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March 07, 2017

Six Questions for State's First Press Briefing Under Tillerson

Today the U.S. State Department promises to hold its first daily press briefing under the Trump administration.

Roughly thirty working days into the tenure of the new team at Foggy Bottom, a platform that had once served to provide crucial insight into U.S. policy had effectively ceased to function, leaving many to guess at U.S. policy across a dizzying array of issues.   

Given Secretary Tillerson’s well documented lack of visibility as America’s ostensible top diplomat, we at Human Rights First welcome resumption of the daily press briefings, which provide essential information to audiences around the world.

Among other important uses, the briefings offer a forum for U.S. and foreign press to seek to understand U.S. policy on human rights, which has come under intense scrutiny early in the new administration.     

When the State Department’s spokesperson finally steps up to the podium later today, here are a few questions our experts would like asked:

Question:

Will the administration maintain pressure on nations that are major human rights violators? For example, will the secretary and the president maintain sanctions on Russia to send a message that violations of international law and gross violations of human rights will not be tolerated and will not become the norm?

—Melissa Hooper, Director, Human Rights and Civil Society

Why this is important:

Russia is under sanctions for its violation of basic international law norms protecting the sovereignty and integrity of all nations, including the United States and its allies. Russian-supported aggression in Eastern Ukraine has violated human rights, leading to the deaths of over ten thousand people—including civilians. Russia also interfered in U.S. elections through aggressive cyber activity, threatening our democratic processes and, therefore, our democracy itself.

The United States established clear requirements explaining when it will repeal sanctions. Thus far, the Kremlin has not satisfied any of these requirements, in fact it continues to contribute to significant rights violations in both the Donbas region in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea. We need confirmation that President Trump will maintain these sanctions, thereby sending a message to the world that he will uphold international human rights standards and international law protections. 

Question:

President Trump has recommended devastating cuts to the State Department and USAID’s foreign operations and foreign assistance budgets.  Among many deleterious effects, massive cuts would inevitably harm the work of key positions like the Special Envoy to Combat and Monitor Anti-Semitism, and the Special Representative to Muslim Communities. Yet, the president said in the wake of recent high-profile hate crimes that we are a country that stands united in condemning hate. Will the State Department seek to protect these positions and their funding as a priority in the fight against antisemitism and intolerance? —Susan Corke, Director, Combating Antisemitism and Extremism

Why this is important:

The United States should be as committed to fighting intolerance abroad as it is at home. President Trump needs to maintain funding and a priority profile for these positions, which are essential to pushing back against a troubling trend of growing intolerance overseas.  Doing so would also send a reassuring signal here at home in the wake of bomb threats on Jewish community centers and the desecration of graves at Jewish cemeteries. President Trump should demonstrate his commitment to fighting antisemitism, anti-Muslim bigotry, and intolerance at home and abroad by championing key State Department posts that ensure tolerance remains a bedrock of American foreign policy.

Question:

In the first few months of this year alone, we have heard multiple reports of ongoing violence being committed against LGBT communities worldwide. People around the world are looking to us for continued leadership in the fight against such violence. How do you see the U.S. role as a leader on these issues and what particular strategies will you focus on to strengthen that leadership?  —Shawn Gaylord, Advocacy Counsel

Why this is important:

U.S. leadership against bias-motivated violence against LGBT people not only honors American values of protecting the vulnerable, it is critical in bringing new attention and resources to the table for besieged LGBT communities across the globe.

As we receive reports of gay men being beaten and publicly humiliated in Russia, a government-wide crackdown against the LGBT community in Tanzania, and torture and killings of transgender women in Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, and El Salvador, it is time for the United States continue its leadership by maintaining the human rights of LGBT people in its ongoing foreign policy.

Question:

Last week, Secretary Tillerson and other senior State Department leaders failed to introduce the annual State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, thereby breaking with a long-established practice of the secretary lending the authority of the office to the report launch. Since Secretary Tillerson assumed office, the State Department has been notably silent about human rights violations perpetrated around the world. Will the Department continue to seek to advance universal values of human rights through its foreign policy? If not, how do you think that will affect U.S. interests around the globe? —Neil Hicks, Director, Human Rights Promotion

Why this is important:

One of the most valuable aspects of U.S. foreign policy over the last seventy years has been the leadership it has provided to the international community in advancing and protecting universal values and human rights. Through the adoption of international treaties and standards these values spread, and through the power of persuasion and example set by successive U.S. administrations of both parties, they contribute to international peace and security. 

Question:

Is the State Department still calling for the immediate release of Bahrain human rights defender Nabeel Rajab, as stated repeatedly by the last administration? Further, does the State Department have a response to Bahrain's attempts to close down the moderate, peaceful, secular political group Waad, when previous attacks on the group's leadership have been condemned by the US government? —Brian Dooley, Senior Advisor

Why this is Important:

Nabeel Rajab is one of the Middle East’s most prominent human rights defenders, and a leading voice for peaceful dissent and moderation in Bahrain, which is becoming increasingly polarized and unstable. The United States has significant assets invested in the tiny monarchy, including the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet's naval base.  Jailing leading dissidents is likely to fuel unrest that may both directly and indirectly harm U.S. interests.

Waad has (also) been a leading voice for peaceful secular moderation and political negotiation in Bahrain, a force against sectarianism. The Bahrain regime has disbanded the country’s major political groups, and now is targeting Waad, leaving virtually no peaceful political opposition societies left to talk to. The United States can't afford Bahrain to sink into further unrest - and banning Waad makes this more likely.

Question:

Negotiations are underway for President Sisi of Egypt to visit the United States, and to be received by President Trump at the White House. This is a meeting actively sought by the Egyptian government. What conditions will you expect the Egyptian government to meet in return for President Sisi having the honor of being received at the White House?  The Egyptian government is ramping up its persecution of independent human rights organizations. Have you raised concerns about these restrictions, and other serious human rights violations, with the Egyptian government as part of the preparation for the planned visit? —Neil Hicks, Director, Human Rights Promotion

Why this is Important:

The Obama Administration suspended some military assistance to Egypt over concerns about human rights violations perpetrated by the Egyptian government, and President Sisi, who came to power after the Egyptian military removed Egypt’s first democratically elected president, was never invited to the White House under the previous administration. Human rights conditions in Egypt remain very poor, with broad restrictions on basic freedoms of expression, assembly, and association, widespread torture, unfair trials, and pervasive discrimination against religious minorities. There are no signs of necessary reform from the Egyptian government. Additionally, leadership is subjecting human rights defenders to travel bans, asset seizures and criminal investigations, and ordering the closure of Egypt’s leading anti-torture organization a few weeks ago.