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January 09, 2017

Senate Urged to Question Cabinet Nominees on Commitment to Upholding Human Rights During Confirmation Hearings

Washington, D.C. - Human Rights First today urged the Senate to question cabinet nominees on their commitment to fundamental principles of human rights during confirmation hearings taking place this week. The organization issued a set of questions that senators should ask of nominees during the hearings, focused on ensuring that the nominees will uphold the legal ban on the use of torture and cruel treatment of detainees, uphold U.S. obligations to protect refugees, and refuse to cozy up to dictators.

“What cabinet nominees say during confirmation hearings this week will set the course for the U.S. national security and foreign policy agendas in the new administration,” said Human Rights First’s Sharon McBride. "It’s imperative that senators ask tough questions of these individuals on their commitment to fundamental principles of human rights. Americans—and the rest of the world—are seeking reassurance that the new administration will govern in accordance with laws and principles and leave behind the heated rhetoric of the campaign season."

The Senate is scheduled to hold hearings for nine of President-elect Trump’s nominees this week including Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL), nominee for attorney general; General John Kelly, USMC (Ret.), nominee for secretary of homeland security; Rex Tillerson, nominee for secretary of state; Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS), nominee for CIA director; and General James Mattis, USMC (Ret.), nominee for secretary of defense.

Human Rights First has set out four commitments it is seeking from these cabinet nominees, in accordance with defense of the U.S. Constitution and international law:

  1. Reject Any Return to Torture: Senators must make sure that every cabinet official in a position to authorize or implement torture accepts the settled law on this subject: torture is illegal. Congress recently spoke on this issue in 2015 when the McCain-Feinstein amendment passed with a resounding bipartisan vote. In fact, even those who formerly defended the “enhanced interrogation” program, like CIA lawyer John Rizzo, now urge that there be no return to policies of abuse.
  2. Reject Any Ban on Muslim Refugees:  Senators must press nominees to reject a ban on Muslim refugees. National security, military and intelligence officials who have served both Republican and Democratic administrations attest that refugees are more vigorously vetted than other travelers to the United States. Many former military leaders, and former national security officials from both parties, have expressed their concern that such a ban would actually undermine U.S. national security interests, send the wrong signal to countries like Jordan that the United States needs as allies, and actually play into ISIS rhetoric. These former officials and military leaders have explained that the resettlement of refugees is not only consistent with American ideals, it also advances U.S. national security interests including by supporting stability in volatile regions. 
  3. Uphold U.S. Treaty and Legal Obligations to Protect Refugees: The United States is a party to both the Refugee Protocol and the Convention Against Torture. Consequently, the United States has committed to safeguard refugees from return to persecution and other individuals from return to torture. The United States has a long history of providing asylum to the persecuted, and has codified many of its commitments under these treaties into U.S. law and regulations. Individuals hoping to serve in cabinet-level positions should be prepared to affirm that immigration enforcement initiatives are conducted in ways that are consistent with U.S. treaty and legal obligations and ensure that refugees have access to the U.S. asylum process. 
  4. Refuse to Cozy up to Dictators: Since World War II, the United States has taken on the leadership role in global promotion of democracy and rule of law, setting international standards of liberty and security with a foreign policy grounded in values. A failure to continue this tradition would likely lead to the further spread of authoritarianism and an expansion of corruption. Senators should ask for assurances from nominees that they will not give dictators a pass.  

Last month Human Rights First, along with 20 of the nation’s largest human rights and faith organizations, released a joint statement of principles regarding the eligibility of nominees for Senate-confirmed positions. The statement outlines key requirements of top administration officials that should be evaluated by the Senate during confirmation hearings, including adherence to the U.S. Constitution and adherence to the rule of law.

For more information or to speak with McBride contact Mary Elizabeth Margolis at margolisme@humanrightsfirst.org or 212-845-5269.