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US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson pledges to confront those who harm innocents

11 April 2017

The US will stand up against anyone who commits crimes against humanity, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said, less than a week after Washington launched missile strikes in response to an alleged Syrian chemical attack.

Key points:

  • Rex Tillerson attends commemorations for a 1944 German Nazi massacre
  • Mr Tillerson says defeating Islamic State group is priority
  • US ambassador to UN says regime change in Syria a priority
  • European allies said to be frustrated at mixed messages from US

Before the April 7 missile strikes on a Syrian airbase, US President Donald Trump had indicated he would be less interventionist than his predecessors and was willing to overlook human rights abuses if it was in US interests.

But Mr Tillerson said the United States would not let such crimes go unchallenged.

“We rededicate ourselves to holding to account any and all who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world,” he said while commemorating a 1944 German Nazi massacre in Sant’Anna di Stazzema.

Mr Tillerson said the Sant’Anna di Stazzema massacre — in which more than 500 civilians were killed — “will serve as an inspiration to us all”.

Mr Trump ordered his military to strike Syria in retaliation for what the United States said was a chemical weapons attack by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces which killed scores of civilians, including many children.

European ministers are eager to hear whether Washington is now committed to overthrowing Mr Assad, who is backed by Russia.

They also want the United States to put pressure on Moscow to distance itself from Mr Assad.

Mr Tillerson, who travels to Russia after the two-day G7 gathering, said at the weekend that the defeat of Islamic State remained the US priority, while the US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said that “regime change” in Syria was also a priority for Mr Trump.

The mixed messages have confused and frustrated European allies, who are eager for full US support for a political solution based on a transfer of power in Damascus.

“The Americans say they agree, but there’s nothing to show for it behind [the scenes],” said a senior European diplomat, who declined to be named.

“They are absent from this and are navigating aimlessly in the dark.”

Italy, Germany, France and Britain have invited foreign ministers from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Qatar to sit down with the G7 group on Tuesday morning to discuss Syria. All oppose Mr Assad’s rule.

 North Korea, Libya on G7 agenda

The foreign ministers’ discussions in Tuscany will prepare the way for a leaders’ summit in Sicily at the end of May.

Efforts to reach an agreement on statements ahead of time — a normal part of pre-meeting G7 diplomacy — have moved very slowly, partly because of a difficult transition at the US State Department where many key positions remain unfilled.

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VIDEO: Beverley O’Connor analyses Rex Tillerson’s comments with the University of Warwick’s Ben Margulies (The World)

Some issues, such as trade and climate change, are likely to be skipped this week.

“The more complicated subjects will be left to the leaders,” said an Italian diplomat, who declined to be named.

However, the foreign ministers will talk about growing tensions with North Korea, as the United States moves a navy strike group near the Korean peninsula amid concerns over Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions.

They will also discuss Libya. Italy is hoping for vocal support for a United Nations-backed government in Tripoli which has struggled to establish its authority even in the city, let alone in the rest of the violence-plagued north African country.

The Trump administration has not yet defined a clear policy and Rome fears Washington may fall into step with Egypt and Russia, which support general Khalifa Haftar, a powerful figure in eastern Libya.

The struggle against terrorism, relations with Iran and instability in Ukraine will also be discussed, with talks beginning Monday afternoon (local time).

The aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson transits the Pacific Ocean.

Reuters/AP