Vaccines, Mercury & Dirty Money – A Message From Robert Kennedy Jr.

Vaccines, Mercury & Dirty Money – A Message From Robert Kennedy Jr.

By Robert Kennedy Jr.
Waking Times
July 24, 2015

[Editors note:  This column by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. was rejected for publication by major newspapers. Mr. Kennedy published it in USA Today as a paid advertisement. Re-printed here in full.]

I am pro-vaccine. I had all of my six children vaccinated. I believe that vaccines save millions of lives. So let me explain why I edited the book “Thimerosal: Let The Science Speak,” which exposes the dangerous – and wholly unnecessary – use of the mercury-based preservative thimerosal in vaccines being given to millions of children and pregnant women here and around the world.

Vaccines are big business. Pharma is a trillion-dollar industry with vaccines accounting for $25 billion in annual sales. CDC’s decision to add a vaccine to the schedule can guarantee its manufacturer millions of customers and billions in revenue with minimal advertising or marketing costs and complete immunity from lawsuits. High stakes and the seamless marriage between Big Pharma and government agencies have spawned an opaque and crooked regulatory system. Merck, one of America’s leading vaccine outfits, is currently under investigation for deceiving FDA regulators about the effectiveness of its MMR vaccine. Two whistleblowers say Merck ginned up sham studies to maintain Merck’s MMR monopoly.

Big money has fueled the exponential expansion of CDC’s vaccine schedule since 1988, when Congress’ grant of immunity from lawsuits suddenly transformed vaccines into pay dirt. CDC recommended five pediatric vaccines when I was a boy in 1954. Today’s children cannot attend school without at least 56 doses of 14 vaccines by the time they’re 18.

An insatiable pharmaceutical industry has 271 new vaccines under development in CDC’s bureaucratic pipeline in hopes of boosting vaccine revenues to $100 billion by 2025. The industry’s principle spokesperson, Dr. Paul Offit, says that he believes children can take as many as 10,000 vaccines.

Public health may not be the sole driver of CDC decisions to mandate new vaccines. Four scathing federal studies, including two by Congress, one by the U.S. Senate, and one by the HHS Inspector General, paint CDC as a cesspool of corruption, mismanagement and dysfunction with alarming conflicts of interest suborning its research, regulatory and policymaking functions. CDC rules allow vaccine industry profiteers like Dr. Offit to serve on advisory boards that add new vaccines to the schedule. In a typical example, Offit in 1999 sat on the CDC’s vaccine advisory committee and voted to add the rotavirus vaccine to CDC’s schedule, paving the way for him to make a fortune on his own rotavirus vaccine. Offit and his business partners sold the royalties to his rotavirus vaccine patent to Merck in 2006 for $182 million. Offit told Newsweek, “It was like winning the lottery!”

A 2009 HHS Inspector General’s report found that the CDC certified financial disclosure forms with at least one omission for 97 percent of committee members – and most forms had more than one type of omission. The same report stated that as many as 64 percent of committee members had potential conflicts of interest that CDC did not identify or resolve before certifying their forms. In addition to lucrative business partnerships with Merck, Offit holds a $1.5 million research chair, funded by Merck, at Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia. From this industry sinecure, he broadcasts vaccine industry propaganda and annually publishes books urging unlimited vaccinations and vilifying safe-vaccine advocates.

The corruption has also poisoned CDC’s immunization safety office, the research arm that tests vaccines for safety and efficacy. In August 2014, 17-year CDC veteran Dr. William Thompson, who is author of the principal study cited by CDC to exculpate mercury-preserved vaccines from the autism link, invoked whistleblower protection, and turned extensive agency files over to Congress. Thompson, who is still employed at CDC, says that for the past decade his superiors have pressured him and his fellow scientists to lie and manipulate data about the safety of the mercury-based preservative thimerosal to conceal its causative link to a suite of brain injuries, including autism.

Thimerosal is 50 percent ethylmercury, which is far more toxic and persistent in the brain than the highly regulated methylmercury in fish. Hundreds of peer-reviewed studies by leading government and university scientists show that thimerosal is a devastating brain poison linked to neurological disorders now epidemic in American children. My book, “Thimerosal: Let the Science Speak,” is a summary of these studies, which CDC and its credulous journalists swear don’t exist. Although Thompson’s CDC and vaccine industry colleagues have created nine patently fraudulent and thoroughly discredited epidemiological studies to defend thimerosal, no published study shows thimerosal to be safe.

The common canard that U.S. autism rates rose after drug makers removed most thimerosal from pediatric vaccines in 2003 is wrong. That same year, CDC added flu shots containing massive doses of thimerosal to the pediatric schedule. As a result, children today can get nearly as much mercury exposure as children did from all pediatric vaccines combined in the decade prior to 2003. Worse, thimerosal, for the first time, is being given to pregnant women in flu shots. Furthermore, CDC’s current autism numbers are for children born in 2002, when kids were still getting thimerosal in their pediatric vaccines. The best science suggests that thimerosal’s complete removal from vaccines is likely to prompt a significant decline in autism. For example, a 2013 CDC study in JAMA Pediatrics shows a 33 percent drop in autism spectrum disorder in Denmark following the 1992 removal of thimerosal from Danish vaccines. That paper is among 37 peer-reviewed studies linking thimerosal to the autism epidemic.

Thimerosal has precipitated a journalistic as well as a public health crisis. Big Pharma pumps over $3.5 billion annually into TV, newspapers and other advertising, targeting news departments, which have become vehicles for pharmaceutical sales and propaganda platforms for the industry. Television and print outlets feature spokespeople like Dr. Offit – without identifying their industry ties – while censoring criticisms of vaccine safety and excluding the voices of informed vaccine safety advocates. Busy journalists parrot the deceptive talking points dispensed by government and pharma officials rather than reading the science themselves. Unable to argue the science, they bully, pillory and demonize vaccine safety advocates as “anti-vax,” “anti-science” and far worse. The unwillingness of the press to scrutinize CDC has emboldened both industry and agency to follow the lowest paths of easy profit and bureaucratic preservation.

The measles scare was classic disaster capitalism, with media outlets dutifully stoking public hysteria on editorial pages and throughout the 24-hour broadcast cycle. With Dr. Offit leading the charge, CDC, drug makers and industry-funded front groups parlayed a garden variety annual measles outbreak into a national tidal wave of state legislation to ban religious and philosophical vaccine exemptions. The national media frenzy over 159 measles cases left little room for attention to the the autism cataclysm which has debilitated 1 million American children since the pandemic began in 1989, with 27,000 new cases annually. CDC refuses to call autism an “epidemic.” In defiance of hard science, and common sense, CDC and Offit have launched a denial campaign to gull reporters into believing the autism plague is an illusion created by better diagnosis.

Big Pharma is among the nation’s largest political donors, giving $31 million last year to national political candidates. It spends more on political lobbying than any other industry, $3 billion from 1998 to 2014 – double the amount spent by oil and gas and four times as much as defense and aerospace lobbyists. By February, state legislators in 36 states were pushing through over 100 new laws to end philosophical and religious vaccine exemptions. Many of those state lawmakers are also on the industry payroll. You can see how much money bill sponsors from your state took from Big Pharma on http://www.

