The State Department released its annual report on the state of human rights across the globe Friday with markedly less fanfare than in previous years.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson chose not to hold the traditional press conference that has accompanied the release of the report for decades across both Democratic and Republican administrations.
Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican member of the Foreign Relations Committee who was initially critical of Tillerson’s nomination as secretary of state before ultimately voting to confirm him, blasted the move.
“For 1st time in a long time @StateDept #humanrights report will not be presented by Secretary of State,” Rubio tweeted Thursday evening. “I hope they reconsider.”
Tillerson did write a brief preface to the report, in which he stated, “standing up for human rights and democracy is not just a moral imperative but is in the best interests of the United States in making the world more stable and secure.”
The State Department has released the congressionally mandated report on countries’ human rights practices since the mid-1970s. For decades, the release has been accompanied by an on-camera press briefing from senior officials within the department, as well as introductory remarks by the secretary of state.
When the secretaries haven’t been present, as happened twice under President George W. Bush, their absence has coincided with trips abroad.
Tillerson, for his part, was in Washington Friday for a meeting with his Indian counterpart at the State Department.
In a conference call with reporters Friday morning, a senior administration official who did not want to be named publicly refuted the suggestion by critics that Tillerson’s absence reflects a change in the United States’ commitment to promoting human rights.
“The report speaks for itself,” the official said. “We’re very, very proud of it. The facts should really be the story here.”
The official also quoted Tillerson’s statement in his confirmation hearing that the administration’s approach to human rights “begins by acknowledging that American leadership requires moral clarity.”
“We do not face an either-or choice on defending global human rights — our values or our interests — when it comes to human rights and humanitarian assistance,” he said at the time.
During that hearing, Tillerson was questioned about his stance on human rights issues at length by lawmakers, including Rubio, who clashed with Tillerson over the latter’s cautious answers about human rights abuses in Russia, Saudi Arabia and the Philippines.
Asked whether extrajudicial killings in the Philippines represent human rights violations, Tillerson answered, “If confirmed … it’s an area that I’d want to understand in greater detail in terms of the facts on the ground.”
Tillerson told Rubio: “I’m not disputing anything you’re saying because I know you have access to information that I do not have.”
Rubio responded, “This is from The Los Angeles Times.”
The government of the Philippines was taken to task in Friday’s report, cited for “killings allegedly undertaken by vigilantes, security forces and insurgents” as well as corruption and allegations of torture by security forces.
It wasn’t the only ally to face criticism.
In Turkey, the report pointed to “inconsistent access to due process” and “government interference with freedom of expression” as significant human rights problems.
Tillerson’s decision not to speak publicly about the report, and the State Department’s decision not to hold an on-the-record press conference, was criticized Friday by human rights groups.
Rob Berschinski of Human Rights First and a former deputy assistant secretary for human rights said in a statement that Tillerson’s decision “is yet another troubling indication that the Trump administration intends to abandon US leadership on human rights and universal values.”
“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,” he added.
According to former State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley, the more subdued rollout is likely the result of a combination of factors, including the fact that Tillerson is still adapting to his new position.
“It’s a matter of not having a full team in place, it’s a matter of timing, and it’s also a matter of hitting him when he’s still getting comfortable as the secretary of state, and everything that comes along with that,” said Crowley.
But he acknowledged the administration could also be signaling a change in policy when it comes to promoting human rights abroad.
“Certainly by some of President Trump’s rhetoric both in the campaign and as president, he does not see the role of his administration as telling other countries how to function, or certainly not to intervene to remake countries,” said Crowley. “He’s made clear that he’s not going to be in the nation-building business and whether this is a reflection of that, I think we’ll have to wait and see.”