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"America First" foreign policy may mean ignoring human rights, Rex Tillerson says

Throughout his campaign, President Donald Trump pushed for putting the interests and security of the United States above all else. And on Wednesday, his Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, revealed what such an “America First” foreign policy actually looks like: foreign partnerships that don’t hinge on whether countries share U.S. “values” — such as human rights.

“In some circumstances, if you condition our national security efforts on someone adopting our values, we probably can’t achieve our national security goals,” Tillerson said in a speech to State Department employees meant to outline to what “America First” means in diplomatic terms. “It really creates obstacles to our ability to advance our national security interests, our economic interests.”


Tillerson’s remarks confirmed many human rights groups’ worst fears about the Trump administration. Andrea Prasow, the Washington director for Human Rights Watch, called his comments “troubling but not surprising.”

“The administration’s actions have been pretty clear,” Prasow told VICE News, adding that Trump is the midst of “inviting the parade of dictators through the White House.” He recently hosted Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi — whose government killed more than 900 protesters in a single day, congratulated Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on winning a controversial referendum that granted him sweeping powers, and invited Rodrigo Duterte — the president of the Philippines who recently admitted to personally killing suspected criminals while serving as a mayor — to the White House.

“They haven’t been quite as explicit before,” Prasow said.

Trump also slashed U.S. funding to United Nations foreign programs and signalled plans to drastically scale back the power of the United States Agency for International Development, which sends aid to foreign countries in times of crisis. Human rights groups like Amnesty International have condemned Trump’s twice-blocked ban on immigrants from Muslim-majority countries and refugees entering the United States and his aggressive military strategy in countries like Yemen and Somalia, among many other actions. Even prior to Trump’s election, Human Rights Watch issued a report saying that his campaign “put the post-war human rights system at risk” by “fomenting hatred and intolerance.”


During his speech, Tillerson added that not always asking foreign countries to adopt U.S. values “doesn’t mean that we leave those values on the sidelines. It doesn’t mean that we don’t advocate for and aspire to freedom, human dignity, and the treatment of people the world over.”

However, Tillerson announced plans last week to ax 2,300 diplomatic and civil service jobs — about 9 percent of the State Department global workforce — even as many of the upper-level State Department jobs remain unfilled. “To increase the DoD budget and decrease the State Department budget which, specific programs aside, the message that that sends is the U.S. will be engaging with the world with its military and not with its traditional diplomatic corps,” Prasow said.

Mother Jones also reported Tuesday that a top National Security Council position once called “special assistant to the president for multilateral affairs and human rights” had been renamed “special assistant to the president for multilateral affairs.” That report, plus Tillerson’s remarks, prompted Amnesty International USA’s Executive Director Margaret Huang to accuse the Trump administration of “literally trying to erase human rights before our very eyes.

“His own actions and those of his staff show a dangerous disregard for freedom, justice and equality throughout the world,” Huang said in a statement. “It is more critical than ever that we stand up and fight back against any effort to erode human rights at home or abroad.”

Prasow cautioned that, despite Tillerson’s assertion that “our values” can hinder national security efforts, such an attitude to human rights can actually lead to less security, both abroad and at home. Human rights abuses may lead to increased famine, rising numbers of refugees and internally displaced people, and — in some regions — make it easier for terrorist and extremist groups to recruit.

“This approach suggests that the U.S. is just going to look at what works this week or next week,” Prasow said, “and not what the situation will be long term.”