Normally plaintiffs’ tort lawyers would provide a powerful check and balance to keep vaccines safe and effective and regulators and policymakers honest. But Pharma’s dirty money has bought the industry immunity from lawsuits for vaccine injury no matter how dangerous the product. An obliging Congress disposed of the Seventh Amendment right to jury trial, making it impossible for vaccine-injured plaintiffs to sue pharmaceutical companies for selling unsafe vaccines. That’s right! No class actions. No discovery. No depositions and little financial incentive for the industry to make vaccines safer.

Vaccine industry money has neutralized virtually all of the checks and balances that once stood between a rapacious pharmaceutical industry and our children. With the research, regulatory and policymaking agencies captured, the courts closed to the public, the lawyers disarmed, the politicians on retainer and the media subverted, there is no one left to stand between a greedy industry and vulnerable children, except parents. Now Big Pharma’s game plan is to remove parental informed consent rights from that equation and force vaccine-hesitant parents to inject their children with potentially risky vaccines the Supreme Court has called “unavoidably unsafe.”

Ending exemptions is premature until we have a functioning regulatory agency and a transparent process. The best way to insure full vaccine coverage is for the vaccine program to win back public trust by ending its corrupt financial ties with a profit-making industry.

To educate yourselves about CDC corruption and the truth about vaccine science, I hope you will read “Thimerosal: Let the Science Speak” and download the important movie “Trace Amounts” and insist your legislators watch it before voting on any of these bills.

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The Government May Already Have the Law It Needs to Beat Big Oil

The Government May Already Have the Law It Needs to Beat Big Oil

A document revealing Exxon knew as early as 1981 that carbon emissions drive climate change adds weight to suggestions that fossil-fuel companies be prosecuted under a racketeering statute.

By Zoë Carpenter
The Nation
July 15, 2015

On a Wednesday in early May, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse went to the floor of the Senate to deliver his 98th weekly speech on climate change. As he usually does, Whitehouse spoke to a largely empty chamber, and the media ignored him. Afterwards, few people knew that he’d just laid out what could be a groundbreaking legal strategy to hold fossil-fuel companies accountable not only for the damages of climate change but also for their efforts to mislead the public about climate science.

Whitehouse’s speech (and a subsequent op-ed in The Washington Post) focused on the parallels between the fossil-fuel industry and tobacco companies. They share a “playbook,” he argued, profiting from products that put health and safety at risk while working to disseminate deceptive information to downplay those risks and evade regulation. “The match between the fossil fuel industry and Big Tobacco is pretty good in terms of the business risk presented if the public were to be really aware of the harm. They have a motive to deceive,” Whitehouse said. “If anything, the fossil fuel industry’s climate denial scheme has grown even bigger and more complex than Big Tobacco’s.”

But the government has its own playbook, Whitehouse noted: the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. Congress passed RICO in 1970 for the purposes of prosecuting mobsters, but the statute’s contours are broad enough that it’s been used against anti-abortion activists, the police, and, most recently, FIFA officials. In 1999 the government filed a civil suit alleging tobacco companies had violated RICO by executing “a massive 50-year scheme to defraud the public, including consumers of cigarettes.” A federal judge agreed, ruling in 2006 that the corporations had “coordinated significant aspects of their public relations, scientific, legal, and marketing activity in furtherance of the shared objective—to…maximize industry profits by preserving and expanding the market for cigarettes through a scheme to deceive the public.”


Could fossil-fuel companies be liable under RICO? The idea hasn’t yet been tested in court, but lawyers have been considering it at least since 2013, when climate scientist Richard Heede published a stunning paper concluding that just 90 corporations—including ExxonMobile, BP, Chevron, Conoco-Phillips, and Shell—are responsible for nearly two-thirds of all carbon dioxide and methane emissions since the beginning of industrial era. There is mounting evidence that many of these companies have been aware of the link between carbon emissions and climate change for decades, yet employed a variety of tactics to undercut publicly the science they acknowledged in private. The fundamental basis of a RICO case “is that there is a group of people acting together to disseminate false information,” explained Richard Ayres, an environmental lawyer and co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “In terms of litigation strategies,” Ayres continued, “RICO is as good as anything I’ve seen.”

Just last week the Union of Concerned Scientists released a collection of 85 internal memos and other documents detailing a “coordinated campaign of deception” endorsed by ExxonMobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, BP, Shell, Peabody Energy, and other companies. They include forged letters opposing the Waxman-Markey cap and trade bill, supposedly sent by groups like the NAACP, but actually by a coal-industry group; a primer prepared in 1995 for a front group created to discredit climate science that acknowledges the “scientific basis for the Greenhouse Effect and the potential impact of human emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO2 on climate is well established”; and a newly uncovered e-mail from an Exxon employee which demonstrates the company was factoring concerns about carbon emissions and climate change into its decision-making as early as 1981, seven years before NASA scientist James Hansen brought the issue to public attention. According to the e-mail, those concerns led Exxon to walk away from “an immense reserve of natural gas” off the coast of Indonesia because it had an unusually high concentration of carbon.

“The revelation that Exxon knew about the link between climate change and carbon pollution as early as 1981, and yet continued to support the decades-long campaign of denial described in the [Union of Concerned Scientists] report, strengthens the parallel with the tobacco-industry conduct that led to a civil RICO verdict against tobacco,” Senator Whitehouse told The Nation. “Whether DOJ pursues this or not is their call, but if nothing else the UCS report shows these are legitimate questions to ask.”

Some of the trickier aspects of prosecuting fossil fuel companies for racketeering would be beating a free-speech defense, and demonstrating specific acts of fraud and collusion. The climate-denial beast (to use Whitehouse’s phrase) is a more complex animal than the institute that the tobacco industry set up as its primary front group; it’s made up of companies, wealthy individuals like Charles and David Koch, multi-issue think tanks, and academics. Degrees of separation might insulate companies from direct liability for spreading misinformation. Still, there is evidence that fossil-fuel interests coordinated their public-relations campaigns. For instance, in 1998, during negotiations of Kyoto Protocol, Exxon, and other members of industry and conservative groups met in the office of the American Petroleum Institute and came up with a “global climate science communications plan,” designed to make “average citizens ‘understand’ (recognize) uncertainties in climate science” such that “recognition of uncertainties becomes part of the ‘conventional wisdom.’”


A civil suit under RICO could be brought by states or individuals as well as by the DOJ. And it could have an impact even if it weren’t ultimately successful, particularly if the case made it to the discovery phase, in which defendants could be forced to hand over other internal communications detailing what they knew about climate change when, and how they worked together. In the tobacco case, those types of documents helped shift public opinion and built support for regulatory action.

