Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who during his confirmation hearings repeatedly vowed to promote human rights as a core American value, alarmed human rights advocates when he did not appear in person to present the State Department’s annual human rights report, released Friday.
In a break with long-standing tradition only rarely breached, Tillerson’s remarks were limited to a short written introduction to the lengthy report. Nor did any senior State Department official make on-camera comments that are typically watched around the world, including by officials in authoritarian countries where abuses are singled out in the report.
Instead, a senior administration official talked to reporters by phone and only on the condition of anonymity.
“The report speaks for itself,” the administration official said. “We’re very, very proud of it. The facts should really be the story here.”
But Tillerson’s absence underscored how the former ExxonMobil executive remains more comfortable with an aloof, corporate style of governance than the public diplomacy practiced by his predecessors.
Tillerson drew fire from some members of Congress and advocates who said his decision not to personally unveil the report suggested the Trump administration places a low priority on advancing human rights.
“While the U.S. commitment to human rights has been imperfect, it has always been one of the key pillars of foreign policy,” said Sarah Margon, the Washington director for Human Rights Watch. “That seems to be under dramatic threat right now. The fact he’s not personally involved makes it much easier for other governments to ignore its findings.”
The report itself — a year’s work by embassy employees around the world and distilled by almost 100 editors — differs little from last year’s. Given that the Trump administration has been in office for only six weeks, it largely reflects work produced during the Obama administration.
There do not appear to be any substantive changes to sections on countries such as Iran, on which the administration has taken a hard-line position, or Russia, a country with which President Trump has said he wants warmer relations.
In the past, secretaries of state have taken the attitude that their presence in unveiling the report lends weight to its findings. John F. Kerry delayed its release twice because he was traveling and wanted to present it himself. Kerry, Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright all showed up for the release in their first year in office. Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice missed the first year but made personal appearances in subsequent years.
Whenever previous secretaries did not make it, the report was always made public on camera by a senior State Department official who answered questions about it.
“This is historically seen as one of easiest ways for a secretary of state to demonstrate a commitment to this part of the department’s agenda,” said Tom Malinowski, who stepped down on Jan. 20 as the assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor and presented last year’s report.
Tillerson, who has held no news conference since he arrived a month ago and has read only two public statements during trips to foreign countries, called promoting human rights and democratic governance a “core element of U.S. foreign policy” in the seven-paragraph introduction to this year’s report.
“Our values are our interests when it comes to human rights,” the introduction said. “The production of these reports underscores our commitment to freedom, democracy and the human rights guaranteed to all individuals around the world.”
During his confirmation hearing, Tillerson was questioned by senators probing his commitment to human rights. Tillerson assured them he would speak out forcefully.
“Supporting human rights is essential to showing the watching world what America stands for,” he said.
“Should I be confirmed as secretary of state,” he said at another point, “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.”
In a comment posted on his Facebook page, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said he was disappointed that Tillerson did not present the report in person. People around the world, he said, “look to the U.S., and often to the secretary of state specifically for signs of where we stand, whose side we’re on, and how strongly we will back up our words with actions.”
Some human rights advocates said their concerns are heightened by reports of budget cuts impacting humanitarian aid and Trump’s campaign remarks that he supports waterboarding and “much worse” for terrorist suspects.
Human Rights First said Tillerson’s decision to forgo a public rollout suggests U.S. leadership on the issue is waning.
“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,” said Rob Berschinski, a senior vice president at Human Rights First and a former State Department official in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.