Exclusive: In favoring Middle East ally, U.S. glossed over human rights record

As the United States negotiated this year’s nuclear pact with Iran, the State Department quietly agreed to spare the Gulf sultanate of Oman from an embarrassing public rebuke over its human rights record, rewarding a close Arab ally that helped broker the historic deal.


In a highly unusual intervention, the department’s hierarchy overruled its own staff’s assessments of Oman’s deteriorating record on forced labor and human trafficking and inflated its ranking in a congressionally mandated report, U.S. officials told Reuters. The move, which followed protests by Oman, suggests the Obama administration placed diplomatic priorities over human rights to pacify an important Middle East partner.


In the weeks leading up to publication of the State Department’s influential annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, top advisers to Secretary of State John Kerry disregarded findings by its Middle East diplomatic bureau and a U.S. government office set up to independently grade global efforts to fight human trafficking, the officials said.


In April, diplomats in the State Department’s Near Eastern Affairs bureau and experts in the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons agreed that Oman would be downgraded from “Tier 2” to a status known as “Tier 2 Watch List”, one notch above a level that can incur U.S. sanctions, according to an internal department memo seen by Reuters.


Oman, they agreed, had not done enough to improve the plight of migrant laborers and domestic workers who make up a large part of its expatriate community.


In June, when the final report is usually published, the advisers to Kerry took an unusual step. They put the entire 382-page document on hold, two sources with knowledge of the process told Reuters.


“Oman was the only hold-up,” said a State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity.


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