“There are a lot of similarities with what we’re seeing the fossil-fuel industry has done and what the tobacco industry did,” said Sharon Eubanks, a former Justice Department lawyer who led the RICO case against the tobacco companies. When you’re looking at a large industry, it takes a series of cases over time to have a solid claim that’s going to survive all the motions to dismiss.”

At the end of his speech, Senator Whitehouse reminded his colleagues of their “legislative responsibility to address climate change.” But it’s clear that too many lawmakers have abdicated, thus the pressure to tackle the climate issue through existing regulations like the Clean Air Act, and through the courts. “I’ve been hearing for twelve years or more that legislation is right around the corner that’s going to solve the global-warming problem, and that litigation is too long, difficult, and arduous a path,” said Matthew Pawa, a climate attorney. “Legislation is going nowhere, so litigation could potentially play an important role.” A racketeering suit isn’t the only possible avenue—most climate cases so far have relied on common-law claims of public nuisance—but given the tobacco precedent and a deepening understanding of the energy industry’s awareness of climate science, Whitehouse’s little-noticed speech might one day appear entirely prescient.


Zoë Carpenter is The Nation’s assistant Washington editor.

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Bee cause: Germany tightens, UK relaxes neonic regulation

Bee cause:  Germany tightens, UK relaxes neonic regulation

Oliver Tickell
The Ecologist
July 23, 2015

An Emergency Ordinance comes into force in Germany today that extends the EU’s ban on ‘neonic’ pesticides to protect bees. But the UK’s farming minister Liz Truss has relaxed the ban to allow farmers to use neonics on 30,000 hectares of oilseed rape.

An Emergency Ordinance comes into force in Germany today restricting neonicotinoid pesticides in order to protect agains the mass die-off of bees.

The Ordinance prohibits the trade and the sowing of winter cereals and canola seeds treated with plant protection products containing certain neonicotinoids.

“It is important to protect the vitality and health of the whole of nature and us humans, and the fate of our bees is a great concern”, said Federal Agriculture Minister Christian Schmidt, shorly after signing the regulation yesterday.

“With this regulation we are protecting the bees against dust-borne insecticides. This benefits both the bees as an important part of nature, as well as the farmers, who depend on the pollination of their crops by the bees.”

Since 2013 the EU has prohibited the three neonic agents clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam for seed treatment for spring-sown canola (oilseed rape), corn and sunflower. The ban is maintained by Germany, and the Ordinance now extends the EU ban to include winter-sown crops treated with the same insecticides.

Indications of problems with neonics first surfaced in Germany in 2008, when 700 beekeepers on the Upper Rhine suffered the sudden deaths of their bee colonies after farmers planted maize seeds treated with the insecticide clothianidin.

This neonic insecticide damages the brood in beehives, destroys bees’ memory and the sense of direction, and disrupts their thermoregulation. Researchers concluded that the wind had blown the neurotoxin to the neighboring wild flower, rape seed and fruit blossoms.

But in England, neonic ban is relaxed

By contrast with Germany UK Agriculture Secretary Liz Truss yesterday approved an application by the National Farmers Union (NFU) to use neonic-dressed seeds this autumn to protect oilseed rape crops from the ‘cabbage stem flea beetle’.

The treated seeds will be permitted over an area of around 30,000ha mainly in the east of England where the pest poses the biggest threat, covering roughly 5% of England’s oilseed rape crop. The emergency permission allows two products, Syngenta’s ‘Cruiser OSR’ and Bayer’s ‘Modesto’, to be used for a 120 day period.

According to a Defra spokesman, “We have fully applied the precautionary ban on the use of neonicotinoids introduced by the EU, and we make decisions on pesticides based on the science only once the regulators are satisfied they are safe to people and the environment.

“Based on the evidence, we have followed the advice of the UK Expert Committee on Pesticides and our Chief Scientist that a limited emergency authorisation of two pesticides requested by farmers should be granted in areas where oil rape crops are at greatest risk of pest damage.”

The NFU’s vice president Guy Smith said he was “glad to finally see a positive result”, adding: “However, we know that this isn’t enough – flea beetle threat is widespread problem on a national scale and the extremely limited nature of this authorisation is not going to help many farmers in need of the protection.”

But Friends of the Earth bees campaigner Paul de Zylva attacked the decision: “It’s scandalous that the Government has caved in to NFU pressure and given permission for some farmers to use banned pesticides that have been shown to harm our precious bees.

“The NFU’s campaign to undermine the pesticides ban has given an impression of large crop losses nationwide, but this is not supported either by the scientific evidence or harvest figures.

“Ever more scientific evidence shows just how dangerous these chemicals are to bees and other pollinators – they should have no place in our fields and gardens.”

Why the secrecy?

The process whereby the Committee on Pesticides reached its decision has also been criticised as the detailed proceedings of a crucial meeting on 20th May, normally published after three weeks, have been withheld at government request, in a breach of the committee’s terms of reference.

According to a report in the Guardian, the committee actually advised against granting the NFU the permission it sought in the May meeting. It would appear to have now consented to it in a meeting of 7th July, however the agenda and minutes remain unpublished.

The report accuses the government of having “gagged its own pesticide advisers, after they refused to back an application by the National Farmers Union to lift a ban on bee-harming chemicals. The gag is intended to prevent campaigners lobbying ministers on the issue.”

Even the NFU’s application forms are being kept secret, despite requests from MPs for their publication. The farming minister, George Eustice claimed that this was because the information in the applications was “commercially sensitive”.

De Sylva commented: “The threat to Britain’s bees from rising pesticide use is of huge public interest. But the secrecy and lack of information surrounding this crucial issue is astonishing. If the government and farmers put as much effort into reversing bee decline as they do playing politics over pesticides and bee health we might have less of a bee problem.”

Scientific evidence

Scientific research has proven that the ‘neonics’ are highly toxic to bees even at very low concentrations, and most especially to wild species including bumblebees.

In January 2013 the European Food Safety Authority announced that neonicotinoids pose “an unacceptable risk” to bees, and in April the EU approved a two-year moratorium on the most damaging uses of three of the chemicals, clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam, to take effect in December.

Earlier this year the European Academies Science Advisory Council concluded that these banned pesticides don’t just kill bees, they wreak “havoc” with other insects and plants in the wider countryside too.

This followed earlier work published in July 2014 showing that the impact of neonics reverberated through the entire food chain, even hitting bird populations.

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Meet ALEC’s Little Brother, ACCE

Meet ALEC’s Little Brother, ACCE

The right-wing lobby’s newest offshoot is equipping city and county officials with the tools to promote special-interest bills at the local level.

By Brendan Fischer and Mary Bottari
The Nation
July 23, 2015

With Congress and the states gridlocked and dominated by special-interest spending, America’s cities have emerged as engines of policy innovation. From efforts to raise the minimum wage and secure paid sick days to bills banning fracking, some of the biggest progressive policy victories in the United States are happening at the local level.

So how has the American Legislative Exchange Council, a powerful lobby serving right-wing interests at the state level, responded to this resurgence of local democracy? With a systematic effort to destroy it.

