Will Trump nominees protect or ignore human rights?

Several GOP senators concerned about Tillerson's ties to Putin
Several GOP senators concerned about Tillerson's ties to Putin

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Story highlights

  • Margaret Huang: Trump's nominees for Secretary of State and Deputy Secretary of State raise concerns about human rights
  • Top US diplomats should be focused on protecting human rights, not weakening them or ignoring them, she says

Margaret Huang is the executive director of Amnesty International USA. The views expressed are her own.

(CNN)In 1942, when a number of countries came together to find a way to prosecute Nazi political and military leaders for horrific war crimes, the US secretary of state played a key role. What would become the Nuremberg trials several years later might not have happened if the secretary of state hadn't pushed for them, working closely with key leaders from other countries.

Four decades later, another US secretary of state helped draft groundbreaking arms control treaties and other agreements that paved the way to ending the Cold War, as well as many of the human rights abuses and atrocities that it fueled.
At major junctures through history -- in times of peace and war -- the US secretary of state has played a critical role in either safeguarding human rights around the world, or undermining them. That is why President-elect Donald Trump's nominees to lead the State Department are so important and so closely watched, because they will have the power to either help protect or erode human rights for millions of people.
    Margaret Huang
    But Trump's nominees for secretary of state and deputy secretary of state raise serious concerns about human rights.
    Last week, Trump nominated ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson to serve as secretary of state. Reports also suggest Trump plans to nominate John Bolton to serve as Tillerson's deputy, effectively running the day-to-day operations of the State Department.
    Tillerson has spent years cultivating relationships with countries whose governments have engaged in human rights abuses, including Russia, China and Equatorial Guinea, among others. At Amnesty International, we've seen firsthand how little regard these countries' leaders have for human rights. Right now, we're campaigning to free a professor in China who was sentenced to life in prison for advocating for policies that bridge differences between ethnic communities. Our office in Russia just reopened after the government of Russia shut it down this fall, in what appeared to be an attempt to use administrative measures to silence our human rights advocacy.
    We don't know whether Rex Tillerson agrees with these governments' disregard for human rights. But it is clear he was able to look past these human rights abuses at least enough to form close business relationships with them. And his business dealings likely helped some oppressive leaders stay in power. According to Human Rights Watch and EG Justice, the President of Equatorial Guinea used oil revenues from ExxonMobil and other companies to bolster his position.
    During the confirmation process, the Senate has an obligation to get to the bottom of whether Tillerson's approach to Russia, China, Iran, Iraq, Equatorial Guinea and other countries reflects his business strategy or his worldview. Right now, we simply don't know, and we need to.
    This isn't a partisan question. Republican Sens. John McCain and Marco Rubio have said Tillerson's relationships with repressive government leaders must be explored much more fully, as have Democratic Sens. Jack Reed and Robert Menendez.
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    On the other hand, Bolton's record and views are already very clear. And they're disturbing.
    Bolton has expressed enthusiasm for torture, while expressing disdain for international institutions created to advance human rights. He was also a leading proponent of severing the US relationship with the International Criminal Court.
    The United States' top diplomats should be focused on protecting human rights, not weakening them or ignoring them. The leadership of the State Department is therefore one of the most important and consequential decisions that President-elect Trump and the US Senate will make. These nominees must face serious and specific questions -- and they must make serious and specific commitments to protect human rights.