US adds Saudi Arabia, Cuba to worst human traffickers list

The United States on Thursday added Saudi Arabia and Cuba to its list of worst offenders on human trafficking, a designation that could make them “subject to certain restrictions on assistance.”

The two nations were added to the lowest tier in the State Department’s 2019 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report. Russia, China, Venezuela, Iran, North Korea, Syria, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Myanmar are among the 21 Tier 3 countries.

The countries listed in this tier do “not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and (are) not making any efforts to do so,” according to the report.

“Some of these governments allow human traffickers to run rampant, and other governments are human traffickers themselves,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo noted in remarks at the report’s release Thursday morning.

Tier 3 countries may face cuts to “non-humanitarian, non-trade related foreign assistance” and “for government official or employee participation in educational and cultural exchange programs,” the report states.

“Last year, President Trump restricted certain types of assistance to 22 countries that were ranked for Tier 3 in our 2018 TIP Report,” Pompeo said. “That action, and the message that flows with it, is very clear: If you don’t stand up to trafficking, America will stand up to you.”

Although Pompeo mentioned Cuba had been downgraded, he did not call out Saudi Arabia by name. The Gulf nation also was not listed as one of the 11 countries that use child soldiers. Asked by CNN’s Paula Newton about the exclusion on “International Desk” Thursday, Ambassador at Large to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons John Cotton Richmond said they were “aware of some of the reports regarding the possibility that the Saudi government supported some of the children that were fighting in Yemen, but it didn’t rise to the level to warrant a listing this year.”

Richmond said he disagreed that there was a debate of Saudi Arabia’s inclusion on the list. CNN reported Wednesday that, according to a source familiar, Pompeo overruled the State Department’s experts on human trafficking recommended that the department include Saudi Arabia, in part, due to reports that the kingdom was using child soldiers from Sudan to fight for the US-backed coalition in Yemen — a claim they said was corroborated by a military source.

In its country profile on Saudi Arabia, the TIP report acknowledges “reports that Saudi Arabia also may have funded Yemeni militias that in some cases may have hired minors in combatant roles.”

“An international organization reported all parties to the conflict used both boys and girls as uniformed soldiers in combat and to guard checkpoints and military facilities during the reporting period. A second media report claimed the Saudi Arabian government provided salaries, uniforms, and weapons, as well as two to four weeks of weapons training, to Sudanese combatants which included children aged 14-17 years old, who may have been used in direct hostilities in Yemen,” it states.

International media outlets, including The New York Times, have reported on the use of child soldiers, facilitated by the Saudi-led coalition, in the conflict in Yemen.

CNN’s Michelle Kosinski and Zachary Cohen contributed to this report.