ALEC task force director Cara Sullivan recently explained to a room full of local officials that when it comes to citizen movements supporting job creation and higher wages, “perhaps the biggest threat comes from the local level.”

Thankfully, she added, ALEC has a solution:  “ALEC has passed…state legislation that preempts the polities from within the state from raising the minimum wage higher than the state level.” In other words, if living-wage campaigns succeed at the city or county level, state legislators should intervene, repeal, and ban any such advances.

Sullivan’s comments were consistent with ALEC’s longstanding support for bills to block local control over issues that are important to everyday Americans. Even though ALEC has generally bashed all federal policy affecting the states, and its leaders have claimed that “people are better served by local leaders,” for decades its official policy has been to override local democracy when it threatens corporate interests.

So it is surprising that ALEC has launched a new offshoot aimed at city and county government called the American City County Exchange. ACCE, as it is called, held its first meeting last year.


“I was amazed that ALEC was telling a room full of local officials to do nothing, and to let state government handcuff their authority when it comes to matters of interest to their corporate funders,” says Fitchburg, Wisconsin, Mayor Steve Arnold, who participated in the meeting.

Following its big brother’s lead, ACCE is now grooming a farm team of corporate-friendly politicians and equipping them with the tools to promote special-interest bills at the local level. These efforts will be on full display this week as ALEC legislators and corporate lobbyists gather in San Diego for the organization’s annual meeting.

The new group’s director is Jon Russell, a local politician and all-around right-wing zealot. Russell served on the city council of Washougel, Washington, from 2006 until 2012. The Columbian, a local newspaper, once described him as “one of Clark County’s most divisive governmental figures.” When he resigned to take a position with Students for Life of America, an anti-abortion group based in Spotsylvania, Virginia, some of his fellow council members told the paper that he would not be missed.

Although Russell remains committed to local politics—he currently serves on the city council of Culpeper, Virginia—part of his pitch as ACCE director involves convincing other local officials to give up their ability to protect their constituents’ health and economic well-being.

* * *

ALEC has a library of “model” bills to override local control over everything from community-run municipal broadband, which benefits ALEC funder AT&T, to local anti-GMO policies, which benefits ALEC corporate funders like CropLife America.


In May, the Texas legislature enacted a bill sponsored by Representative Phil King, ALEC’s national chair, prohibiting communities from protecting their water resources by regulating fracking. King’s bill stomped on the small community of Denton, where residents voted to ban fracking last year, a breakthrough heralded nationwide.

ALEC has also long promoted the Living Wage Mandate Preemption Act, a model bill that blocks local governments from raising the wage and has been enacted in recent years in Indiana, Mississippi, and Michigan. And ALEC legislators have supported bills in twelve states to preempt local paid sick day ordinances, most recently in Oklahoma, Alabama, and Michigan.

But ALEC funders see no contradiction in a group purportedly committed to local control working so hard to crush it. Keeping the minimum wage at $7.25 an hour and the tipped-minimum at $2.13 an hour is a top priority for groups like the National Restaurant Association (NRA), which represents fast food chains; the International Franchise Association (IFA); and the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AH&LA). If achieving this goal requires crushing local democracy, so be it.

At the ACCE meeting in December Dean Heyl, a lobbyist for the IFA—a little-known powerhouse funded primarily by global franchisers like McDonald’s and Burger King—described a two-pronged strategy to beat back higher wages.

First, preemption: “We beat them on the federal level, we beat them on the state level. But the cities are much tougher, because there are more of them,” Heyl explained.

The second prong in Heyl’s strategy is litigation. Last summer, the IFA filed a lawsuit claiming discrimination against Seattle’s $15 minimum-wage ordinance on the grounds that the big franchisers are forced to pay the higher minimum while small mom-and-pop stores are given exemptions. The organization is also fighting the National Labor Relations Board’s 2014 decision holding major franchisers jointly liable for wage theft and other abuses perpetrated by franchises. And the AH&LA has sued Los Angeles to roll back an ordinance that raises hourly pay for hotel workers to $15.37.

“Low-wage employer groups like the McDonald’s-backed IFA are recognizing that cities are at the forefront of the fight for better wages, and are launching a new assault in the form of laws to block city action and lawsuits aimed at tying worker policies up in court,” said Paul Sonn, general counsel for the National Employment Law Project.

* * *

ACCE is also at the forefront of an effort to advance local “right to work” laws in places where statewide laws have been stalled. Right-to-work measures cut off union funding by allowing workers to avoid paying for the costs of union representation, even as they benefit from union-negotiated wages and benefits.

Thanks to ALEC and its corporate backers, along with support from groups like the Heritage Foundation and Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, 25 states have passed such laws, with traditional union strongholds like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Indiana joining the list in recent years. Since ACCE’s most recent meeting in December, local right-to-work laws have been enacted in 12 Kentucky counties and discussed in Illinois, Ohio, Missouri, and Pennsylvania.


Passing local right-to-work ordinances has some veteran union-busters pretty excited. “There are literally thousands of targets for the [local right-to-work] initiative,” chirped attorney Brent Yessin at the ACCE meeting.

Yessin, who is spearheading the Heritage-ACCE campaign to pass local right-to-work bills, has built his career on helping corporate interests fight unionization. According to multiple complaints with the NLRB, he has landed multimillion-dollar contracts with hospitals and large healthcare providers to decertify nurses’ unions and crush organizing drives.

Yessin’s team has been accused of deploying a variety of unsavory measures to intimidate nurses seeking to exercise their rights in the workplace. Labor organizer Jane McAlevey encountered Yessin in 2006 while she was fighting a decertification campaign at a Las Vegas hospital. In her view, Yessin’s stock-in-trade was bullying and harassing women. “There are many vicious union-busters who intimidate workers,” McAlevey said. “But Yessin added a sexual predator element.”

In her 2012 book Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell), McAlevey describes a particularly disturbing incident. Yessin, accompanied by security guards, followed her into an elevator, slapped her hand away as she tried to push the stop button, then “pinned me to the elevator wall with his six-foot-plus body, literally pressing his cock against me. That was it. I began to scream, really scream.”

The Las Vegas nurses ultimately defeated Yessin’s decertification campaign. “It took an incredible, sustained effort on the part of healthcare workers, but they beat him,” McAlevey said, “by overcoming their fear and exposing him for who he really was.”

Yessin, undeterred, is now putting his skills to work on behalf of the ALEC and ACCE agenda in Kentucky. Last December, he worked with officials in Warren County to pass a local right-to-work ordinance. In the weeks and months that followed, 11 other counties would enact similar measures, thanks to heavy lobbying by Yessin and Warren County Judge Executive Mike Buchanon. In January, though, 10 local and international unions sued Hardin County in federal court, and the flood of ordinances in Kentucky came to a halt.

Perhaps local officials are catching on that Yessin’s strategy is legally dubious. The 1947 Taft-Hartley Act allows a “state or territory” to enact a right-to-work measure, but for many years Kentucky courts have found that this authority doesn’t extend to cities and counties. Nonetheless, Yessin and his allies have cooked up a theory that “home rule” gives local governments the right to enact such ordinances—a position rejected by Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway, who is also a candidate for governor. Even the anti-union National Right to Work Committee thinks the strategy is illegal.

