cha, the Thai prime minister who handed Manas his promotion. Not surprisingly, the country’s ranking has plummeted over the past few years, going from a Tier 2 in 2008 to the Tier 2 Watch List in 2010 and finally to Tier 3 in 2014.

Other countries remaining at Tier 3 include North Korea, Iran, and Zimbabwe. Joining them this year are Belarus, Belize, Burundi, Comoros, and South Sudan. However, two countries have risen from Tier 3 to the Tier 2 Watch List. The moves have sparked major controversy.

Cuba received its promotion after twelve years on the Tier 3 blacklist. What caused the change? The shift occurred just after the U.S. embassy re-opened in Havana and relations between Cuba and the United States were re-established after nearly fifty years of tension. Though some, such as Senator Robert Menendez, a Democrat of Cuban extraction, claim that there are political motives behind this decision, the State Department vehemently denies the claim. Instead, State cites the increased collaboration between Washington and Havana in combatting trafficking. According to the report:

The Government of Cuba does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so. For the second consecutive year, the government reported efforts to address sex trafficking.

Malaysia’s new standing in the Trafficking in Persons Report is also contested due to potential political motives. The country’s promotion coincides with President Obama’s attempts to create the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. Previously, Congress would not allow the president to participate in trade agreements with Tier 3 countries, though they later expanded his powers in trade negotiations. More than 150 members of the House of Representatives opposed Malaysia’s elevation, writing letters to John Kerry urging the State Department to keep Malaysia at the Tier 3 ranking. Sarah Sewall, Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, rejected such theories, stating Malaysia’s ranking had only been influenced by the nation’s own merits. But many doubts remain.

Jennifer Teng is an intern at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.