The United States accused 14 nations Friday of failing to do enough to stop the modern-day slave trade in prostitutes, child sex workers and forced laborers. The countries include Saudi Arabia (search), Washington's closest Arab ally in the war on terrorism.
Three other U.S. allies in the Middle East — Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar — were newly listed this year as nations that are failing to adequately address trafficking problems. The State Department said the 14 countries could be subject to sanctions if they do not crack down.
As many as 800,000 people are bought and sold across national borders annually or lured to other countries with false promises of work or other benefits, the State Department said in its annual survey of international human trafficking (search). Most are women and children.
"Trafficking in human beings is nothing less than a modern form of slavery," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (search) said. "The United States has a particular duty to fight this scourge because trafficking in persons is an affront to the principles of human dignity and liberty upon which this nation was founded."
The other countries listed as poor performers in stopping trafficking are: Bolivia, Cambodia, Cuba, Ecuador, Jamaica, Myanmar, North Korea, Sudan, Togo and Venezuela.
Venezuela, which has had a tense relationship with the United States in recent months, said it has taken several steps to combat trafficking. In a written statement by its embassy, it called Venezuela's inclusion in the list "a sad demonstration of how the administration has politicized its work on human rights."
The department placed China, South Africa and 25 other countries on a watch list. Those nations have trafficking problems, but their governments are making what the State Department calls significant efforts to combat them.
Saudi Arabia has turned a blind eye to the problem of poor or low-skilled workers brought into the country and exploited or who go there voluntarily but find themselves in "involuntary servitude," the report said.
Saudi employers physically and sexually abuse migrants from South Asia, Africa and other places, withhold pay and travel documents or use migrant children as forced beggars, the report said. Some of the migrants work as domestics in the homes of wealthy Saudis.
"The government of Saudi Arabia does not comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so," the 2005 Trafficking in Persons report said.
The report said the Saudis apparently prosecuted only one employer during the period covered by the report, from March 2004 to March 2005.
"We have domestic workers being brought in from many countries into domestic servitude, child beggars, a lot of beatings, reports of beatings and rape," said John R. Miller, the special ambassador for human trafficking.
The Saudi Embassy in Washington had no immediate comment on the report.
Despite periodic differences, Saudi Arabia and the United States have a tight alliance built on economic and military cooperation. Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, the kingdom's de facto ruler since his half brother King Fahd suffered a stroke in 1995, visited President Bush at his Texas ranch in April.
The United States spends $96 million to help other countries combat trafficking, Rice said.
The United States is not included on the list, although Miller said the country is far from immune.
"Modern-day slavery plagues every country, including the United States," Miller said.
The Justice Department is due to issue a separate report on trafficking in the United States later this month.
Congress began requiring the international ranking reports in 2000. This is the fifth report, and it covers trafficking to and from 150 countries.
Miller said the goal "is not to punish, but to stimulate government action to eliminate" human trafficking.
Countries that fail to crack down can be subject to a variety of sanctions, including the withholding of some kinds of U.S. foreign aid. The United States will not cut off trade and humanitarian aid, the report said.
Countries that receive no such assistance can be declared ineligible to take part in cultural and educational exchange programs.
Two countries have been sanctioned since the reports began — Equatorial Guinea and Venezuela.