Taiwan may not be playing as irresponsible a role in the global sex trade as the US State Department claimed recently, a new US government report indicates.
In early June, the department accused Taiwan of failing to comply with the minimum international standards for the elimination of trafficking in persons, mainly women and children, and placed Taiwan on a watch list of some of the most egregious violators -- countries that could, if things did not improve, face sanctions by the US government.
Now, however, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO), an official watchdog of government waste, fraud and incompetence, has taken the department to task for the report's poor methodology and inaccuracies, raising the possibility that Taiwan's role may have been misrepresented.
Taiwan was not specifically mentioned in the GAO report, which was completed at the request of the House of Representatives' International Relations and Judiciary committees. The report's authors were on vacation and therefore not immediately available to discuss the State Department findings on Taiwan.
However, the report found analytical errors affecting the lion's share of the countries on the so-called "Tier 2 Watch List," which includes Taiwan, China and 30 other countries in the listing.
The watch list is the second-lowest category of alleged trafficking offenders. Twelve countries, including Burma, Sudan and Cuba, are in Tier 3, the worst category.
The Tier 2 Watch List was created in 2004. It includes countries that fail to fully comply with the minimum standards but which are making significant efforts to do so, and which have an increasing number of trafficking victims but have made a commitment to take "significant efforts to comply" over the following year.
Foreign policy concerns may have skewed inclusion in that category, the GAO indicated.
There were "a considerable number of disagreements" over tier placement between State Department offices that deal with trafficking and those that handle broader international relations. These disagreements were "not surprising" in view of the different focus of each office, the GAO said.
"Most" of these disagreements went to Undersecretary of State Robert Zoellick, and "a few" had to go to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for resolution, the report says.
It quotes State Department personnel as saying that "many disagreements over tier rankings are resolved by a process of `horse-trading,' whereby the [department's] Trafficking Office agrees to raise some countries' tier rankings in exchange for lowering others. In these cases, political considerations may take precedence over a neutral assessment of foreign governments' compliance with minimum standards to combat trafficking," the report says.
It was not clear whether this political dimension was responsible for Taiwan's drop in the tier rankings twice in the past two years, following rating drops for China.
In 2003, before the watch list was introduced, for instance, Taiwan was rated as one of the world's top combatants against trafficking in persons, being listed in the Tier 1 category with a handful of other mainly Western countries. That year, China was listed in Tier 2, along with most other countries.
In 2004, the rankings for China and Taiwan did not change, despite the introduction of the watch list. Last year, however, China was dropped to the watch list and Taiwan was dropped to Tier 2. This year, Taiwan joined China in the watch list.