REX Tillerson, Donald Trump’s pick for U.S. Secretary of State, on Wednesday refused to openly categorise the Philippines’ controversial drug killings as human rights violations.
For global rights advocates, Tillerson’s apparent hesitation, and subsequent comment on the importance of maintaining ties with the Philippines, was proof that their expressed fear over the incoming U.S. administration’s stance on such abuses was not exactly misplaced.
When Trump was picked for the Oval Office last year, these advocates described the development troubling, noting how the business magnate’s electoral campaign had been marred by “dangerous rhetoric”. Two days prior to Tillerson’s Senate confirmation hearing, Amnesty International USA’s executive director Margaret Huang sounded a warning. She said if Tillerson and Trump’s other Cabinet picks were to be confirmed, they would be tasked with making that rhetoric a reality.
“We cannot let that happen,” she said, after pointing out that some of Trump’s nominees have expressed troubling views on torture, discrimination and oppressive governments.
As if to prove Huang’s warning right, at his Wednesday hearing in Washington, Tillerson, when pressed for comments on the Philippines’ violent campaign against drugs, insisted that despite the hundreds of reports on the alleged extrajudicial executions, he would need more information before offering his opinion.
Senator Marco Rubio first raised the issue, asking the former ExxonMobil executive, “Is this the right way to conduct [an] anti-drug campaign?”
According to a transcript provided by the Human Rights Watch (HRW), the exchange proceeded as follows:
Tillerson: “U.S.-Philippines relationship is important, should be kept in perspective in engaging with the government. They need to stay an ally.”
Rubio: “But 6,200 deaths. Appropriate operation or conducive to human rights violations?”
Tillerson: “If confirmed, I’d want to understand in better detail, need more information.”
Rubio: “It’s in LA Times.”
Tillerson: “Need more information.”
Rubio: “One of the sources is (Philippine President Rodrigo) Duterte himself. He brags about it. Is that reliable information you’d trust? This is not an intel issue. This is openly reported. Is this an appropriate way for him to react?”
Tillerson: “If the facts are supportive of those numbers and actions, I don’t think any of us would support that as an appropriate way to deal with offenders, no matter how egregious.”
As the nine-hour hearing progressed, the topic was again revisited later.
This time, Senator Chris Murphy took up the mantle as he sought to steer the line of questioning back to the conversation on human rights. He told Tillerson that his testimony would likely be cause for worry among global rights advocates.
Among others, he cited Saudi Arabia’s crackdown on dissent and treatment of women, and Russia’s actions in Syria as examples, before calling attention again to Duterte’s drug war.
Murphy: “If you’re not ready to say today that Philippines is a human rights violation, or these are war crimes, what countries today do you consider violators of human rights? Or how will you make judgements on this?”
Tillerson: “I’m going to act on factual information. I’m not going to act on what people write about in newspapers or what they brag about. I’m going to act on fact. If confirmed I’ll have access to a lot more information that I have access to today. … I want to see facts myself. That does not suggest that those acts you described if backed by real facts would not label it. I’m just not willing to do it on the record.”
Murphy: “Philippines as an example – no one on this committee would deny. Widely reported, reported by embassy, reported by president. What more information do you need? What’s happening there is a massacre for everyone to see?”
Tillerson: “I’m sure the committee has seen a lot of information I haven’t seen. You’re asking me to make a decision based on information I have heard today. … I want to see the factual basis based on statistics and factual evidence based on who is committing.”
Murphy: “But a lot of evidence we see is based on reporting. It is based on objective reporting from sources on the ground.”
Tillerson: “I will rely on multiple sources to confirm what I am being told. Blame it on me being an engineer. I deal with facts and then I conclude. I’m sure there’s a lot of credible information that I haven’t seen.”
Responding immediately, HRW’s Washington director Sarah Margon questioned Tillerson’s nomination to the post of Secretary of State.
She noted that there have been extensive reports and studies conducted by independent observers, United Nations investigators, the media as well as humanitarian and human rights groups on the Russian government’s actions in Syria, on Saudi Arabia as well as the actions taken by Philippine forces in Duterte’s drug war.
“Tillerson’s claims that he cannot pass judgment on these countries’ abuses until he has access to U.S. intelligence briefings ignores the U.S. government’s own previous findings and suggests that Tillerson is either ill-informed or apathetic to human rights issues worldwide,” she said in a press statement.
Since coming to power last June, Duterte’s crackdown on the narcotics trade has led to the death of over 6,200 drug suspects, many at the hands of local security force and others by vigilante groups.
The tough-talking politician has crossed swords on numerous occasions with U.S. officials in Barack Obama’s administration, as well as with the outgoing U.S. President himself.
Last September, days before the two were to hold their maiden meeting, Duterte labelled Obama a “son of a b****” in response to reports that the leader was planning to raise human rights issues to him.
Duterte also said then that he had grown tired of the Philippines’ foreign policy being dictated by a Western agenda and has since been cosying up to U.S. rivals China and Russia.