Rex Tillerson appears before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

AT LEAST 4,800 people have been killed by Philippine security forces and unidentified gunmen in a lawless anti-drug campaign since President Rodrigo Duterte took office just six months ago, according to Human Rights Watch. The Obama administration has repeatedly criticized what it calls the “extrajudicial killings.” But Rex Tillerson, the oil executive nominated to be secretary of state by President-elect Donald Trump, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday that he was not ready to judge whether the Duterte government is guilty of human rights violations.

Saudi Arabia continues to deny women fundamental rights and imprison dissidents advocating peaceful reforms. But Mr. Tillerson, who said he has been traveling to the Middle East’s largest oil producer for decades, said he would “need to have greater information” to determine if it violates human rights.

Aleppo, Syria, is another puzzle for the prospective secretary of state. Human rights groups documented the bombing of hospitals, food markets and other civilian targets, including a U.N. aid convoy, by Russian and Syrian warplanes during the recent siege; the Obama administration called the attacks war crimes. But Mr. Tillerson said he didn’t “have sufficient information” to concur.

It might be concluded, as the nominee himself suggested, that he lacks information and will have more to say once he studies government reports. But in his more candid moments, Mr. Tillerson suggested a more plausible — and disturbing — explanation: that he believes that speaking out on human rights is incompatible with maintaining ties with U.S. allies. The Philippines has “been an ally, and we need to ensure they stay an ally,” he said. As for Saudi Arabia, he mused, “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?”

Those are legitimate concerns, and U.S. administrations have grappled with them for decades. But no recent one has concluded that the answer is for the State Department to remain silent on human rights. The State Department has submitted annual public reports on countries’ rights records to Congress since 1961. While some secretaries have curbed their tongues about some countries (see: John F. Kerry on Egypt), almost all have recognized that the public voicing of concerns about repression, torture and other abuses is a vital part of diplomacy — and often an effective tool for changing practices and saving lives.

(Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

To his credit, Mr. Tillerson readily acknowledged the repressive nature of Vladi­mir Putin’s regime and endorsed the Magnitsky Act, which mandates sanctions against human rights violators in Russia. Like Defense Secretary nominee James N. Mattis, he described Russia as an adversary and called for strong support for America’s NATO allies, positions that are at odds with public statements of Mr. Trump. But Mr. Tillerson was unwilling to commit himself to maintaining sanctions against Russia while it continues to occupy Crimea and eastern Ukraine, saying only that the “status quo” should be preserved while the new administration probes Moscow’s intentions.

It’s logical that an incoming secretary of state would want to avoid calling Mr. Putin a war criminal immediately before attempting to negotiate with him. But serving as secretary of state is fundamentally different from operating as an oil executive focused on smoothing relations with clients of all sorts. Failing to speak up about human rights is more damaging to U.S. interests than offending the likes of Mr. Duterte.