There are signs that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson might be warming to human rights. (Reuters)

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has sent conflicting signals on his department’s approach to human rights. If he releases the upcoming edition of the State Department’s annual country reports — which both assess foreign countries’ human rights records and signal U.S. commitment to the issue internationally — personally, it will demonstrate that he is returning to an approach more consistent with the past 40 years of U.S. foreign policy.

Last year, Tillerson did not attend the State Department’s rollout of the country reports. Tillerson was only a month into his tenure, and his absence drew rebukes from, among others, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.); Human Rights Watch; and Tom Malinowski, who headed the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor during the Obama administration. Observers interpreted Tillerson’s actions to indicate a downgrading of attention to human rights at the State Department. As Human Rights First official Rob Berschinski put it, his absence signaled that high-level U.S. officials “don’t have time to publicly defend those values.”

The secretary of state seemed to confirm that the State Department had a new approach to human rights in May, when he argued that efforts to prioritize American values could harm U.S. national security interests. More recently, however, Tillerson has signaled he might be shifting course. He could offer further evidence that he was prioritizing human rights by attending the release of this year’s reports.

One reason Tillerson’s absence seemed consequential was that it represented a dramatic break from tradition. Releasing a public statement to coincide with the release of the human rights reports was de rigueur and nonpartisan for previous secretaries of state, including John F. Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice and Colin L. Powell.

They did so because the reports, which have been released annually since 1975, signified the State Department and the United States’ commitment to human rights. State Department officials promised the first comprehensive human rights reporting to Congress in the wake of Section 32 of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1973. The reports were intended to help assess whether a country’s human rights record should preclude it from receiving security and economic assistance, as activists at the time desired. The reports also ensured that the U.S. government would actively monitor human rights conditions around the world in the years that followed.

These reports were one of a number of innovations that transformed U.S. foreign policy in the 1970s to take account of human rights considerations. They represented the culmination of years of activism by missionaries, academics, members of Congress and Foreign Service officers, among others. These activists wanted to prevent U.S. complicity in human rights violations overseas and signal that U.S. foreign policy was consistent with American ideals and values. Their work helped create a new institutional focus on human rights, one that included the reorganization of the State Department to include a new bureau devoted to human rights and legislation linking U.S. assistance to human rights conditions.

In the years since the reports were first produced, human rights officers within U.S. diplomatic missions abroad have worked to assess human rights protections and violations in the countries in which they serve. The resulting reports inform the U.S. government as it shapes foreign policy, and Congress utilizes them to evaluate economic and security assistance to foreign governments. The reports also have an external audience — those personally and professionally interested in human rights outside the government. Observers assess not only the human rights records of foreign countries but also what U.S. reporting indicates about the country’s commitment to human rights.

When Tillerson seemed to turn his back on human rights early in his tenure, State Department officials initiated an effort to educate him on the intersection of human rights and U.S. foreign policy. Their efforts were most visible in a memo written by State Department official Brian Hook. His memo, titled “Balancing Interests and Values,” is flawed in many ways. But we could interpret it as offering an interest-based (rather than morals-based) rationale to Tillerson for increased attention to human rights.

After justifying overlooking human rights abuses by U.S. allies, Hook asserted, “We should consider human rights as an important issue in regard to U.S. relations with China, Russia, North Korea and Iran. And this is not only because of moral concern for practices inside those countries. It is also because pressing those regimes on human rights is one way to impose costs, apply counter-pressure, and regain the initiative from them strategically.” Hook’s memo demonstrates ways in which human rights advocacy could advance U.S. interests.

In subsequent months, Tillerson sought to assure critics that he recognizes the significance of human rights and would advance the issue internationally. He appeared publicly to present a report on human trafficking, noting the ways in which it threatened national security and victimized “the most vulnerable.” In remarks at the Woodrow Wilson Center, Tillerson said, “You can’t de-prioritize human rights,” and on International Human Rights Day, Tillerson issued a statement asserting that “standing up for human rights and democracy is a foreign policy priority that represents the best traditions of our country.”

Each of these instances had suggested that Tillerson may have been trying to change the narrative on his approach to human rights. As we approach the reports’ release, however, leaks have revealed State Department directives to trim language assessing women’s rights.

Given this recent news, if Tillerson wants to signal that he has undertaken a new approach to human rights, one that recognizes both the moral and security reasons the United States has long espoused a commitment to protecting human rights, then he should attend the department’s ceremony to release the reports and articulate his reasons for doing so.