The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Congressional dysfunction is undermining U.S. human rights advocacy

President Biden conducts a virtual meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the White House on Nov. 15. (Susan Walsh/AP)

Lawmakers in both parties routinely and rightly criticize the Biden administration for not living up to President Biden’s own promise that “human rights will be the center of our foreign policy.” But Congress won’t even confirm the official whose job it is to argue for human rights inside the government. This is the wrong time to leave the top U.S. government human rights post vacant because of congressional dysfunction.

The job — assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor — is not a glamorous one. This often-marginalized State Department bureau is not exactly seen as a path to foreign-service career glory. But the people who work there believe human rights advocacy must have a strong home inside government to ensure that such concerns properly inform U.S. policymaking. This bureau also serves as the State Department’s prime connection to the larger human rights community.

Sarah Margon is a well-known leader of that community and worked for many years as a Democratic Senate staffer (most notably for former senator Russell Feingold of Wisconsin). She served as Washington director of Human Rights Watch and most recently as foreign policy director for the Open Society Foundations. Yet her nomination to lead the State Department’s human rights bureau has sat dormant for 258 days, held up by Republicans on the very committee for which she once worked.

Margon’s perceived offenses, primarily involving Israel-related tweets, have been litigated extensively. Dozens of national security professionals signed a letter supporting her confirmation, including several former GOP Senate staffers. At her September hearing, she tried but failed to win over Sen. James E. Risch (Idaho), the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee.

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Margon told Risch she did not support the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, despite a 2019 tweet. She assured Risch that she believed in a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as is the Biden administration’s policy, despite once retweeting an article arguing against it.

“With all due respect, ma’am, I don’t believe it,” Risch told her, vowing to oppose her nomination. “You haven’t persuaded me at all.”

On Wednesday, Risch told me he remains opposed to Margon’s nomination, referring back to her 2019 tweet. “We need someone to fill the important role for which Ms. Margon has been nominated, but Ms. Margon has openly applauded private companies who have supported the BDS movement and boycotts of Israel, which for me is a red line,” he said.

The committee’s chairman, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), told me that Risch is blocking even a vote on the nomination, which has languished for so long that Biden had to renominate Margon this week when the new congressional session commenced.

“The U.S. needs to fully reclaim the mantle of leading the global fight in defense of democracy and human rights. Sidelining experienced diplomats and leaders poised to advance our national interests makes our country less safe,” Menendez said, adding that he expects Margon and other blocked nominees to ultimately be confirmed overwhelmingly.

Risch also objected to Margon’s position on drone strikes (she thinks many of them are illegal), as well as her position on aid for Palestinian refugees (she wants to give them more aid than Republicans want to give). But these are not unusual positions for a Democratic human rights professional.

“Newsflash to Republicans: Biden is going to appoint people who believe in his policy and his agenda,” committee member Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told me. “So if Republicans are opposing Sarah just because she agrees with the president’s policies, then they are never going to find a satisfactory nominee.”

In fact, if history is any guide, Margon’s bureau won’t win the day in most internal administration battles. But if the mark of a qualified nominee is their willingness to call out their own side’s failings, Margon is a perfect fit, according to former Trump and Reagan administration official Elliott Abrams, who held this job from 1981 to 1984. Abrams worked with Margon for years to press the Obama administration (unsuccessfully) to take a more critical stance toward the autocratic government in Egypt.

“She will similarly press the Biden administration to pay more attention to human rights, which is exactly the job of the assistant secretary. She ought to be confirmed by the Senate,” Abrams said, calling her “principled, sensible and thoughtful about how to advance the cause of human rights.”

Halie Soifer, the CEO of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, told me Margon’s case is part of a larger pattern of Republicans holding up Jewish female nominees based on minor social media infractions. Former State Department official Tamara Wittes was nominated to be the U.S. Agency for International Development’s top Middle East official back in July, but hasn’t even had a hearing yet. Same for Biden’s nominee to be the official at the State Department to combat antisemitism, Deborah Lipstadt.

“It’s not just about Sarah. … There are three Jewish women whose nominations are currently held by Republicans on the foreign relations committee,” said Soifer. “Nothing any of these nominees have said on Twitter is disqualifying for them to serve in these roles, for which they are eminently qualified.”

At the end of 2021, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) struck a deal with Democrats to release his holds on several State Department nominees in exchange for a vote on legislation to sanction a Russian-German pipeline. Senators have the right to use these holds and sometimes their use can be productive. But in 2022, nominees shouldn’t be held unless there is a very good reason.

When one side narrows the space for qualified professionals to serve our country, the other almost always retaliates in kind when the positions are reversed. Meanwhile, the U.S. government office in charge of advocating for American values abroad remains rudderless, to the detriment of those fighting for freedom and to the delight of our autocratic enemies.