Can Rex Tillerson prove human rights is on White House agenda?

Can Rex Tillerson prove human rights is on White House agenda?
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Over the course of his first year as secretary of the State Department, Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonLawmakers to roll out legislation reorganizing State cyber office New State Department cyber bureau stirs opposition Blinken tells State Department staff 'I have your back' MORE has sent conflicting signals about the place of human rights in U.S. foreign policy. Most concerning to observers committed to human rights was his admonishment to State Department employees last May that prioritizing “our values” in foreign policy “really creates obstacles to our ability to advance our national security interests, our economic interests.”

More recently, Tillerson has adopted human rights language closer to that of previous State Department secretaries. He publicly condemned “atrocities” in Myanmar and called for an investigation of human rights violations there. Furthermore, in remarks at the Woodrow Wilson Center last November, Tillerson said, “You can’t de-prioritize human rights.” To mark the December anniversary of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, he asserted the U.S. “commitment to our core democratic values and to advocating for the human rights, freedom, and dignity of all people.”

Which rhetoric reveals the true foreign policy of the United States? Critics such as commentator Heather Digby Parton and Sarah Margon of Human Rights Watch doubt that Tillerson’s recent shift indicates a substantive commitment to human rights. They argue that Tillerson has declared that the “promotion of human rights is no longer an American ideal.”

One way Tillerson could demonstrate the depth of the Trump administration’s commitment to human rights would be to honor this year’s 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This document, inspired by President Franklin Roosevelt and drafted under the leadership of former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, established that everyone, regardless of their citizenship, deserved respect and dignity as a human being.

There is precedent for formal and even extended U.S. celebrations of the declaration. Most notably, in 1968, President Lyndon Johnson appointed a presidential commission to develop programming throughout the 20th anniversary year, engaging museums and cultural organizations, governors, trade associations, and executive agencies such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development in promoting human rights throughout the country.

U.S. activities culminated with a conference at the White House at which Johnson and Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren spoke. Johnson praised his commission for having “helped to take human rights discussions out of the textbooks.” Warren noted that although the Johnson administration, had, in his view, “probably done more than any other for human rights,” the U.S. Senate had not yet ratified the U.N. conventions on genocide and racial discrimination.

Half a century ago, U.S. efforts fit into a broader U.N. campaign to designate 1968 the International Year for Human Rights. Countries around the world marked the year with prizes, postage stamps, and radio programs. In the United States, activists published guides showing Americans how they could become more active in protecting human rights.

More recently, the United States commemorated the 60th anniversary of the universal declaration by devoting an entire Journal USA issue to human rights. A monthly publication of the Bureau of International Information Programs, the journal signals U.S. foreign policy priorities and is distributed by U.S. embassies around the world.

In this special issue, U.S. officials profiled the drafters of the Universal Declaration and highlighted scholarly research attesting to the declaration’s continuing relevance to diverse cultural contexts and to how it has inspired and encouraged those who advocate for change in the face of repressive regimes. This State Department publication also examined the declaration’s role in facilitating the international human rights movement and serving as a model for other regional and international commitments to human rights.

For this year’s 70th anniversary, the United Nations has planned a yearlong campaign in celebration of the declaration’s 70th year around the themes “promote,” “engage,” and “reflect,” including a social media campaign centered on the hashtag #StandUp4HumanRights. The United States should do the same. If the State Department under Tillerson similarly developed a robust approach to commemorating the declaration’s 70th anniversary, the Trump administration could signal that human rights remains a “key component” of its foreign policy.

During his confirmation hearings, Tillerson said, “Our 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 are our interests when it comes to human rights and humanitarian assistance.” He could start exhibiting U.S. leadership on this issue by ensuring that the Universal Declaration’s anniversary is commemorated throughout 2018. In order to convince this administration’s critics that it takes human rights seriously, the secretary needs to do more than issue a three-paragraph press release about the anniversary as he did in 2017.

Sarah B. Snyder is a historian who teaches at the School of International Service at American University. She is the author of “From Selma to Moscow: How Human Rights Activists Transformed U.S. Foreign Policy” and “Human Rights Activism and the End of the Cold War: A Transnational History of the Helsinki Network.