When the State Department rolled out its annual human rights report in March, cataloging abuses in countries around the world, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was nowhere to be found. Unlike his recent predecessors, he didn’t introduce the findings at a press briefing; in fact, there was no briefing, just an anonymous senior official taking questions by telephone.
Flash forward to this week when another annual report — this time on a modern form of slavery known as human trafficking — was released with real fanfare. Not only was there an on-camera press briefing, but Mr. Tillerson was the headliner, joined by Ivanka Trump, President Trump’s daughter and adviser, who helped draw an overflow media crowd to the event.
Whether this means Mr. Trump himself will now give greater priority to human rights remains to be seen. Still, it seemed a hopeful sign that Mr. Tillerson and Ms. Trump chose to put their own political weight behind the report, and more broadly, the American effort to press other governments to improve anti-trafficking laws and prosecutions. Human trafficking is a 21st-century scourge, enslaving millions of vulnerable people, including many children, in sex networks and forced labor.
Mr. Tillerson, making the case for American engagement, said trafficking “breeds corruption; it undermines rule of law; it erodes the core values that underpin a civil society.” Ms. Trump said combating trafficking is in the country’s “moral and our strategic interest” and is a “major foreign policy priority” for the administration. More than that, as the mother of small children, she said, she saw the report as a “clarion call to action in defense of the vulnerable, the abused and the exploited.”
Such reports, which rank countries in four groups according to their success in combating trafficking, inevitably involve political calculations as officials calibrate the costs of criticizing other governments. This year, the State Department’s least defensible decisions involved excluding Myanmar, Iraq and Afghanistan from an auxiliary list of countries banned under a special law from certain American military assistance because their armed forces recruited child soldiers. Iraq and Myanmar were on the list in 2016; Afghanistan was not. The text of the report mentioned violations by all three countries. In the overall trafficking rankings, the…