Is advancing human rights a priority for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson?

The State Department released its annual human rights report today.

ByABC News
March 3, 2017, 6:17 PM

— -- The State Department released its annual human rights report today, an exhaustive encyclopedia produced by its employees around the world after thousands of work-hours that details the worst abuses and crimes by state and non-state actors. But there was one thing noticeably absent from the roll-out this year -- the secretary of state himself.

Every year for the last two decades, from the end of the Clinton administration through Bush and Obama, the secretary of state has presented the report in a news conference -- except for 2005 and 2001 when an undersecretary or assistant secretary did on their behalf.

But this year, neither Tillerson nor anyone from the State Department presented the report publicly. No news conference, no public statement -- just the report, with a preface signed by Tillerson.

A senior Trump administration official dismissed the concern over Tillerson’s absence.

“The report speaks for itself. We’re very, very proud of it. The facts should really be the story here,” the official said.

But that’s not enough, according to some scholars, activists and at least one Republican senator.

“Facts don’t speak for themselves. They have weight when they’re spoken by people who matter. They have much less weight sitting inside a document that people may or may not read,” said Thomas Carothers, senior vice president for studies at the nonpartisan Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“The job of the secretary of state is to be the face of American diplomacy,” said Sarah Margon, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch, an international nongovernmental organization. “His absence allows other governments to push the report and the findings of the report aside. ... His absence shows that he doesn’t see it as a priority.”

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a vocal foreign policy hawk, weighed in on Twitter on Thursday, “For 1st time in a long time @StateDept #humanrights report will not be presented by Secretary of State. I hope they reconsider.”

Tillerson's silence raises a question that was front and center at his Senate confirmation hearing: What priority will advancing human rights be given during the Trump administration, with Tillerson as secretary of state?

The effort to advance human rights worldwide has defined how the establishment of both political parties saw America’s role in the world for much of the 20th century -- the “Shining City on the Hill,” as Republican Ronald Reagan put it; “The world must be made safe for democracy,” as Democrat Woodrow Wilson proclaimed.

But for the pragmatic businessman-turned-top diplomat, is it a priority?

The State Department says yes.

“Secretary Tillerson spoke quite clearly in his confirmation hearings about his views of the impact of human rights on and the importance to U.S. interests,” said the senior administration official, pointing to Tillerson's statements, such as “Our moral light must not go out if we are to remain an agent of freedom for mankind. Supporting human rights in our foreign policy is a key component of clarifying to a watching world what America stands for.”

But in his few public statements since, the former ExxonMobil CEO has not discussed the issue, or even how he sees America’s role as “an agent of freedom.” And given his former employer’s history of dealing with some of the countries accused of violating human rights in today’s report, he was pressed by members of both parties at his hearing -- and his answers were much more nuanced.

“I share all the same values that you share and want the same things for people the world over in terms of freedom,” Tillerson said. “But I’m also clear-eyed and realistic about dealing in cultures. These are centuries-long cultures, cultural differences.”

If there is disagreement, it seems to be about what priority advancing human rights will be given in this administration and how best to do so. In the past, the U.S. has used sanctions, embargoes and public statements to pressure countries from Cuba to South Africa, Saudi Arabia to Russia for human rights abuses. From what Tillerson has said publicly, he seems to disagree with those tactics.

“In terms of when you designate someone or label someone, the question is, is that the most effective way to have progress continue to be made in Saudi Arabia or any other country,” he said on Capitol Hill.

Asked specifically about Saudi Arabia, he added, “What I wouldn't want to do is to take some kind of a precipitous action that suddenly causes the leadership in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia to interrupt that [progress on human rights].”

Part of that worldview may be colored by Tillerson’s experience at Exxon, which has been criticized for working with some countries that have at best spotty human rights records, like Iran and Sudan, where an international subsidiary did business despite U.S. sanctions, as well as Indonesia, where the company has been sued for its alleged role in unprovoked shootings and arbitrary detention. ExxonMobil has called the suit "baseless."

The senior administration official defended the secretary’s apparent position.

“Human rights is always a consideration in our foreign policy. It is never the single consideration. And America has a broad range of issues, and from time to time, perhaps it’s going to be our national security that may have to take the priority, but that doesn’t mean our values are deprioritized,” the official told ABC News.

Sen. Rubio warned that that kind of signal would undermine America’s credibility.

“It sends a dangerous message that the U.S. only cares about democracy, freedom, and human rights when we do not need anything from the country in question,” he said Friday.

But Tillerson wouldn’t be alone in this stance, either. It is an idea that has been echoed by the public statements of his boss, Donald Trump.

“Instead of trying to spread universal values that not everybody shares or wants, we should understand that strengthening and promoting Western civilization and its accomplishments will do more to inspire positive reforms around the world than military interventions,” Trump said during his presidential campaign last year in a major foreign policy address, blasting the “dangerous idea that we could make western democracies out of countries that had no experience or interests in becoming a western democracy.”

In its place, Trump has advocated for working with Russia in Syria, despite its alleged human rights abuses, like targeting civilians and hospitals in Aleppo; praised Russian President Vladimir Putin for his strength, despite his crackdown on journalists and accusations that he has had political opponents murdered; and brushed off reports of human rights abuses by strongmen like Egypt’s Abdel Fatah al-Sisi and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

As Trump told The New York Times in July, “I think it’s very hard for us to get involved in other countries when we don’t know what we are doing and we can’t see straight in our own country.”

Because of statements like that -- and campaign proposals like a ban on Muslims entering the U.S. -- Trump himself was slammed by the United Nations human rights chief and listed as a potential threat to human rights in January by Human Rights Watch, the international non-governmental organization.

For now, Tillerson remains quiet on where he stands and what role the State Department will play going forward on America's role when it comes to defending human rights. But in the interim, the silence will be noted.

"This falls into a pattern that’s set early by this administration of not projecting concern,” said Carothers, of the Carnegie Endowment. “What may strike them as subtle changes in U.S. behavior resound abroad much more loudly.”

ABC News' Elizabeth McLaughlin contributed to this report.

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