The United States has upgraded Uzbekistan and lowered Belarus in its annual human-trafficking report, which ranks 188 countries on their efforts in combating the sex trade and other exploitative labor.
Uzbekistan, which rights groups accuse of entrenched exploitation of workers in its cotton industry, was lifted from the lowest ranking -- "Tier 3" -- to the "Tier 2 Watch List," citing steps taken by Tashkent to prevent child labor during the cotton harvest.
Belarus, meanwhile, was downgraded from the Tier 2 Watch List to Tier 3 due to Washington's assessment that it had failed to make efforts to comply with the "minimum standards" for battling human trafficking in 2014.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in a letter released along with the report on July 27 that "trafficking in persons is an insult to human dignity and an assault on freedom."
"Whether we are talking about the sale of women and children by terrorists in the Middle East, the sex trafficking of girls lured from their homes in Central Europe, the exploitation of farm workers in North America, or the enslavement of fishermen in Southeast Asia, the victims of this crime each have a name," Kerry said. "And they each have been robbed of their most basic human rights."
A Tier 3 designation can result in sanctions such as the withdrawal of nonhumanitarian aid or assistance unrelated to foreign trade, as well as funding for government employees' participation in cultural and education programs with the countries in question.
U.S. President Barack Obama will have 90 days following the release of the Trafficking In Persons (TIP) report to impose sanctions against Tier 3 governments.
Washington sometimes chooses not to implement these measures based on its national security interests, including for Thailand and Malaysia, which the United States views as vital partners in its strategic outreach to Asia.
In the new report, the United States took Malaysia and Cuba off its Tier 3 blacklist of countries failing to adequately combat modern-day slavery, leaving Washington open to criticism that politics may be driving its rankings.
Russia and Iran are among the 23 nations that remained at Tier 3, alongside countries such as North Korea, Syria, and Zimbabwe.
More than 20 million people worldwide are thought to be affected by human trafficking in a range of industries, including construction, mining, the sex trade, and domestic services.
Speaking in Washington, Kerry said that by issuing the report, the United States wants "to bring to the public’s attention the full nature and scope of the $150 billion illicit trafficking industry."
"The purpose of this document is not to scold," he said. "It is not to name and shame. It is to enlighten and to energize, and most importantly, to empower people."
He added that "it is quite remarkable that in the year 2015 we face a modern version of slavery."
The New York-based international rights group Human Rights Watch says Uzbekistan uses "one of the largest state-sponsored forced labor systems in the world" to produce cotton.
"It forces millions of its citizens into the fields every year to plant, weed, and harvest the cotton," it says.
In removing Uzbekistan from the Tier 3 blacklist, the United States report cited Tashkent’s 2014 ban on forced child labor in the cotton harvest as well as new fines it introduced targeting university directors and farms for exploitative practices.
"Despite these efforts, serious concerns persist, as government-compelled forced labor of adults remained endemic in the 2014 cotton harvest," the new TIP report stated.
In downgrading Belarus, the report said Minsk "did not demonstrate efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex or forced labor" and "did not provide anti-trafficking training or guidance for its diplomatic personnel."
It said Belarusian women "traveling for foreign employment in the adult entertainment and hotel industries are subjected to sex trafficking" and that "state-sponsored forced labor continues to be an area of concern."
The report added that the Belarusian government "continued the practice of subbotniks, which requires employees of the government, state enterprises, and many private businesses to work on occasional Saturdays and donate their earnings to finance government projects."
"State employers and authorities intimidated and fined some workers who refused to participate," the report said.
Meanwhile, the report states that the Russian government "demonstrated limited efforts to prevent trafficking" during 2014.
It said Russia is "a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking."
Moscow reacted angrily when it was downgraded to the Tier 3 classification in the 2013 report, accusing the United States of using an "unacceptable" methodology in its assessment and saying "unfriendly steps" would provoke "proportionate retaliation."
With reporting by AP and Reuters