Civil society organizations routinely advocate for key issues to feature during confirmation hearings of U.S. political appointees. But this year, the stakes were particularly high in advance of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings held yesterday for Rex Tillerson, President-elect Donald Trump’s selection for secretary of state.
The former CEO of ExxonMobil, an engineer by training, has spent all his adult career working for the massive energy company. Before Wednesday, when Tillerson outlined some ideas of how he would lead on U.S. foreign aid, he had given no clear, public indication of his policy priorities and financing inclinations.
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Leading international nongovernmental organizations met furiously to prepare for the hearing. They strategized over how they should parse their public statements on climate change, women’s health and other issues. They also connected with key senators on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, now deliberating on Tillerson’s appointment before the vote could potentially move on to the U.S. Senate.
“There is always some level of effort, but perhaps there was more intensity this time because of how the administration would engage on development,” said Paul O’Brien, the vice president of policy and campaigns for Oxfam America.
The best advocacy “has many owners,” O’Brien says, but there are a few collective issues the development community was focusing on in the lead-up to Wednesday’s hearings. Here’s a breakdown of how a few of them played out, in their own words.
U.S. foreign aid
Tillerson said yesterday he supported the work of the U.S. aid agencies and poverty or health initiatives - specifically, Millennium Challenge Corporation, PEPFAR, Power Africa and women’s economic empowerment. He also called for a “comprehensive reform” of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), saying it is an “important part of the projection of America’s values around the world.”
This type of response left some global anti-poverty groups, such as the ONE Campaign, encouraged, said Ian Koski, director of communications.
“We went in with a wide range of issues because there was so little information on his views on aid prior to this hearing… we know considerably more now about his views on aid than we did a week ago and that is a good start,” Koski said. “A big test is where he goes from here, who is on the USAID administration and what priorities come out of the White House.”
Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have come out swinging after Tillerson repeatedly evaded human rights questions, on everything from gay rights to Russia’s attacks on Syrian civilians and hospitals.
“After a day of questioning, Tillerson’s commitment to human rights in the U.S. and abroad is in serious question,” Amnesty International USA’s Executive Director Margaret Huang said in a statement. “While he confirmed that U.S. foreign policy should include the prioritization of human rights, he refused to acknowledge human rights abuses by known and long-recognized violators. It is extremely concerning that a nominee for Secretary of State would claim that governments in countries like Syria and the Philippines with clear patterns of documented violations are not considered human rights abusers.”
Transparency and corruption
There was a need to press Tillerson on ExxonMobil’s business deals and operations in places such as Equatorial Guinea, Angola, the Philippines and other places with poor human rights and corruption records, said Jana Morgan, the director of the U.S. branch of Publish What You Pay. The global civil society network focused on transparency in the extractive sector, which operates in nearly 60 countries, had a letter submitted into the record during the hearings.
“We have to look closely at his record and, beyond deal making, make sure that he supports democracy and is committed to combating corruption and representing America and the interests of the people,” said Morgan in a phone interview earlier this week.
Ultimately, Tillerson’s answers to “key questions” on climate change, human rights and sanctions were “evasive and at times contradictory,” said Zorka Milin, a senior legal advisor to the international NGO Global Witness.
“It was not reassuring from our perspective,” she explained. “Probably one of the only bright spots in the hearing was when he recognized the need to completely divest from the stock options he was holding in Exxon, and that stands in contrast to the president-elect.”
“Without an actual financial conflict of interest there is a concern the deals he made with various autocratic regimes, including not just Russia but Equatorial Guinea and Angola that is a concern in terms of the impact on his credibility,” she added.