Photo by: TRACEY SHELTON
Sex workers stand just inside the door of a Phnom Penh brothel on Tuesday night.
THE US State Department downgraded Cambodia's anti-human trafficking rating on Tuesday from Tier 2 to Tier 2 Watch - the list's second-lowest rating - citing "a decline in efforts to combat trafficking in persons".
In 2008, the US raised Cambodia's status to Tier 2 for the first time in four years after the National Assembly passed anti-human trafficking legislation.
The US said at the time that the new law "provides law enforcement authorities the power to investigate all forms of trafficking and is a powerful tool in efforts to prosecute and convict traffickers".
But the State Department later determined that "not all government officials have appeared to distinguish the law's articles on trafficking offenses and non-trafficking crimes such as prostitution, pornography and child sex abuse".
Sara Bradford, a technical adviser to the Asian Pacific Network of Sex Workers, said that since Washington backed the controversial trafficking law, the US is partly to blame for Cambodia's failure to create an effective anti-trafficking campaign.
"The [Cambodian] government is combating trafficking with very few resources and little training," she said.
"I am one of many who feel that the US pushed this law upon Cambodia without proper guidance on how to implement it," Bradford added.
A press release from the sex workers network on Wednesday commended the State Department for acknowledging "a number of issues arising from the conflation of sex work and trafficking in Cambodia, as well as the misguided enforcement of the law".
US Embassy spokesman John Johnson said that, though the United States supported parts of the Cambodian trafficking law, it did not endorse it in its entirety.
"The US supports elements of the legislation that specifically address trafficking issues," he said.
He added that, as the law was being debated, "the embassy raised questions with the Royal Government regarding some elements of the draft that were unclear".
The chief at the Ministry of Interior's Anti-Human Trafficking office said that the State Department's claims of police corruption and a lack of effort were simply not true.
"Our police work hard to prevent human trafficking, and we have never cared whether we work during the night or day. Even on holidays, we work," Keo Sothea said, adding, "We have never let corruption hinder the protection of a victim."
The decline in prosecutions and convictions of trafficking crimes in 2008 was one of the major reasons for the drop. The report said the Phnom Penh Municipal Court convicted 11 trafficking offenders and prosecuted 22, down from 52 convictions in 2007.
But Lim Tith, the national project coordinator at the UN Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking in the Greater Mekong Sub-Region, said that using the number of convictions as an indicator is a problem because "it can push law enforcement to make more arrests without proper evidence".
Lim Tith, who said Cambodia should have maintained its Tier 2 ranking, said that the sharp decline in convictions could be the result of a successful prevention campaign or poor data collection.
He did say, however, that Cambodia needed to do more to prevent cross-border trafficking, specifically with Thailand and Malaysia, which just fell to Tier 3 status.
The Tier 2 Watch listing means that Cambodia has not reached the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, but that "it is making significant efforts to do so", the report said.
The US Embassy's Johnson pointed to Cambodia's national task force on trafficking and the government's cooperation with NGOs as examples of Cambodia's efforts to deal with the problem of human trafficking.
If Cambodia drops one more rating, it risks facing economic sanctions from the US.