Can Rex Tillerson Lead on Women’s Rights?

Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, brings no foreign policy, public sector, or diplomatic experience to the position of the country’s chief foreign policy advisor and top diplomat. He has little career experience outside of  ExxonMobil and its subsidiaries, where he began his career as a production engineer 41 years ago. For a significant part of this tenure, Tillerson played a key role in brokering agreements to extract oil from foreign countries.

Tillerson’s positions on gender equality and sexual and reproductive rights are largely unknown, yet he will be overseeing one of the world’s largest government programs supporting women’s sexual and reproductive health globally. During his confirmation hearings, Tillerson said that he had a personal commitment to gender equality. Yet when asked if he would continue to prioritize US support for family planning and reproductive health—which are critical for women’s and girls’ autonomy, economic independence, and political participation—he failed to provide assurances that US leadership on these issues would continue. Instead, he indicated that these programs would be under review.

As Secretary of State, Tillerson will be charged with using the United States’ significant power and resources to shape global policies and programs on gender equality, human rights, health, economic development, climate change, and peace and security. All of these interconnected areas have significant implications for women’s rights. US funding to promote women’s sexual and reproductive rights has helped women and girls take control of their health, education, and lives, and direct their own futures.

What is known about Tillerson’s record on human rights is deeply troubling. Under his leadership, ExxonMobil gained a track record of pursuing profit over the rights of people. The company stands accused of covering up evidence that documents the impact of fossil fuel use on climate change, and is responsible for global environmental disasters that have destroyed ecosystems and livelihoods. The evidence is clear that the impacts of climate change, ecological degradation, and disaster fall disproportionately on women.

In addition, Tillerson and ExxonMobil have routinely pursued partnerships with repressive regimes, including Russia, Yemen, and Venezuela. These regimes are charged with serious abuses of human rights at home, including extrajudicial killings of journalists and clampdowns on civil society. They have undermined women’s rights and reproductive rights domestically, while colluding to attack women’s rights at the United Nations.

Tillerson has an opportunity to continue the leadership precedent set by the current US administration, and make strides for the world’s women by placing their rights—including their sexual and reproductive rights—at the core of US foreign policy. He ought to take it. To do otherwise would be devastating for women globally.

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