What does Tillerson's low profile mean for US leadership on human rights?

Secretary of State Tillerson skipped a usually high profile human rights report Friday – fueling growing consternation in Washington over what already looks like the sidelining of the State Department in the Trump administration.

Alex Brandon/AP
President Trump gestures as he passes Secretary of State Rex Tillerson as he leaves Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, following his address to a joint session of Congress.

It has come to be called the incredible shrinking State Department in the month since Rex Tillerson took the reins as secretary of state.

That image of the nation’s diplomatic ministry turned quiet and in retreat was reinforced Friday, when the State Department released the annual Human Rights Report without much fanfare and with only an on-background media call.

Traditionally the secretary of State has publicly unveiled the document – which issues a kind of report card of countries’ human rights performance and assessment of global rights trends – as a means of providing heft to the findings and to underscore the promotion of values in US foreign policy.

On the rare occasions when the secretary hasn’t appeared to issue the report in person and on the record, a senior State Department human rights official has.   

But instead, this year a “senior administration official” fielded journalists’ queries that largely revolved around the one question on everyone’s mind: Why had Secretary Tillerson, who has remained almost completely silent since taking up his new post Feb. 1, chosen to skip an annual event that other secretaries deemed an important expression of their priorities?

Tillerson had made his commitment to the promotion of human rights known in his confirmation testimony in January and in the report’s overview, the senior administration official said – also suggesting that the secretary wanted the focus to be on the 199 country reports and trends in global human rights practices presented in the report.

“The report speaks for itself,” the administration official said. “The facts should really be the story here.”

But if that was the intent, it turned out that Tillerson’s absence had pretty much the opposite effect. By not showing up, Tillerson only fueled the growing consternation in Washington over what already looks like the sidelining of the State Department in the Trump administration.

'Very worrisome'

Tillerson has barely been heard from as a picture emerges of foreign policy managed by a small team of White House advisers that includes chief political strategist Steve Bannon and President Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

Tillerson has issued few readouts of visits with foreign officials, held no press conferences, and even the State Department daily news briefing – a fixture of US diplomacy that is closely watched not just in Washington but around the world – has not been held for weeks. (It is now scheduled to resume Monday).

Many senior positions at the State Department sit unfilled, while hundreds of diplomats and foreign-service officers report having no direction or little to do without senior leaders to guide operations. The Trump White House has sent over some personnel from its team to fill in where they can, but some State Department employees say relations with “the new kids on our playground,” as one official called them, are not smooth.

“Transitions always take time so no one expected things to switch without a blip from Day 1, but this has been way out of the norm and very worrisome to a lot of people,” says one official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the department’s internal environment.   

Choice of deputy vetoed

Moreover, what really raised eyebrows across Washington was news that Mr. Trump had vetoed Tillerson’s choice of diplomat and foreign policy analyst Elliott Abrams to be deputy secretary of state – reportedly over an unflattering column Mr. Abrams wrote in May about the foreign-policy views and qualifications of candidate Trump.

Trump’s heavy-handedness appeared to be confirmation among some foreign policy analysts of Tillerson’s impotence on the Trump foreign policy team. A number of them had said when Tillerson was named that his freedom to name his own team would go a long way in determining his effectiveness and stature in the administration.

Add to all this Trump’s budget outline issued earlier this week, which calls for a nearly 40 percent cut in State Department and foreign aid funding, and the reasons for the sense this is a diminished State Department are clear.

Several prominent members of Congress – including the Senate majority leader – have already said any proposal for more than a one-third cut in State Department funding is dead in the water. However, that does not attenuate the impact of the president proposing such a reduction in diplomatic activity.

There’s little doubt that all the concerns about the direction of the State Department were part of the reason Tillerson’s decision to skip the launch of the Human Rights Report was discomfiting to so many.

Some analysts wondered if Tillerson wasn’t simply playing his cards well by keeping a low profile even as other members of the Trump administration are engulfed in controversy concerning Russia’s influence in the presidential campaign. But that would hardly explain a decision to keep a low profile on human rights.

Faltering defense of human rights?

On Capitol Hill and among many nongovernmental rights advocacy groups, the question was whether the promotion of human rights was already faltering as diplomacy recedes in the Trump administration.

“For 1st time in a long time @StateDept #humanrights report will not be presented by secretary of state,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida said in a tweet Thursday night. “I hope they reconsider.”

More pointed were the reactions of rights advocates, who said any sign of a retreat from human rights as a US priority would be taken by repressive regimes across the globe as carte blanche to make bolder moves.

Tillerson’s no-show “is yet another troubling indication that the Trump administration intends to abandon US leadership on human rights and universal values,” said Rob Berschinski, senior vice president for policy for Human Rights First, in a statement Friday.

“Such a decision sends an unmistakable signal to human rights defenders that the United States may no longer have their back, a message that won’t be lost on abusive governments,” added the former deputy assistant secretary of State for democracy, human rights, and labor.

Mr. Berschinski also noted, as did the “senior administration official,” that Tillerson in his confirmation testimony stated emphatically that “Our values are our interests” – an important declaration he said nevertheless “rings less true” if the secretary of State doesn’t “publicly defend those same values.”

Also in his Senate testimony, Tillerson said that, if confirmed, “I would be charged with promoting American values on the world stage, and that means standing for universal human rights and fighting for the dignity of every person.”

Just as many State Department employees are hoping that their chief’s early silence is not a sign of diplomacy’s permanent retreat, human rights advocates are hoping Tillerson’s words prove to be a better reflection of his intentions than his absence from a report’s launch.

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