The Administration

Trump, Tillerson must keep US on the human rights high ground


Despite inhabiting a partisan swamp in recent years, members of Congress have been able to find some high ground where they could come together.  One area that consistently brought lawmakers together was, notably, support for American leadership on human rights and democracy. They even passed several important pieces of legislation.

That high ground still holds. Senators Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida, and Ben Cardin, Democrat of Maryland, both pressed Rex Tillerson to be supportive of human rights at his confirmation hearings to become Secretary of State. But the bipartisan consensus is threatened by a rising tide of polarization and “America First-ism.”

{mosads}President Trump’s national security team and Tillerson, especially, need to take this bipartisan consensus on human rights into account when formulating policy. Otherwise, they risk a significant clash with committed legislators.


Congressional interest in human rights issues largely reflects the differing institutional imperatives of members and the State Department. While State has always placed a premium on smooth bilateral relationships, lawmakers were able to focus on human rights abuses and critique authoritarian regimes, which frequently put the U.S. at odds with those governments.

For the past 40 years, Congress has been the driving force behind evolving U.S. commitments to promote human rights and democracy. In 1977, Congress directly tackled what was perceived as insufficient State Department interest in human rights by mandating the creation of a human rights bureau in the department. In 1983, with strong bipartisan support, Congress created the National Endowment for Democracy to promote democracy around the globe and it has been funded by Congress since that time. In 1997, this common interest and engagement from lawmakers in both parties led to laws prohibiting foreign aid and military sales to governments with records of gross human rights abuses.  

The bipartisan passion for human rights also has led to many working partnerships of unexpected bedfellows. In the late 1990s, I worked for Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.), who was probably the most liberal senator at the time. Yet we worked on a number of human rights bills and resolutions, particularly on China, with Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), one of the Senate’s most conservative members. Since that time, Congress has passed significant legislation supporting religious freedom, opposing trafficking in persons, combatting the use of child soldiers, prohibiting torture, and holding accountable foreign officials who abuse human rights.  

The strength of the bipartisan human rights consensus will be tested in the coming months as the confirmation process for Trump’s nominees continues. Sen. Rubio grilled Tillerson on human rights issues during his confirmation hearing and the nominee showed little concern with abuses in countries such as Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the Philippines. Sen. Cardin, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s ranking member, made human rights issues a centerpiece of his remarks during the hearing.  

Tillerson’s nomination was a juggernaut that was not going to be stopped, but there will be many future opportunities to hold him accountable on human rights.

While he might not prioritize human rights issues and view raising them as an obstacle to good relations with key diplomatic and security partners, Congress has the power to change this attitude. Many of the human rights laws passed by Congress include conditions that impose sanctions or restrict aid to human rights abusers. Tillerson and his team could find themselves in an uncomfortable standoff with Congress if human rights concerns and laws are ignored or dismissed.

Beyond Tillerson, the key battle in coming months will be the confirmation of subcabinet nominees at State and USAID. Congress needs to get commitments from nominees for key foreign policy positions to make promotion of American values a priority and to follow existing human rights legislation.

Promoting human rights and democracy is not only part of a principled American foreign policy tradition it is also an effective way to promote America’s long-term security. Democratic and rights-respecting nations are more likely to serve as stable allies for the U.S. They are less likely to descend into the kind of instability and violence that has created the current  flood of refugees and they are less likely to incubate the resentment and frustration that contribute to terrorism.  

During my years as a Foreign Service officer, I lived in several countries where citizens were repressed and fearful of their own government. But they always had one beacon of hope that sustained them.  They believed that Americans were on their side and would work to bring them the justice and freedom they craved. Congress needs to ensure that the Trump administration continues America’s role as a global human rights champion.

John Bradshaw is a former a Foreign Service Officer, serving in Venezuela, Brazil, and Burma, as well as in the State Department’s East Asia and Human Rights bureaus. He also served as a foreign policy advisor to Senator Paul Wellstone and to Senator Robert Torricelli, both members of the Foreign Relations Committee. Today he is a consultant on human rights.

The views of contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

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