Human Rights Concerns Remain over Nomination of Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State

By Adotei Akwei

Amnesty International USA has serious concerns over the nomination of Rex Tillerson for the position of Secretary of State based on his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as well as the track record of Exxon Mobil, the company that he led for over 40 years.

The confirmation hearing offered Mr. Tillerson an opportunity to demonstrate his commitment to upholding human rights in the U.S. and abroad as the country’s top diplomat. Instead, he refused to acknowledge human rights abuses by known and long-recognized violators such as the governments of the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, and Russia, or even the credible sources documenting the abuses. His testimony suggests that a Tillerson-led State Department will abdicate any potential leadership role in advancing human right globally.

Human Rights as a Pillar of U.S. Foreign Policy

When asked about the human rights records of the governments of Russia, the Philippines, and Saudi Arabia, Tillerson refused to directly acknowledge or even accept well-documented and substantiated facts about their human rights abuses. He dismissed documentation from human rights organizations that are regularly cited in the annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices from the Department of State. Given that reports from these organizations are considered credible by the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy Human Rights and Labor, Mr. Tillerson’s response is extremely concerning.


He repeatedly refused to admit the human rights impact of Russia’s involvement in Syria, which has resulted in direct and indiscriminate attacks on civilians, schools, and hospitals. He also refused to acknowledge that the Russian government targeted human rights defenders. In his words, “Well, people who speak up for freedom and regimes that are oppressive are often at threat and these things happen to them. In terms of assigning specific responsibilities, I would have to have more information.”

The Philippines

Tillerson’s apparent willingness to negotiate standing up for human rights in foreign countries came out clearly when questioned about raising human concerns with the government of the Philippines. Mr. Tillerson reminded the Senate that sometimes “it may not be in our interest to condition our national security pursuits on a country making certain commitments around oppression and human rights.”

Saudi Arabia

Mr. Tillerson’s approach to the role of the United States in promoting human rights was probably most clearly on display during questioning on human rights in Saudi Arabia, another major partner of Exxon Mobil. Tillerson first questioned the poor assessment of human rights — women’s rights, in particular — in the country, and then questioned the value of evaluating human rights in countries, arguing? that they should be left to deal with centuries old cultural practices at a pace they are suited to.

Mr. Tillerson’s testimony raised fundamental questions of how much he understands the State Department’s inherent role in promoting and defending human rights, and the role of human rights altogether in U.S. foreign policy. His refusal to recognize these states as perpetrators of human rights abuses directly contravenes what the U.S. Department of State has already stated its own country reports: the governments of these countries commit human rights abuses. His consistent refusal to accept facts raise the question of what information he would need to finally acknowledge human rights abusers and use his post to call out the abuses and press for change. His testimony suggests that under his leadership, the State Department would not pressure human rights violators even in the face of overwhelming evidence. The implications for international human rights and humanitarian law and the idea of the global community driving progress on women’s and children’s rights, freedom of speech, association assembly or finally ending the practice of torture is alarming.

Exxon Mobil

Mr. Tillerson’s time at Exxon Mobil certainly reinforces concerns over his lack of awareness or commitment to human rights and the rule of law beyond protecting the company’s interests. Exxon Mobil has been directly linked to human rights violations by security forces in Aceh, Indonesia, and indirectly to human rights abuses by virtue of having unapologetically done business with authoritarian regimes in Equatorial Guinea, Chad, Nigeria, and Russia, among others. These are countries whose governments’ dismal human rights records have been documented the US Department of State as well as by human rights organizations. When queried about doing business as usual with the governments in Equatorial Guinea, Chad, Nigeria, and Russia, Mr. Tillerson often responded that such questions should be directed to Exxon Mobil officials. When pressed, he noted that Exxon Mobil’s engagement in these countries complied with the law.


When asked about his position on the torture, Mr. Tillerson had the opportunity to explicitly state that he opposes torture and that under his watch the Department of State would oppose it, whether by U.S. officials or allied governments. He did not, deciding to just indicate his support of the rejection of torture by other cabinet nominees. Hardly a rousing commitment.

In the end, the Senate will have to decide if Rex Tillerson is the right person to be the next Secretary of State. They will have to evaluate whether Mr. Tillerson will bring more than just his acumen for making deals and money to a role where ideas and principles of justice, collaboration, community and leadership play a vital part in helping countries manage their interactions and relations and address crises. The Senate has “skin” in getting this right because of a 50 plus-year history of confirming and authorizing U.S. engagement in building an international system that has helped foster the idea of human rights, individual dignity and government accountability. That role becomes much harder if the White House and State Department think everything is transactional.