(Washington, DC, December 13, 2016) – US President-elect Donald Trump has nominated Exxon Mobil Chief Executive Officer Rex Tillerson to be secretary of state, an important opportunity to raise key human rights concerns, Human Rights Watch said today. Media reports suggest Trump will nominate former UN ambassador John Bolton to be deputy secretary.
As Exxon Mobil CEO, Tillerson oversaw lucrative business operations in partnership with abusive and corrupt oil-rich governments such as Equatorial Guinea and Angola. Under Tillerson, the company has been hostile to US laws requiring greater financial transparency in such countries and stronger human rights standards for companies – laws that the State Department has supported. Bolton has a long record of hostility to international human rights laws, norms, and standards.
“President-elect Trump has repeatedly proposed policies that would violate basic human rights,” said Sarah Margon, Washington director at Human Rights Watch. “Tillerson should clarify how, if nominated and confirmed, he will uphold the United States’ international human rights obligations, in particular by vigorously committing to a foreign policy agenda that promotes respect for rights abroad through greater transparency and anti-corruption measures.”
“As a recess-appointed US ambassador to the United Nations during the George W. Bush administration, John Bolton seemed to spend more time and energy criticizing the individuals and institutions protecting human rights, rather than the human rights violators themselves,” Margon said. “Bolton's clear hostility to international human rights law demands he explain how, if nominated and confirmed, he intends to avoid repeating the disastrous human rights policies of the Bush years.”
The Senate, which must confirm the nominees, should use nomination hearings to question Tillerson and Bolton about key human rights issues including torture, the Geneva Conventions, and refugee policy, Human Rights Watch said. Senators should also question the nominees about past Trump statements that he will collaborate closely with rights-abusing leaders like President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and President Vladimir Putin of Russia, and about how he will ensure that the US continues to raise critical human rights concerns committed by their governments.
“Senators should vigorously question Tillerson and Bolton on how they will use their posts, if confirmed, to ensure that the US government abides by international law,” Margon said. “The American public is entitled to know whether the Trump administration intends to engage in torture or otherwise violate the Geneva Conventions.”
Tillerson and Bolton should also be questioned about Trump’s proposals on refugee policy, including his plans to bar refugee resettlement from countries like Syria as well as to deport or “incarcerate” two million or “even three million” non-citizens who have had contact with the US criminal justice system. In practice, these plans would worsen the world’s already overburdened refugee and migrant crisis and entail massive violations of due process rights and other abuses, including separating children from their parents.
The Trump team announced on November 23 that Governor Nikki Haley would be nominated as US ambassador to the United Nations.
Haley, as governor of South Carolina, stated in a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry in the wake of last year’s Paris attacks that she opposed resettling Syrian refugees in her state due to concerns about the ability of US authorities to adequately vet them. However, she later criticized Trump for proposing a ban on Muslim travelers to the US, describing it as unconstitutional. Some Syrian refugees have been resettled in South Carolina.
The Senate should question Haley on Syria policy in the Trump administration, and in particular, her views on how to ensure that the Assad government and armed groups in Syria can be held accountable for numerous war crimes and crimes against humanity committed there since 2012. If confirmed, she will be at the forefront of efforts to obtain UN Security Council and General Assembly resolutions addressing Syria.
In addition to issues related to his engagement with many autocratic leaders to pursue oil deals that lacked transparency or did little to support anti-corruption measures, some of the specific foreign policy areas on which Tillerson should be questioned are below. The Senate should also scrutinize the records of Bolton and Haley.
Collaboration with Assad and Putin
President-elect Trump’s stated interest in collaborating militarily in Syria with Assad and Putin is of grave concern given the massive crimes committed by the Syrian government against its civilians, Russia’s likely complicity in some of those crimes, and several recent instances of war crimes that our research indicated were carried out by Russian forces.
In the past four years of conflict, the Syrian government has repeatedly used an overly broad definition of terrorism that has allowed it to justify attacks against any opposition group or activist who opposes or is perceived as opposing Assad. The Russian government has embraced that view and contributed to Syria military equipment and technical, financial, and human support to assist Assad in his brutal campaigns.
Over the course of the war, widespread and systematic rights abuses have fueled instability and support for terrorism. In these circumstances, partnering militarily with Russia would be likely to worsen this instability, increase abuses against civilians, and discredit the United States throughout the region, making it harder to achieve success on a diplomatic track. Partnering with Russia and Syria on military operations could also make the US government complicit in war crimes and crimes against humanity and expose US personnel to legal liability.
Closer Relationship with Egypt
Trump’s meeting with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt in New York in September raised serious human rights concerns. Following the meeting, Trump issued a statement describing his “strong support for Egypt’s war on terrorism,” and saying “how under the Trump Administration, the United States of America will be a loyal friend, not simply an ally, that Egypt can count on in the days and years ahead.” The absence of any mention of Egypt's substantial human rights abuses and lack of democratic rule was deeply troubling.
In the last three years, authorities in Egypt have banned protests, arrested scores of LGBT people, prosecuted religious minorities, arbitrarily detained tens of thousands of people, put thousands of civilians before military trials, and embarked on a draconian campaign against nongovernmental organizations and the media. A closer relationship with Egypt should not mean that the US government will stop speaking out to protect vulnerable critics or activists.
“If the United States is going to cultivate a strong relationship with al-Sisi, Tillerson should use that relationship to raise concerns about the Egyptian government's crackdown,” Margon said. “Extensive US military and security assistance to Egypt gives the US the leverage it needs.”
Women’s Rights Abroad
For years, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, the US has shown strong leadership on issues such as child marriage, gender-based violence, and human trafficking.
Senators should question Tillerson about whether he will ensure that the State Department maintains the structures and funding needed to address global women’s issues. The next secretary of state should maintain that legacy, and choose a highly qualified proponent of women's rights to lead the State Department's Office of Global Women's Issues and ensure that the office has sufficient financial resources and authority.
Protecting the Refugee Program
The US has been the global leader in refugee resettlement for decades. Tillerson should be strongly questioned about Trump’s proposal to shut down or curtail the resettlement program.
“A sudden curb on the number of refugees admitted to the United States could upend the entire global system of refugee protection,” Margon said. “A lack of US leadership would also discourage other countries from accepting more refugees at a time when the world is facing the greatest number of displaced people it has seen since the end of World War Two.”