* * *

Traditionally, local elected officials have had little appetite for costly litigation. Few counties are willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in lawyers’ fees to advance a legal theory cooked up by special interests.

That’s where Yessin and his deep-pocketed anonymous backers come in. Yessin has offered to cover the legal defense for counties that enact local right-to-work laws via a nonprofit called Protect My Check. Not much information is available about this organization, but the corporate officers of Protect My Check and its affiliated group,, are Yessin’s friends and associates, including one of his ex-wives, a longtime law partner, and his current girlfriend.

Yessin told The Nation that a variety of “local business” funders were supporting his legal-defense campaign, but e-mails obtained through open records requests show him boasting that “the Chamber is making commitments with regard to the legal representation in some counties.” Although the US Chamber of Commerce would not return our calls, a representative for the Kentucky Chamber confirmed that the organization has “played a role” in funding the legal defense.

Now the Koch brothers are stepping up. Earlier this month, the Kentucky chapter of Americans for Prosperity announced a $50,000 donation to Protect my Check. “Americans for Prosperity’s donation allows us to fight the unions’ attempt to roll back [worker] freedoms,” Yessin said in a statement.

By asking cities and counties to risk costly lawsuits with the passage of local right-to-work laws, while simultaneously warning of the “threat” posed by cities that have the authority to raise the local minimum wage, ACCE seems to be walking a tightrope.

ALEC, which has long positioned itself as an opponent of federal interference with state affairs, is caught in a similar contradiction. At the annual meeting in San Diego this week, the organization will hold a workshop telling state legislators that they should embrace federal preemption of state chemical regulation and to support a congressional proposal to override state and local taxes on rental cars. This message will come from the same organization that has fought the Affordable Care Act and the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulation of carbon emissions under the guise of “states’ rights.”

Reconciling these seemingly contradictory positions is easy, says Mark Pertschuk of the group Grassroots Change. “What ALEC stands for is not local control. It is money. The guiding principle to their astonishing hypocrisy is protecting the profits of ALEC’s funders.”

Brendan Fischer is general counsel at the Center for Media and Democracy.

Mary Bottari is the deputy director of the Center for Media and Democracy.

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It’s Not a Nuclear-Armed Iran That Israel and Saudi Arabia Really Fear

It’s Not a Nuclear-Armed Iran That Israel and Saudi Arabia Really Fear

It’s that the Vienna Agreement opens the door for the United States and Iran to develop important financial and trade ties.

By Peter Van Buren
The Nation
July 27, 2015

Don’t sweat the details of the July nuclear accord between the United States and Iran. What matters is that the calculus of power in the Middle East just changed in significant ways.

Washington and Tehran announced their nuclear agreement on July 14 and, yes, some of the details are still classified. Of course the Obama administration negotiated alongside China, Russia, Great Britain, France, and Germany, which means Iran and five other governments must approve the detailed 159-page “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.” The UN, which also had to sign off on the deal, has already agreed to measures to end its sanctions against Iran.

If we’re not all yet insta-experts on centrifuges and enrichment ratios, the media will ensure that in the next two months—during which Congress will debate and weigh approving the agreement—we’ll become so. Verification strategies will be debated. The Israelis will claim that the apocalypse is nigh. And everyone who is anyone will swear to the skies that the devil is in the details. On Sunday talk shows, war hawks will fuss endlessly about the nightmare to come, as well as the weak knees of the president and his “delusional” secretary of state, John Kerry. (No one of note, however, will ask why the president’s past decisions to launch or continue wars in the Middle East were not greeted with at least the same sort of skepticism as his present efforts to forestall one.)

There are two crucial points to take away from all the angry chatter to come: First, none of this matters; and second, the devil is not in the details, though he may indeed appear on those Sunday talk shows.

Here’s what actually matters most:  At a crucial moment and without a shot being fired, the United States and Iran have come to a turning point away from an era of outright hostility. The nuclear accord binds the two nations to years of engagement and leaves the door open to a far fuller relationship. Understanding how significant that is requires a look backward.

A Very Quick History of US-Iranian Relations

The short version:  Relations have been terrible for almost four decades. A slightly longer version would, however, begin in 1953 when the CIA helped orchestrate a coup to oust Iran’s democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh. A secular leader—just the sort of guy US officials have dreamed about ever since the ayatollahs took power in 1979—Mosaddegh sought to nationalize Iran’s oil industry. That, at the time, was a total no-no for Washington and London. Hence, he had to go.

In his place, Washington installed a puppet leader worthy of the sleaziest of banana republics, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The United States assisted him in maintaining a particularly grim secret police force, the Savak, which he aimed directly at his political opponents, democratic and otherwise, including the ones who espoused a brand of Islamic fundamentalism unfamiliar to the West at the time. Washington lapped up the Shah’s oil and, in return, sold him the modern weapons he fetishized. Through the 1970s, the United States also supplied nuclear fuel and reactor technology to Iran to build on President Dwight Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” initiative, which had kicked off Iran’s nuclear program in 1957.

In 1979, following months of demonstrations and seeing his fate in the streets of Tehran, the Shah fled. Religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile to take control of the nation in what became known as the Islamic Revolution. Iranian “students” channeled decades of anti-American rage over the Shah and his secret police into a takeover of the American Embassy in Tehran. In an event that few Americans of a certain age are likely to forget, 52 American staffers were held hostage there for some 15 months.

In retaliation, the United States would, among other things, assist Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein (remember him?) in his war with Iran in the 1980s, and in 1988, an American guided missile cruiser in the Persian Gulf would shoot down a civilian Iran Air flight, killing all 290 people on board. (Washington claimed it was an accident.) In 2003, when Iran reached out to Washington, following American military successes in Afghanistan, President George W. Bush declared that country part of the “Axis of Evil.”

Iran later funded, trained, and helped lead a Shiite insurgency against the United States in Iraq. In tit-for-tat fashion, US forces raided an Iranian diplomatic office there and arrested several staffers. As Washington slowly withdrew its military from that country, Iran increased its support for pro-Tehran leaders in Baghdad. When Iran’s nuclear program grew, the United States attacked its computers with malware, launching what was in effect the first cyberwar in history. At the same time, Washington imposed economic sanctions on the country and its crucial energy production sector.

In short, for the last 36 years, the US-Iranian relationship has been hostile, antagonistic, unproductive, and often just plain mean. Neither country seems to have benefited, even as both remained committed to the fight.

Iran Ascendant

Despite the best efforts of the United States, Iran is now the co-dominant power in the Middle East. And rising. (Washington remains the other half of that “co.”)

