U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson embarked on his first diplomatic trip to Asia this week, where he will attend meetings in Japan, South Korea, and finally China. The infamously elusive secretary and former Exxon CEO was criticized for his recent absence at the launch of the State Department’s annual Reports on Human Rights, adding to questions about the apparent low priority the Trump administration has placed on rights promotion—historically a cornerstone of U.S. diplomatic engagement spearheaded by the State Department. Ahead of the trip, Tillerson attracted further critique for choosing not to travel with the traditional pool of journalists. Tillerson did in the end extend one last minute invite to Erin McPike of the conservative Independent Journal Review, but concerns linger over the message that his snubbing of the media could send regarding the administration’s commitment to press freedom. At The Washington Post, David Nakamura and Carol Morello report:
For the nation’s top diplomat, the approach cuts sharply against the practice of his predecessors, in Republican and Democratic administrations, who have allowed reporters on their planes as an expression of American values — and as a tool to help pressure authoritarian regimes toward greater openness.
[…] The Trump administration’s posture also has been noted in Beijing, where Communist Party leaders have appropriated Trump’s [“fake news”] rhetoric as they continue a years-long effort to tighten government control of news and information. That effort has included restricting public access to the Internet, jailing Chinese journalists and denying visas to American reporters.
[…] “We’re in a period where Chinese government pressure on journalists is as great as it’s been since the 1980s, so having a secretary who raises the importance of a free press and the treatment of journalists is important,” said Rebecca MacKinnon, a former journalist based in Beijing who oversees a project at the New America think tank that examines digital privacy rights and free expression.
“It’s been a key part of our foreign policy for decades for Republicans and Democrats,” MacKinnon said. “If that changes or if the message is not conveyed . . . that sends a message not just to the world and the Chinese government but also to Chinese journalists, human rights lawyers and activists.” […] [Source]
As the University of Hong Kong’s China Media Project has documented, Beijing has been using the term “fake news” for a decade, but Trump’s comments do appear to have reinvigorated state media’s use of the term. Earlier this month, Chinese state media dismissed reports of the mistreatment of detained rights lawyers and activists as “fake news.” On the other hand, Quartz reports that Trump’s denunciation of mainstream American media outlets as “enemies of the people” may have inspired top Chinese leaders to appear more conciliatory to the very organizations that Trump fingered as examples, taking advantage of “an opportunity […] to offer up a contrasting, seemingly more open style.”
With questions lingering over what Tillerson’s Asia tour could signal concerning U.S. devotion to press freedom and the promotion of universal human rights, Foreign Policy reports on his threat to withdraw from the United Nations Human Rights Council if the body doesn’t enact “considerable reform”. From Colum Lynch and John Hudson:
A move to pull out of the Council is strongly opposed by humanitarian advocates and activists, who are concerned that it would diminish the U.S. role on human rights in the Trump era.
Tillerson, in his letter to the U.N. advocates and human rights groups, said that while the United States “continues to evaluate the effectiveness” of the Council, it remains skeptical about the virtues of membership in a human rights organization that includes states with troubled human rights records such as China, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia.
“We may not share a common view on this, given the makeup of the membership,” Tillerson told the organizations, who have urged continued U.S. membership. “While it may be the only such organization devoted to human rights, the Human Rights Council requires considerable reform in order for us to continue to participate.”
The nine groups advocating continued U.S. membership — which include the Better World Campaign, Freedom House, the Committee For Human Rights in North Korea, and the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights — argued in a February 9 letter to Tillerson that the United States can more easily shield Israel from unfair attacks if it has a seat at the table. The Council, they say, has also provided a venue for holding the world’s worst rights abusers, including Syria and North Korea, accountable for their crimes. [Source]
As Freedom House contributes to the chorus urging Tillerson that remaining in the UNHRC will be their best bet for desired reform, the organization’s Sarah Cook and Annie Boyajian also explain why he should raise the issue of human rights while meeting with Chinese state leaders. After laying out four rights issues that the secretary should bring up in Beijing (internet censorship, religious persecution, the crackdown on rights lawyers and advocates, and the new law on foreign NGOs), Cook and Boyajian describe the need for continued U.S. examples of commitment to universal human rights and press freedom. From The Diplomat:
The symbolism of the U.S. secretary of state’s first visit to China is consequential. Foreign governments, including China’s, closely observe the actions of such high-ranking U.S. figures, looking for signs of strength or weakness. U.S. policy is most effective when it demonstrates moral leadership and firm adherence to core principles. If U.S. officials fail to raise human rights with their Chinese counterparts, it wrongly signals to Beijing and the rest of the world that human rights do not matter.
The United States should also set an example in matters of transparency. Tillerson’s decision to embark on his first trip to Asia without the usual presence of the full press corps is unfortunate, forfeits reporting on his meetings to Chinese state media, and indirectly legitimizes the Chinese government’s own information controls. Rather than mimicking the Chinese leadership’s aversion to media scrutiny, U.S. envoys should push Beijing toward democratic standards. A government in China that respects the inherent rights and fundamental freedoms of all people would strengthen Chinese society and foster a sincerely cooperative U.S.-China relationship that benefits both countries. [Source]
At Human Rights Watch, Asia Advocacy Director John Sifton argues that the secretary should put priority on addressing human rights abuses in North Korea on his Asia trip, both to repair his own battered public image and to increase global security:
Tillerson should state clearly during the trip that Pyongyang’s crimes are not just a disaster for the people of North Korea: they also pose a threat to international peace and security. He should be enunciating clearly that the United States and international community want Pyongyang to disarm, but they also want the government to stop committing crimes against humanity against its own people.
The goal is not one outcome or the other, but both. On the practical front, Tillerson should be discussing with his counterparts in Seoul, Tokyo, and Beijing how U.N. sanctions can be augmented to include individuals and entities that may be complicit in human rights abuses.
After a timid start, Tillerson’s Asia trip is a chance for him to gain a new footing and raise his profile. Being bold and candid about human rights and regional geopolitics in Asia is as good a way as any. After all, this is part of his job as secretary of state. Given the growing questions about his role in the administration, he certainly doesn’t have anything to lose. [Source]
After his first meetings in Japan yesterday, Tillerson held a press conference (his first since taking office) in which he called for a “new approach” to North Korea, but laid out few details. From Reuters’ Elaine Lies and Kiyoshi Takenaka:
Two decades of diplomatic and other efforts, including U.S. aid for North Korea, had failed to achieve the goal of denuclearizing Pyongyang, said Tillerson, a former oil executive with no prior diplomatic experience, at the start of his first trip to Asia as secretary of state.
“So we have 20 years of failed approach,” Tillerson said. “That includes a period where the United States has provided $1.35 billion in assistance to North Korea as an encouragement to take a different pathway.”
“In the face of this ever-escalating threat, it is clear that a different approach is required. Part of the purpose of my visit to the region is to exchange views on a new approach,” he said.
The secretary did however signal U.S. plans to press Beijing harder on working to counter North Korea’s nuclear threat in meetings with Xi Jinping this weekend. Washington recently began the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea, to which Beijing answered with suspicion over the true intent of the system and launched measures to hurt the South Korean economy.