The Bush administration on Tuesday added seven nations, including several key U.S. allies in the Middle East, to its human trafficking blacklist for failing to halt what it called the scourge of "modern-day slavery."
Countries on the list are subject to possible sanctions for not doing enough to stop the yearly flow of some 800,000 people, 80 percent of them female and more than half of them children, across international borders for the sex trade and other forms of forced and indentured labor.
Among U.S. friends getting a failing grade were Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar, which along with Algeria, Equatorial Guinea and Malaysia joined for the first time perennial offenders like Myanmar (Burma), Cuba, Iran, North Korea and Syria in the State Department's annual "Trafficking in Persons Report."
Sixteen states in all — four more than in 2006 — were given so-called "Tier 3" status in the 236-page survey of global efforts to combat trafficking in people, many of whom are seeking to escape poverty in Eastern Europe, South and Southeast Asia and are sold into the commercial sex trade, manual labor or mistreated as domestics.
Despite the additions, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said "more and more countries are coming to see human trafficking for what it is — a modern-day form of slavery that devastates families and communities around the world."
"We hope this report encourages responsible nations across the globe to stand together, to speak with one voice and to say that freedom and security are nonnegotiable demands of human dignity, and to say ... 'No one is fit to be a master and no one deserves to be a slave,' " she told reporters.
Countries with "Tier 3" ranking "do not fully comply with the minimum standards (to fight trafficking) and are not making significant efforts to do so," which makes them eligible for U.S. economic sanctions.
Three countries that had been placed on "Tier 3" in 2006 — Belize, Laos and Zimbabwe — were promoted to "Tier 2" this year for improving their records, according to the report. "Tier 2" countries are those that do not fully comply with minimum standards but are making significant efforts to do so.
The recognition is rare U.S. praise for Zimbabwe, long singled out by Washington for harsh criticism on its overall human rights record, a point noted by Rice's pointman on the trafficking issue, Mark Lagon.
"Our relationship with the government is in a very critical state on other grounds but the facts are that through our leveraging and through our prodding, Zimbabwe has actually taken some tangible steps," he said.
Still, such lobbying has had far from a universal effect.
The seven newcomers to "Tier 3" were all demoted from "Tier 2 watchlist" status, which now covers 32 countries, including India, Mexico and Russia, that have been cited for poor anti-trafficking records for numerous consecutive years.
"The 'Tier 2 watchlist' is not supposed to become a parking lot for governments lacking the will or interest to stop exploitation and enslavement on their soil," Lagon said, describing India as "the world's largest democracy (with) the world's largest problem."
Most of this year's additions to "Tier 3" are Muslim or predominantly Muslim nations, many of which have the means to enforce foreign workers' rights and anti-trafficking laws.
"It is especially disappointing that so many wealthy countries in the Near East ... are on 'Tier 3'," Lagon said.
Bahrain, the Persian Gulf home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet, was cited for failing to crack down on human traffickers who are bringing in men, women and children for forced labor or commercial sex work, the report says.
"Bahrain made no discernible progress in preventing trafficking this year," it said, noting that laws aimed at protecting foreign workers, largely from South and Southeast Asia, are not enforced and that authorities are not seriously investigating alleged widespread abuse.
Oil-rich Kuwait "made modest progress in preventing trafficking in persons this year," the report said, but added that "Kuwaiti efforts to improve its protection of victims of human trafficking had little effect."
Oman was cited for not applying and enforcing existing laws against human trafficking as well failing to distribute pamphlets aimed at educating foreign workers about their rights, it said.
Qatar, long accused by the United States of ignoring the plight of child camel jockeys, was demoted to "Tier 3" for not enacting legislation to outlaw all forms of human trafficking and for producing only two convictions among numerous cases of alleged abuse of domestic servants, according to the report.
The complete list of "Tier 3" countries in this year's report is: Algeria, Bahrain, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Iran, Kuwait, Malaysia, Myanmar, North Korea, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Uzbekistan and Venezuela.
Cuba, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Sudan, Syria, Uzbekistan and Venezuela are regularly accused by Washington of failing to protect human rights and are often cited in State Department reports for their lack of respect for press and religious freedoms.
But Malaysia made its first appearance on "Tier 3" for its failure to protect and identify victims of trafficking, many of them Indonesian domestics.
"The Malaysian government needs to demonstrate stronger political will to tackle Malaysia's significant forced labor and sex trafficking problems," the report said.