On August 28, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson informed Congress that a majority of special envoy positions will be abolished or reorganized as part of efforts to restructure the State Department. Although Tillerson has framed the restructuring as a way to increase efficiency—allegedly by eliminating positions that have successfully resolved their respective policy challenges and integrating other positions into related bureaus—STAND strongly believes this plan will negatively impact the ability of the United States to respond to ongoing international conflicts and crises.
Historically, most presidential administrations have viewed special envoys as vital to the foreign policy of the United States. Because special envoys are able to focus exclusively on a single issue, they can often achieve more progress than policymakers in the State Department, This is particularly the case if the issue has important regional and international components that can be more difficult for ambassadors and even regional secretaries to solve . Additionally, they often report directly to the president, surpassing bureaucratic constraints. Indeed, one of the most important advantages possessed by special envoys is their ability to meet with foreign leaders outside of formal diplomatic communication. This allows them to speak with unfavorable individuals, such as war criminals and terrorists, if they believe that doing so will advance their resolution initiatives. In short, special envoys play an important role in foreign policy, largely due to their flexibility. Although STAND is concerned about many aspects of State Department restructuring, we are particularly alarmed by the reorganization of three special envoy positions that relate to four of our conflict zones: the Special Envoy to Sudan and South Sudan, the Special Envoy for the Great Lakes of Africa, and the Special Representative and Policy Coordinator for Burma.
First, the Special Envoy to Sudan and South Sudan is being subsumed under the Bureau of African Affairs. Although it is theoretically possible for the Bureau of African Affairs to continue this special envoy’s mission of ending violence and human rights abuses in Sudan and South Sudan, it seems more likely that this change reflects the Trump administration’s apathy towards the ongoing conflicts in these countries. In fact, some administration officials wish to lift sanctions on Sudan despite a lack of any real progress towards respecting human rights by the genocidal government of President Omar al-Bashir. The Special Envoy to Sudan and South Sudan would continue to be instrumental in applying pressure on the government of Sudan if sanctions are indeed lifted. The deteriorating situation in South Sudan, which has seen government and opposition forces commit atrocities against civilians while enriching themselves through profiteering, would also benefit from the attention of this special envoy.
Second, the Special Envoy for the Great Lakes Region of Africa is also to be subsumed under the Bureau of African Affairs. During the Second Congo War (1998-2003), also known as Africa’s first world war, at least half a dozen countries—including Rwanda, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Angola—fought a proxy war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Nearly fifteen years after the official end of that conflict, however, atrocities continue to be committed by government troops and rebel groups, many of whom are allegedly supported by regional powers. The vast wealth of natural resources, such as tin, tungsten, and tantalum (the “Three Ts”)—minerals used in cellphones and other electronic gadgets—is a major driver of the continued violence. Indeed, there is concern that the conflict in the DRC as well as the ongoing crisis in Burundi have the possibility of spilling over into the rest of the region. Given these regional dynamics, STAND believes a special envoy is necessary in order to address the myriad complexities of these ongoing conflicts.
Finally, the Special Representative and Policy Coordinator for Burma is being stripped of its title and moved to the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs. In addition to this change, Tillerson is asking “Congress [to] repeal the statutory requirement for this special representative position, since the mission of this position has been accomplished with the 2016 formation of a democratically elected, civilian-led government and the rebuilding of relations with Burma.” Yet this sentiment recklessly ignores the plight of the Rohingya, an ethnic Muslim minority who have been described by the United Nations as “the most friendless people in the world.” Having been denied basic human rights for decades and confined in what many refer to as “modern-day concentration camps” by the Burmese military and Buddhist extremists, the past week’s rapid escalation of violence in Burma has only worsened the plight of the Rohingya. The Burmese military has burned thousands of homes and slaughtered at least one thousand civilians since a Rohingya militant group launched a counteroffensive against police posts and an army base on August 25. As such, a special representative or envoy is crucial in order to carefully monitor the situation and steadfastly protect the Rohingya from this unfolding tragedy.
Although Secretary Tillerson has argued that these changes in the State Department will increase efficiency by reducing redundancies and trimming the bureaucracy, in effect the restructuring of these special envoys will make it more difficult for the United States to effectively promote peace and human rights internationally. Worse, STAND fears that such restructuring actually represents a shift in policy priorities that could ultimately risk the lives of countless thousands of people around the world.
Justin Cole is the Policy Coordinator for STAND: The Student-Led Movement to End Mass Atrocities, and a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where he is currently earning his degree in economics and peace, war, and defense.