Anti-Semitism Needs a Special Envoy but Climate Change Doesn't, Tillerson Says With State Department Changes

Rex Tillerson
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson testifies before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on Capitol Hill, on June 13. Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters

The State Department will retain a special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism, but other roles dealing with high-profile topics such as climate change and the closure of Guantánamo Bay will be scrapped as standalone positions or eliminated entirely as part of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's efforts to streamline department functions.

Tillerson's plan was revealed Monday in a letter detailing the fate of nearly 70 special envoy positions. The former Exxon CEO plans to completely remove or retire nine posts and will fold 21 positions back into State bureaus. Other envoy positions will be combined, retained or expanded.

"I believe that the Department will be able to better execute its mission by integrating certain envoys and special representative offices within the regional and functional bureaus, and eliminating those that have accomplished or outlived their original purpose," Tillerson wrote in the letter addressed to Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations. "This integration will address concerns that under the current structure, a special envoy or representative can circumvent the regional and functional bureaus that make up the core of the State Department," he added. "This integration would also eliminate redundancies that dilute the ability of a bureau to deliver on its primary functions."

The possibility that the State Department would eliminate its special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism had sparked an outcry among Jewish and Holocaust organizations, as well as politicians. The Anti-Defamation League applauded the retention of the position on Tuesday.

Related: Holocaust organizations, scholars slam possible defunding of anti-Semitism office

"At a time when there is a growing prominence to anti-Jewish movements and actions, the special envoy to combat anti-Semitism continues to be essential and it is important that the State Department has recognized this vital work," Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, said in a statement in response to the news. The ADL had been a major player in the efforts to persuade Tillerson to retain the position. Though the ADL commented specifically only on that role in its statement on Tuesday, it alluded to the broader changes Tillerson has planned. "We urge the State Department to refrain from eliminating other special envoy roles which are vital to promoting American values of democracy, tolerance and religious freedom across the globe."

Out of 66 positions, Tillerson plans to completely eliminate nine, including the special envoy for the six-party talks (the talks ended in 2008); the transparency coordinator; the special adviser for global youth issues; the special envoy for the Colombian peace process; the personal representative for Northern Ireland issues; and, perhaps most significantly, the U.S. special envoy for the closure of Guantánamo detention facility. The removal of the Guantánamo role is a continuation of President Donald Trump's efforts to expand use of the facility—a drastic departure from former President Barack Obama's efforts to shut it down.

Tillerson plans to remove 21 positions and have their functions, staff and budgets subsumed and performed by "the appropriate bureaus." These include the U.S. special envoy for climate change and the U.S. special representative for the Arctic region, as well as the U.S. special envoy to Sudan and South Sudan, the U.S. special envoy for Syria, the coordinator for cyber issues and the lead coordinator for Iran nuclear implementation. Some positions will be "dual hatted" with an existing role, including the special representative for environment and water resources, the special coordinator for Tibetan issues and the U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights issues. The functions of the office of global food security will be transferred to the U.S. agency for international development (USAID).

In addition to the anti-Semitism role, Tillerson would keep the ambassador-at-large for global women's issues and the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs. He also wants to expand the role of the ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom—which under his plan would take over the functions and staff of the special adviser for religious minorities in the Near East and South-Central Asia, the U.S. special representative for religion and global affairs, the U.S. special representative to Muslim communities and the U.S. special envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation—and those of the ambassador-at-large and coordinator of U.S. government activities to combat HIV/AIDS globally and the special envoy for Holocaust issues.

Another 20 roles would be entirely unaffected by the new plan, including the special envoys for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and the human rights of LGBTI persons as well as the ambassadors at large for counterterrorism, criminal justice and combat trafficking in persons.

Related: Rex Tillerson: Anti-Semitism Could Get Worse With a State Department Special Envoy

"Through the years, numbers of special envoys have accumulated at the State Department, and in many cases, their creation has done more harm than good by creating an environment in which people work around the normal diplomatic processes in lieu of streamlining them," Corker said in a statement on Monday. "I appreciate the work Secretary Tillerson has done to responsibly review the organizational structure of special envoys and look forward to going through these changes in detail." Since some roles are mandated by law, Tillerson will need the help of Congress to implement his reorganization.

But the potential integration of roles had other congressmen concerned. Democratic Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts disagreed with the idea of moving certain responsibilities from special envoy–type roles into the bureaus, including those of the special envoy for climate change and the special representative for Northern Ireland issues.

"None of these are incidental. Each one of these areas has a reason why they have a special envoy," Markey said. "If they're moved into kind of larger parts of the agency that don't have any squarely aligned responsibility and with a senior person inside the department, it just would run the risk of slipping through the cracks, of not getting the attention needed."