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The Trump Administration Fails Tillerson’s Test

In recent weeks the Trump administration has approved the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Bahrain and warmly welcomed Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to the White House, ignoring the failure of both the Bahraini and Egyptian governments to address serious human rights abuses. Now the administration seems poised to notify the Senate of its intention to sell new weapons to Saudi Arabia, reversing an Obama administration decision in December that suspended the sale because of Saudi attacks on civilians in Yemen.

But these moves, which ignore the human rights abuses happening in those countries, fail to meet a standard articulated by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at his confirmation hearing in January. At that hearing, he rightly said, “Our leadership demands action specifically focused on improving the conditions of people the world over, utilizing both aid and economic sanctions as instruments of foreign policy when appropriate.”

If this is the test, then the weapon sales to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain and the unconditional embrace of Egypt’s Sisi run counter to the objective of improving conditions for the people in those countries. In the Saudi case, the test is how Saudi Arabia will use our weapons, and what steps its government is taking to protect civilians affected by military operations.

At issue is a proposed $300-million sale by Raytheon of its “Paveway” munitions guidance systems, which a Trump administration official said would be used to “convert thousands of dumb bombs into smart bombs.” This official previewed the administration’s rationale in these terms, telling The Washington Times: “While we’re very concerned about Saudi actions in Yemen in terms of the civilian casualties, we believe a more accurate partner is a more effective partner and results in fewer casualties.” He went on to say, “If they’re going to drop stuff, it should be precision-guided rather than dumb.”

But Saudi violations in Yemen cannot simply be addressed by solving gaps in technology.  In March, Saudi-led coalition forces attacked a boat carrying 140 Somali refugees, reportedly killing 42 people. A UN report in late March, citing survivors, found that the Somali vessel “was hit by shelling from a Coalition warship, without any warning, followed by shooting from an Apache helicopter overhead.” The attack generated wide international attention and criticism. Even the government of the United Arab Emirates, a coalition partner, raised concerns and called for an independent investigation of the attack. The Saudi government has refused to allow such an independent inquiry to take place.

The March attack was not an isolated incident. Since the Saudis joined the military conflict in Yemen two years ago, the government has used weapons purchased from U.S. companies in a series of ill-considered military operations that have resulted in scores of civilian casualties. One such incident was a strike on a funeral home in Sanaa in early October that killed 140 and injured more than 600. The attack involved precision-guided munitions of the type Raytheon now wants to sell. It was this incident in particular that led the Obama administration to suspend the new sale of precision-guided munitions to the Saudis in December. The Saudis acknowledged that the funeral home should not have been bombed, attributing this action to “mistaken information.”

The resumption of arms sales to Bahrain, the embrace of Egypt’s Sisi and now the prospect of new arms sales to Saudi Arabia are part of the Trump administration’s broader retreat on human rights. The president seems almost allergic to mentioning global human rights concerns, perhaps because he sees it as pointless moralizing or maybe because he has calculated that engaging on global human rights issues will undermine his support among those who voted for his “America First” agenda, which embraces an approach that “focuses not on how other nations treat their people but on what they can do for the United States,” as Peter Baker wrote for The New York Times.

When he has been pressed to offer opinions on specific country situations, Trump often reacts defensively, as he did in a pre-Superbowl interview with Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly.  When asked about his views of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump replied, “I do respect him, but I respect a lot of people.”

“But, he’s a killer,” O’Reilly shot back.

“There are a lot of killers,” Trump responded. “We’ve got a lot of killers. What do you think? Our country’s so innocent?”

Arguments like this, predicated on moral equivalence, have not been well received by Democrats or by those in the president’s own party.

Trump’s senior policy advisors have taken a less colorful approach, but one that also results in an undermining traditional U.S. commitments to human rights. In his confirmation hearing, Tillerson stated, “It is unreasonable to expect that every foreign policy endeavor will be driven by human rights considerations alone, especially when the security of the American people is at stake.” Fair enough, but we are still waiting to hear from the administration on when and how human rights considerations will figure into any of its country-specific strategies.

More recently, administration officials have said that while human rights concerns may be raised with foreign leaders, as one White House official explained before Sisi’s visit, “Our approach is to handle these types of sensitive issues in a private, more discrete way. We believe it’s the most effective way to advance those issues to a favorable outcome.” Tillerson also adopted this approach during his confirmation hearing, refusing to answer Republican Sen. Marco Rubio’s question about human rights violations in Saudi Arabia. Instead, Tillerson posed his own question: “When you designate someone or label someone, is that the most effective way to have progress made in Saudi Arabia or in any other country?”

In the very few instances in which Trump administration officials have acknowledged that human rights issues even have been raised diplomatically, they frame these as issues of American values, not universal norms or legal standards. Reporting on the president’s recent meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Tillerson said that Trump “noted the importance of protecting human rights and other values deeply held by Americans.”

If the administration’s default position is to downgrade public attention to human rights issues, then we must pay even greater attention to actions the administration takes in its bilateral relations with countries that are committing serious rights abuses. Until we see a marked improvement in the ways Saudi Arabia is operating in Yemen, the sale of munitions guidance systems to Saudi Arabia should not go forward.

Image: Joe Readle/Getty

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About the Author

Director of the NYU Stern Center for Business & Human Rights, Jerome Kohlberg Professor of Ethics and Finance at NYU Stern, Former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (2009-2013), Founding Executive Director and Former President of Human Rights First (1978-2009) Follow him on Twitter at ().