The desk chairs are being moved around at State, and the news looks bad for human rights.
In a letter leaked in August, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson outlined a restructuring plan, including which special envoys, coordinators, and special representative positions will be retained and which will be removed or downgraded. At first glance, the proposal – which involves keeping some of the positions, revamping others, and eliminating some entirely – seems merely like a bureaucratic redistribution of resources. But coupled with an overarching shift away from State Department-led, hands-on foreign policy, it is troubling.
Among those on the chopping block are special envoys or representatives for Libya, the Sudans, the Great Lakes Region of Africa, Afghanistan, and Burma. With their staff and funds returned to the regional bureaus, Tillerson argues the State Department will be more efficient.
But it’s not clear if the bureaus will have the capacity to keep up the same level of attention on these global issues – the very reason special envoys and representatives were appointed in the first place. Moreover, the designation of special envoys or representatives allowed for those individuals to cut through the State Department’s bureaucracy to access the Secretary’s office. Additionally, the choice in cuts seems to symbolize a larger intention on the part of this administration to put human rights on the back burner.
As an example, the role of the Special Envoy for North Korean human rights will now be assumed by the Undersecretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights. At a time when tensions between the US and Pyongyang are intensifying dramatically, demoting this position appears to signal that concerns around the North Korean government’s brutal and systematic repression are not a priority. Similarly, the Special Envoy for the Human Rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex (LGBTI) Persons has also been downgraded within the bureaucratic structure, as has the Ambassador on Global Women’s Issues. In some sense the decision to retain these last two positions in any capacity is somewhat surprising, and sends a mixed message given the administration’s other actions on LGBTI and women’s issues.
Nonetheless, there are a few strands of light: the Ambassadors-at-Large for both Global Criminal Justice and to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons will remain in place.
All in all, Secretary Tillerson’s decisions prove to be a mixed bag but, on balance, they appear to downgrade the importance of core human rights commitments. Also bad is the message these decisions risk sending to regimes whose nefarious actions spurred the need for some of these offices to exist in the first place.
To avoid all of this, the State Department should have coupled this reorganization with clear signals that the issues themselves remain priorities and will not fall by the wayside even without a special office dedicated to them.