Another quick plunge into largely forgotten history:  The United States stumbled into the post-9/11 era with two invasions that neatly eliminated Iran’s key enemies on its eastern and western borders—Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan. (The former is, of course, gone for good; the latter is doing better these days, though unlikely to threaten Iran for some time.) As those wars bled on without the promised victories, America’s military weariness sapped the desire in the Bush administration for military strikes against Iran. Jump almost a decade ahead, and Washington now quietly supports at least some of that country’s military efforts in Iraq against the insurgent Islamic State. The Obama administration is seemingly at least half-resigned to looking the other way while Tehran ensures that it will have a puppet regime in Baghdad. In its serially failing strategies in Yemen, Lebanon, and Syria, Washington has all but begged the Iranians to assume a leading role in those places. They have.

And that only scratches the surface of the new Iranian ascendancy in the region. Despite the damage done by US-led economic sanctions, Iran’s real strength lies at home. It is probably the most stable Muslim nation in the Middle East. It has existed more or less within its current borders for thousands of years. It is almost completely ethnically, religiously, culturally, and linguistically homogeneous, with its minorities comparatively under control. While still governed in large part by its clerics, the country has nonetheless experienced a series of increasingly democratic electoral transitions since the 1979 revolution. Most significantly, unlike nearly every other nation in the Middle East, Iran’s leaders do not rule in fear of an Islamic revolution. They already had one.

Why Iran Won’t Have Nuclear Weapons

Now, about those nukes. It would take a blind man in the dark not to notice one obvious fact about the Greater Middle East: Regimes the United States opposes tend to find themselves blasted into chaos once they lose their nuclear programs. The Israelis destroyed Saddam’s program, as they did Syria’s, from the air. Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya went down the drain thanks to American/NATO-inspired regime change after he voluntarily gave up his nuclear ambitions. At the same time, no one in Tehran could miss how North Korea’s membership in the regime-change club wasn’t renewed once that country went nuclear. Consider those pretty good reasons for Iran to develop a robust nuclear weapons program—and not give it up entirely.

While, since 2002, Washington hasn’t taken a day off in its saber-rattling toward Iran, it isn’t the only country the clerics fear. They are quite convinced that Israel, with its unacknowledged but all too real nuclear arsenal, is capable and might someday be willing to deliver a strike via missile, aircraft, or submarine.

Now, here’s the added irony: American sabers and Israeli nukes also explain why Iran will always remain a nuclear-threshold state—one that holds most or all of the technology and materials needed to make such a weapon, but chooses not to take the final steps. Just exactly how close a country is at any given moment to having a working nuclear weapon is called “breakout time.” If Iran were to get too close, with too short a breakout time, or actually went nuclear, a devastating attack by Israel and/or the United States would be a near inevitability. Iran is not a third-world society. Its urban areas and infrastructure are exactly the kinds of things bombing campaigns are designed to blow away. So call Iran’s nuclear program a game of chicken, but one in which all the players involved always knew who would blink first.

The US-Iran Nuclear Accord

So if Iran was never going to be a true nuclear power and if the world has lived with Iran as a threshold state for some time now, does the July accord matter?

There are two answers to that question:  It doesn’t and it does.

It doesn’t really matter, because the deal changes so little on the ground. If the provisions of the accord are implemented as best we currently understand them, with no cheating, then Iran will slowly move from its current two- to three-month breakout time to a year or more. Iran doesn’t have nukes now, it would not have nukes if there were no accord, and it won’t have nukes with the accord. In other words, the Vienna agreement successfully eliminated weapons of mass destruction that never existed.

It does really matter, because, for the first time in decades, the two major powers in the Middle East have opened the door to relations. Without the political cover of the accord, the White House could never envisage taking a second step forward.

It’s a breakthrough because through it the United States and Iran acknowledge shared interests for the first time, even as they recognize their ongoing conflicts in Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere. That’s how adversaries work together: You don’t have to make deals like the July accord with your friends. Indeed, President Obama’s description of how the deal will be implemented—based on verification, not trust—represents a precise choice of words. The reference is to President Ronald Reagan, who used the phrase “trust but verify” in 1987 when signing the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with the Russians.

The agreement was reached the old-school way, by sitting down at a table over many months and negotiating. Diplomats consulted experts. Men and women in suits, not in uniform, did most of the talking. The process, perhaps unfamiliar to a post-9/11 generation raised on the machismo of “you’re either with us or against us,” is called compromise. It’s an essential part of a skill that is increasingly unfamiliar to Americans: diplomacy. The goal is not to defeat an enemy, find quick fixes, solve every bilateral issue, or even gain the release of the four Americans held in Iran. The goal is to achieve a mutually agreeable resolution to a specific problem. Such deft statecraft demonstrates the sort of foreign-policy dexterity American voters have seldom seen exercised since Barack Obama was awarded the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize (Cuba being the sole exception).

It’s All About the Money

While diplomacy brought the United States and Iran to this point, cash is what will expand and sustain the relationship.

Iran, with the fourth-largest proven crude-oil reserves and the second-largest natural gas reserves on the planet, is ready to start selling on world markets as soon as sanctions lift. Its young people reportedly yearn for greater engagement with the West. The lifting of sanctions will allow Iranian businesses access to global capital and outside businesses access to starved Iranian commercial markets.

Since November 2014, the Chinese, for example, have already doubled their investment in Iran. European companies, including Shell and Peugeot, are now holding talks with Iranian officials. Apple is contacting Iranian distributors. Germany sent a trade delegation to Tehran. Ads for European cars and luxury goods are starting to reappear in the Iranian capital. Hundreds of billions of dollars worth of foreign technology and expertise will need to be acquired if the country is to update its frayed oil and natural gas infrastructure. Many of its airliners are decades old and need replacement. Airlines in Dubai are fast adding new Iran routes to meet growing demand. The money will flow. After that, it will be very hard for the war hawks in Washington, Tel Aviv, or Riyadh to put the toothpaste back in the tube, which is why you hear such screaming and grinding of teeth now.

The Real Fears of the Israelis and the Saudis

Neither Israel nor the Saudis ever really expected to trade missile volleys with a nuclear-armed Iran, nor do their other primary objections to the accord hold much water. Critics have said the deal will last only 10 years. (The key provisions scale in over 10 years, then taper off.) Leaving aside that a decade is a lifetime in politics, this line of thinking also presumes that, as the calendar rolls over to 10 years and a day, Iran will bolt from the deal and go rogue. It’s a curious argument to make.

Similarly, any talk of the accord touching off a nuclear arms race in the Middle East is long out of date. Israel has long had the bomb, with no arms race triggered. Latent fears that Iran will create “the Islamic Bomb” ignore the fact that Pakistan, with its own hands dirty from abetting terror and plenty of Islamic extremists on hand, has been a nuclear power since at least 1998.

No, what fundamentally worries the Israelis and the Saudis is that Iran will rejoin the community of nations as a diplomatic and trading partner of the United States, Asia, and Europe. Embarking on a diplomatic offensive in the wake of its nuclear deal, Iranian officials assured fellow Muslim countries in the region that they hoped the accord would pave the way for greater cooperation. American policy in the Persian Gulf, once reliably focused only on its own security and energy needs, may (finally) start to line up with an increasingly multifaceted Eurasian reality. A powerful Iran is indeed a threat to the status quo—hence the upset in Tel Aviv and Riyadh—just not a military one. Real power in the 21st century, short of total war, rests with money.

