Mounting Senate Concern on Tillerson’s Human Rights Commitment

WASHINGTON – During Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s January nomination hearing, the toughest questions didn’t come from a Democrat, but rather a lawmaker from the administration’s own party. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) grilled the former Exxonmobil Chief: “Mr. Tillerson, do you believe that Vladimir Putin and his cronies are responsible for ordering the murder of countless dissidents, journalists and political opponents?” Tillerson declined to offer a specific response adding that he would need additional information.

Rubio was not convinced and responded, “None of this is classified, Mr. Tillerson. These people are dead.” The two also clashed regarding whether the ongoing airstrikes in Aleppo amounted to war crimes along with the appropriate characterization of women’s rights across Saudi Arabia.

Nonetheless, shortly afterwards, a majority of Senators — including Rubio — voted to confirm Tillerson. Approximately two months later, lawmakers of both parties have continued to express concern over Tillerson’s willingness to speak out against flagrant human rights violations worldwide.

“Would I prefer that he be more engaged at this point? Yes. Do I wish human rights were more of a priority? Yes,” Rubio told Jewish Insider. The former Republican presidential candidate pointed out that Tillerson still does not have a deputy along with other senior officials in the State Department. “I am not making excuses for him, but if the State Department is still conducting its way in foreign policy in a couple of months the way it’s been doing up till now, then I think it’s going to be a real problem,” he said.

Despite the Bahraini regime continual crackdown against opposition activists and security forces usage of “disproportional force” against protesters, Tillerson reversed an Obama Administration decision by lifting all human rights conditions on an important U.S. sale of F-16 fighter jets to Manama. Breaking years of tradition, Tillerson skipped the State Department’s unveiling of its annual human rights report, suggesting a change in priorities for the top U.S. envoy. Many foreign policy observers were shocked by Tillerson’s refusal personally comment on Tuesday’s chemical weapons attack in Syria when asked by reporters during a meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah. (The State Department later issued a statement of condemnation).  

When asked about Tillerson’s approach to human rights, a Democratic Senator on the Foreign Relations Committee who requested anonymity told Jewish Insider, “I am very concerned about the lack of engagement on human rights and democracy.” Recently, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a private meeting with Tillerson, which lasted for approximately one-hour, according to Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH).

Yet, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) cautioned that rhetorical support for human rights can have a limited impact.  “I know that (former Secretary of State) John Kerry used to say nice things while he watched hundreds of thousands of Syrians being slaughtered with poison gas and barrel bombs,” the Arizona lawmaker noted. “Then he would go to some resort and five star hotel in Geneva and beg (Russian Foreign Minister) Lavrov to stop.”

At the same time, McCain blasted Tillerson in an official statement for his comments that Assad’s status will be decided by the Syrian people. “This overlooks the tragic reality that the Syrian people cannot decide the fate of Assad or the future of their country when they are being slaughtered by Assad’s barrel bombs,” he stated.

McCain’s longtime Republican ally, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) explained that with Tillerson’s upcoming visit to Russia, “One of the things I am looking for is will he (Tillerson) meet with dissidents and opposition figures.” After holding a hearing on Putin’s crackdown against activists, Graham added, “I hope he will. That has been the tradition. His role as Secretary of State, he becomes one of the central voices in the free world and I hope he finds his voice.”

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