USA Foreign Policy

Rex Tillerson's human-rights report no-show: A sign of indifference?

putting it in perspective

The US State Department may take a back seat under the Trump administration, analysts say. But how the US government defends human rights abroad – and how it defines those rights – has long been in flux.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is greeted prior to his departure from Andrews Air Force Base, Md., on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017, before his departure to Mexico.
Carlos Barria/AP Pool
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Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida tweeted his disapproval of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s decision not to attend the rolling-out of the State Department’s annual human rights report, considered the department’s crown-jewel analysis of conditions in most of the world’s countries.

“For 1st time in a long time @StateDept #humanrights report will not be presented by Secretary of State. I hope they reconsider,” wrote Senator Rubio on Thursday evening.

The senator’s remarks reflected some State Department employees and human rights activists' concerns after hearing, ahead of time, of Mr. Tillerson's absence. Instead, the report’s Friday release, normally treated by secretaries of State as an occasion to exalt the Department’s work, involved little more than a phone briefing with reporters, rather than the standard press event. The secretary of State did write a brief preface to the report itself, calling the promotion of human rights and democracy "a core element of U.S. foreign policy."

For several analysts, Tillerson's decision to skip the event multiplied uncertainties about whether the Trump administration could pull back from a typical bipartisan commitment to weaving human-rights concerns – however each White House might construe them – into its foreign-policy work.

"Tillerson's absence from the State Department's annual human rights report release reinforces the message to governments, rights activists, and at-risk minorities that the State Department might also be silent on repression, abuse, and exploitation," said Sarah Margon, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch, a New York-based NGO, as the Associated Press reports.

But while a shift may be ahead, human rights experts say, the US government has always promoted human rights selectively, or even inconsistently. Nor is it an issue that ranks very highly among public concerns.

“We know that overall, in terms of priorities, foreign policy tends to be a bit lower than domestic priorities like dealing with terrorism or economic growth,” says Jacob Poushter, a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center, in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor. 

In a 2013 survey performed by the Pew Center, Mr. Poushter notes, “promoting and defending human rights in other countries” ranked ninth out of Americans’ top eleven policy priorities.

Historians usually trace the US government's emphasis on human rights abroad to the Vietnam- and civil-rights eras, when Congress passed laws that withheld aid to countries that engaged in egregious human-rights abuses. And in the 1980 presidential race, candidate Ronald Reagan put a conservative twist on what had generally been a concern for liberals, emphasizing Soviet Union-linked “terrorism” as a chief threat and criticizing Jimmy Carter’s “purism” on the issue as ineffective, as professors David Carleton and Michael Stohl noted in a paper from that decade.

But some see President Trump’s talk of a more transactional style of foreign policy as evidence that he could break with a post-cold war consensus in which business links are seen as a means of securing influence on other “values-driven concerns,” like human rights. During Hillary Clinton's tenure as secretary of State, for example, her “support for American businesses and embrace of economic tools reflected a worldview in which increasing trade and investment links both constituted and further fostered global liberal progress, where corporate success, capitalist economic development and effective political institutions all reinforced one another,” as Geoffrey Gertz wrote in an opinion piece for The Hill in January.

“Trump is likely to turn this maxim on its head, using political means and might to secure economic gains,” added Dr. Gertz, a post-doctoral fellow in the Brookings Institution's Global Economy and Development program. 

Still, many human rights advocates had mixed feelings about the Obama presidency: while Mr. Obama was fond of soaring rhetoric, Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth wrote during the former president’s final days in office, he had a “mixed record” on human rights, particularly where it intersected with counterterrorism, as in the use of drones and the closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, and the Syrian civil war.

“In fact, he has often treated human rights as a secondary interest – nice to support when the cost was not too high, but nothing like a top priority he championed,” wrote Mr. Roth.

Tillerson himself has also given clear endorsements of human rights considerations in foreign policy, calling them “a key component of clarifying to a watching world what America stands for” in his Senate confirmation hearing.

“Our values are our interests when it comes to human rights and humanitarian assistance,” he said then.

The role of human rights may hinge on how much influence Tillerson and the State Department can end up exerting within the Trump administration. And for many State-watchers, both the Department and Tillerson himself so far seem to be playing a drastically diminished part. The secretary of State, for instance, has given no public interviews and suspended daily Department press briefings since being confirmed, according to The New York Times, and the Department remains short of about two dozen key senior staff who abruptly resigned not long after the new administration’s arrival.

“On human rights, in particular, it doesn’t seem like there’s a policy being formulated,” says Michael Posner, a human rights lawyer who headed the Department’s Democracy, Human Rights and Labor division during Obama’s term.

But “I’m more broadly troubled by the seeming diminished role for our professional foreign service and diplomats,” he tells the Monitor, citing conversations with current employees.

“The question of priorities ultimately starts with the White House. You can change policy toward the Middle East or China, and that’s a discussion that involves multiple agencies, but State is ultimately the implementer. So their voice ought to be important and right in the middle of those discussions.”