The July accord acknowledges the real-world power map of the Middle East. It does not make Iran and the United States friends. It does, however, open the door for the two biggest regional players to talk to each other and develop the kinds of financial and trade ties that will make conflict more impractical. After more than three decades of US-Iranian hostility in the world’s most volatile region, that is no small accomplishment.

Peter Van Buren spent a year in Iraq as a State Department Foreign Service Officer serving as Team Leader for two Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). Now in Washington, he writes about Iraq and the Middle East at his blog, We Meant Well. His first book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, was published in 2011, and his latest book, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent, has just been published.


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Is the US Ignoring Human Trafficking Abuses to Score Its TPP Trade Deal?

Is the US Ignoring Human Trafficking Abuses to Score Its TPP Trade Deal?

By Avi Asher-Schapiro
July 17, 2015

Lured by the promise of $316 a month to work on road construction, Arjunan traveled last year from India to Malaysia, where his employer confiscated his passport and decided to pay him just $36 — barely enough to cover food.

When Arjunan protested, his boss phoned India and told Arjunan’s wife that he would cut off her husband’s leg and hand. So she pawned jewelry to buy back the confiscated passport. But even after she paid out nearly $1,400, Arjunan’s boss still won’t give it back.

Arjunan’s ordeal, documented by the Solidarity Center, is typical in Malaysia, a country that the US State Department has “deemed not to be making significant efforts to comply with the minimum standards” to fight forced labor and human trafficking. In 2014, the State Department put Malaysia on notice and slapped the country with its lowest ranking in its annual Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP), putting it in Tier 3 alongside nations like North Korea and Iran.

On July 9, Reuters reported that the State Department is preparing to certify that Malaysia has made significant strides in fighting human trafficking — upgrading it to a Tier 2 “watch list.” The timing couldn’t be better for the Malaysian government, which is eager to join the Obama administration’s landmark Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a massive trade deal with Pacific Rim nations that aims to unite nearly 40 percent of the world’s GDP into one free-trade zone.

When contacted by VICE News, Pooja Jhunjhunwala, a spokesperson for the State Department, would neither confirm nor deny that Malaysia’s status is being upgraded.

In Malaysia, meanwhile, anti-trafficking campaigners say that no real progress has been made.

“Human trafficking and forced labor are as bad as ever here,” Charles Santiago, a member of the Malaysian parliament and a leading anti-trafficking campaigner, told VICE News. “We have women who are raped endlessly, workers who are malnourished… and there’s no political will to take it seriously.”

But in order for Malaysia to join the trade deal, it is crucial that its status be upgraded. When the Senate recently passed legislation giving President Barack Obama fast-track authority to negotiate the trade accord, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) added an amendment saying that no such procedures could be negotiated with countries that have been designated Tier 3.

Menendez is concerned that the Obama administration is preparing to manipulate the human rights report and elevate Malaysia to the Tier 2 watch list in order to bypass his amendment.

Upgrading Malaysia, he told VICE News, “would represent a blatant manipulation of [the administration’s] own ranking system, undermining the credibility of our international efforts to fight human trafficking. It would be a stain on our country’s record of upholding human rights around the world.”

On Wednesday, Menendez wrote a letter calling the upgrade a “cynical maneuver to get around the clear intent of Congress.” It was signed by 18 other senators, including Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and presidential candidates Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).

The senators warned that upgrading Malaysia would undermine future efforts to fight human trafficking.

“As the US government’s principal tool to engage foreign governments on human trafficking, the integrity of the TIP report ranking process is a reflection of our country’s principles and must be upheld,” it said.

Experts argue that Malaysia’s trafficking crisis is getting worse, as ethnic clashes and an economic crisis force refugees from Myanmar and Bangladesh to flee to Malaysia through the Bay of Bengal. The crisis made international headlines when the bodies of 139 Rohingya, a persecuted ethnic minority from Myanmar, were discovered at the Thai-Malaysian border last month. Investigators suggested that the migrants had been chained, tortured, and dumped into holes in the ground.

In the first three months of 2015, smugglers and human traffickers transported 25,000 migrants along this route — double the rate from the year before, according to the UN High Commissioner on Refugees. Traffickers often charge ransoms or force migrants into debt-peonage, Alice Nah, an expert on human trafficking at the University of York, told VICE News.

The problem extends far beyond the mass graves. In 2014, Malaysia was home to nearly four million foreign workers who staff its burgeoning construction, electronics, and services industries. Nearly a third of workers in the electronics industry and a third of migrants in Malaysia overall are either trafficked or forced to work, according to Nah.

“The government knows it and doesn’t do anything about it,” she said.

According to the latest State Department and UN reports, Malaysia allows employers to seize worker passports, charge exorbitant fees for “employment recruitment,” and withhold pay with impunity, even if many of these practices are technically illegal.

The situation is especially dire for those fleeing to Malaysia from nearby conflict zones. “Refugees in Malaysia lack formal status or the ability to obtain work permits under Malaysian law,” reads the 2014 TIP report. The State Department suggested a number of concrete steps the Malaysian government should take to upgrade its status: enforce laws that prohibit employers from confiscating passports, crack down on the exploitative labor recruitment and the forced labor industry, and allow victims of human trafficking who are currently detained in government facilities while awaiting deportation to seek work in the interim.

In June, Malaysia passed a law allowing trafficking victims to work while waiting to be deported, after UN Special Rapporteur for Human Trafficking Maria Grazia Giammarinaro visited the country and noted that its detention policy is particularly abusive. The law change, which observers describe as the only significant step Malaysia has taken on trafficking, took place after the review period for the current TIP report that is being drafted had closed.

Dr. Michael Jeyakumar Devaraj, a Socialist Party member of the Malaysian parliament, told VICE News that the country’s political elites do not take trafficking seriously. The ruling National Front Party has been in power in some form since 1957, making it the longest serving ruling party in the world. Human rights are not among its top priorities, Devaraj said.

In fact, he accuses the Malaysian security forces of involvement in trafficking on the Thai-Malaysian border.

“We see complicity in the enforcement agencies on a very huge scale in terms of trafficking there,” he said. “If you talk to Rohingya migrants, they tell you the police are told which trucks, the ones full of trafficked people, not to check…. Our authorities here are deeply compromised.”

This assessment was echoed by Alice Nah and Charles Santiago, who accused the government of “covering up” the extent of trafficking at the border.

The Malaysian Embassy in Washington, DC, did not respond to a request for comment, but Malaysia has arrested several border agents this year for their involvement in trafficking.

The Southeast Asian nation’s inclusion in the trade deal is a major priority of the Obama administration. The president visited the country in 2014 and called it a “pivotal state” in the coalition that his administration is building to counteract China’s influence in the Pacific. The trade negotiations are now in their final stages, and according to William Watson, a trade policy analyst at the Cato Institute, a negative TIP report could potentially derail a final deal.

