President Donald Trump's administration hit China Tuesday over its rights record, listing the country alongside Sudan and North Korea on a list of the world's worst human trafficking offenders.
The State Department downgraded China in its annual "Trafficking in Persons Report," saying Beijing is doing little to combat the phenomenon or protect its victims.
It pointed to ethnic Uighurs, a Muslim minority in China's west, being coerced into forced labour, and to Beijing's wholesale repatriation of North Koreans without checking to see if they were trafficking victims.
Beijing "does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so," said the report unveiled in Washington by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
It marked the first significant rebuke of China's rights record by the Trump administration, which has avoided harsh criticism of Beijing as the president seeks to establish a working relationship over deep trade differences and North Korea's nuclear program.
The release of the annual report also appeared to signal the Trump administration's closer embrace of human rights issues as an integral part of its foreign policy. The five-month old government has been reticent to highlight rights issues, keeping its focus on more narrowly defined security and economic interests.
Speaking at the report's launch, Ivanka Trump, the president's daughter and White House assistant, said all governments have the responsibility to prosecute human traffickers.
"Human trafficking is a pervasive human rights issue," she said. "Ending human trafficking is a major foreign policy priority for the Trump administration."
- North Korea singled out -
The State Department report placed Congo Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea and Mali on its list of 23 "Tier 3" countries with the worst human trafficking records, which also includes Russia, Iran, Syria and Venezuela.
The DR Congo and Mali were singled out for not taking action against the use of child soldiers; Congo Republic was named as a key source and destination country for the trafficking of children, men and women into forced labor and sex networks.
Tillerson said around 20 million people worldwide are victims of human trafficking, benefitting rogue governments, organized crime, and even established businesses unaware of forced labor in their supply chains.
"When state actors or non-state actors use human trafficking, it becomes a threat to our national security," Tillerson said.
"We hope the 21st century will be the last century of human trafficking."
Tillerson singled out North Korea as one of the most egregious offenders, noting the country has forced 50,000 to 80,000 people to work abroad, mainly in China and Russia, while their pay goes directly to the government.
"The North Korean regime receives hundreds of millions of dollars per year from the fruits of forced labor," he said. He tied China's downgrade in part to its acceptance of laborers from North Korea.
"Responsible nations cannot allow this to go on," he said.
Meanwhile Afghanistan was upgraded for its crackdown on the abuse of boys for social and sexual entertainment, and providing shelters for rescued children.
Myanmar, heavily criticized in the past for its large numbers of child soldiers, was removed from among the worst offenders to the "Tier 2 Watch List" for its efforts to halt the practice.
But the elimination of both Myanmar and Iraq from a special list of countries which use child soldiers brought a strong condemnation from Human Rights Watch, which called the State Department's claim of their improvement a "lie".
The move "flies in the face of evidence that both governments are still complicit in child soldier use," said Jo Becker, HRW's advocacy director for children's rights.
"The US provides Iraq with billions of dollars of military assistance each year; in exchange, it should insist the government put an end to child recruitment by its units. Instead, the State Department isn't even acknowledging Iraq has a child soldier problem," she said.