Several senators, both Democrats and Republicans, said they were disturbed by his unwillingness during testimony Wednesday to acknowledge government abuses in the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Russia and elsewhere.
Plans to hold a second round of hearings were scrubbed after a rocky first day that saw several testy exchanges between Tillerson, former chief executive of Exxon Mobil Corp., and committee members.
A vote has not been scheduled, but Tillerson’s confirmation does not appear in jeopardy in the GOP-controlled committee or full Senate.
But his answers on human rights — rather than his personal ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin — led a key Republican on the committee, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, to refuse to say if he would vote for Tillerson.
When Rubio pressed Tillerson to condemn Putin for what he said were “countless” killings of political dissidents, journalists and others, Tillerson said he did not have enough information to do so.
Human rights groups echoed those concerns, noting that recent administrations have all emphasized human rights as a core part of U.S. foreign policy.
“Tillerson’s commitment to human rights in the U.S. and abroad is in serious question,” Margaret Huang, director of Amnesty International’s U.S. branch, said Thursday. “His rhetoric suggests that under his leadership the State Department would not pressure human rights violators even in the face of overwhelming evidence.”
In his testimony, Tillerson refused to characterize atrocities in Syria, where Russian-backed Syrian forces have bombed civilians, as war crimes.
He declined to condemn Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte for a well-documented campaign of extrajudicial killings of supposed drug dealers. An estimated 6,000 people have been killed.
And he also would not criticize Saudi Arabia, where women and political dissent are repressed.
“Tillerson’s claims that he cannot pass judgment on these countries’ abuses until he has access to U.S. intelligence briefings ignores the U.S. government’s own previous findings,” said Sarah Margon, Washington director of Human Rights Watch.
She said it “suggests that Tillerson is either ill-informed or apathetic to human rights issues worldwide.”
Activists at the hearing wearing T-shirts with the hashtag #ExxonKnew also objected to Tillerson’s views on global warming. In his testimony, he acknowledged that climate change was “real” but said U.S. knowledge of the full impact was “limited.”
Democratic senators introduced documents that they said showed Exxon scientists had expressed concern about global warming three decades ago, while executives from the multinational energy company supported climate change deniers.
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) said he would not vote for Tillerson.
“In instance after instance after instance … presented to him, there was no moral clarity,” Merkley told reporters Thursday. He said Tillerson lacked a “breadth of perspective” needed to serve as secretary of State.
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