“Obama knows he can’t just kick Malaysia out or remove them from the equation,” Watson told VICE News. “It would cause other dominos to fall.”

David Abramowitz, the former chief counsel to the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a member of the Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking, agreed that Malaysia’s expected upgrade might be more about geopolitical interests than actual progress on human rights.

“The analysis of the report should be on the facts of the trafficking, not on political considerations,” he told VICE News. “And the steps Malaysia has taken so far do not amount to real change.”

He suggested that the upgrade could have the effect of stripping the TIP ranking of its power to incentivize actual progress.

“The message other countries will take, when it comes down to it, is that they can rely on the US to elevate issues like trade over human rights issues,” he remarked.

Santiago was more blunt.

“If the US statement gives us a Tier 2 upgrade, it means the US State Department endorses trafficking in this part of the world. There’s no other way to look at it,” he said.

Meanwhile, Menendez and other senators have worked with the Obama administration to hammer out a compromise deal that will allow Malaysia to join the TPP as long as the administration certifies sometime in the near future that it is making progress on human trafficking.

“I worked in good faith with the administration,” Menendez said.

But the compromise is not yet in effect; a Tier 3 designation would exclude Malaysia from the TPP as the law stands.

Santiago agrees that an adjustment in his country’s ranking for the sake of trade would be unfortunate.

“If we get Tier 2, it will be a blatant display of American hypocrisy,” he said. “It will show that human rights always take a back seat to economic interests. They might as well throw the entire TIP in the trash.”

William Watson at Cato says the whole controversy shows why linking trade agreements and human rights is a messy business.

“Of course this looks bad for the president,” he said, while noting that “trade and human rights are really two separate things. I don’t see that punishing the people of Malaysia by excluding them from TPP is a viable approach to human trafficking.”

Menendez doesn’t share this view.

“A free trade deal with a country in which about a quarter of workers in a sector like electronics manufacturing are in situations of forced labor is ineffective trade policy,” he insisted. “Fighting human trafficking in our trading partners helps to improve the rule of law, tackle corruption, and improve the livelihoods of workers.”

Follow Avi Asher-Schapiro on Twitter: @AASchapiro



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U.S. upgrades Malaysia in annual human trafficking report

U.S. upgrades Malaysia in annual human trafficking report

By Jason Szep, Patricia Zengerle and Matt Spetalnick
July 9, 2015

The United States is upgrading Malaysia from the lowest tier on its list of worst human trafficking centres, U.S. sources said on Wednesday, a move that could smooth the way for an ambitious U.S.-led free-trade deal with the Southeast Asian nation and 11 other countries.

The upgrade to so-called “Tier 2 Watch List” status removes a potential barrier to President Barack Obama’s signature global trade deal.

A provision in a related trade bill passed by Congress last month barred from fast-tracked trade deals Malaysia and other countries that earn the worst U.S. human trafficking ranking in the eyes of the U.S. State Department.

The upgrade follows international scrutiny and outcry over Malaysian efforts to combat human trafficking after the discovery this year of scores of graves in people-smuggling camps near its northern border with Thailand.

The State Department last year downgraded Malaysia in its annual “Trafficking in Persons” report to Tier 3, alongside North Korea, Syria and Zimbabwe, citing “limited efforts to improve its flawed victim protection regime” and other problems.

But a congressional source with knowledge of the decision told Reuters the administration had approved the upgraded status. A second source familiar with the matter confirmed the decision.

Some U.S. lawmakers and human-rights advocates had expected Malaysia to remain on Tier 3 this year given its slow pace of convictions in human-trafficking cases and pervasive trafficking in industries such as electronics and palm oil.

This year’s full State Department report, including details on each country’s efforts to combat human trafficking, is expected to be released next week.

State Department spokesman John Kirby said the report was still being finalised and that “it would be premature to speculate on any particular outcome.”

Obama visited Malaysia in April 2014 to cement economic and security ties. Malaysia is the current chair of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations. It is seeking to promote unity within the bloc in the face of China‘s increasingly assertive pursuits of territorial claims in the South China Sea, an object of U.S. criticism.

In May, just as Obama’s drive to win “fast-track” trade negotiating authority for his trade deal entered its most sensitive stage in the U.S. Congress, Malaysian police announced the discovery of 139 graves in jungle camps used by suspected smugglers and traffickers of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar.

Malaysia hopes to be a signatory to Obama’s legacy-defining Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which would link a dozen countries, cover 40 percent of the world economy and form a central element of his strategic shift towards Asia.

On June 29, Obama signed into law legislation giving him “fast-track” power to push ahead on the deal.


Lawmakers are working on a compromise that would let Malaysia and other countries appearing on a U.S. black-list for human trafficking participate in fast-tracked trade deals if the administration verified that they have taken concrete steps to address the most important issues identified in the annual trafficking report.The graves were found in an area long known for the smuggling of Rohingya and local villagers reported seeing Rohingya in the area, but Malaysia’s Deputy Home (Interior) Minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar has said it was unclear whether those killed were illegal migrants. The discovery took place after the March cut-off for the U.S. report.

The State Department would have needed to show that Malaysia had neither fully complied with minimum anti-trafficking standards nor made significant efforts to do so to justify keeping Malaysia on Tier 3, which can lead to penalties such as the withholding of some assistance.

In its report last year, the State Department said Malaysia had reported 89 human-trafficking investigations in the 12 months to March 2014, down from 190 the previous year, and nine convictions compared with 21 the previous year.

In the latest year to March, Malaysia’s conviction rate is believed to have fallen further, according to human-rights advocates, despite a rise in the number of investigations. That reinforced speculation Malaysia would remain on Tier 3.

“If true, this manipulation of Malaysia’s ranking in the State Department’s 2015 TIP report would be a perversion of the trafficking list and undermine both the integrity of this important report as well as the very difficult task of confronting states about human trafficking,” said Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, who had pushed to bar Tier 3 countries from inclusion in the trade pact.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said he was “stunned” by the upgrade.

“They have done very little to improve the protection from abuse that migrant workers face,” he said. “This would seem to be some sort of political reward from the United States and I would urge the U.S. Congress to look long and hard at who was making the decisions on such an upgrade.” Malaysia has an estimated 2 million illegal migrant labourers, many of whom work in conditions of forced labour under employers and recruitment companies in sectors ranging from electronics to palm oil to domestic service.

Last year’s report said many migrant workers are exploited and subjected to practices associated with forced labour. Many foreign women recruited for ostensibly legal work in Malaysian restaurants, hotels, and beauty salons are subsequently coerced into prostitution, the report said.

An administration official told Reuters in June that the White House had been working closely with the Malaysian government and stakeholders to fight the problem.

Among the 12 TPP countries, Brunei has also come under attack by human-rights groups for adopting Islamic criminal law, which includes punishing offences such as sodomy and adultery with death, including by stoning. Vietnam’s Communist government has been criticized for jailing dissidents.

(Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom; Writing by Jason Szep; Editing by Stuart Grudgings, Eric Walsh and Lisa Shumaker)

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