Biden Looks to Progressive for Key Human Rights Post

Sarah Margon has been an outspoken critic of authoritarian allies of the United States.

By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and Jack Detsch, Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
Then-Human Rights Watch director Sarah Margon
Sarah Margon, who was then Washington director of Human Rights Watch, listens during a discussion at the Hoover Institution in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 18, 2018. Alex Wong/Getty Images

U.S. President Joe Biden is close to nominating a prominent progressive foreign-policy expert to be one of the State Department’s top human rights envoys, a move that would elevate a prominent critic of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other autocratic governments that have close military relationships with the United States. 

Sarah Margon is a leading contender to be Biden’s assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, according to several officials familiar with the matter. Officials cautioned the decision is not yet final.

If selected and confirmed by the Senate, Margon would manage a portfolio of issues that Biden has defined as major features of his foreign-policy agenda, namely reestablishing the United States as a defender of global human rights and promoting democracy worldwide to stem the rising tide of authoritarianism. 

Margon, currently director of foreign-policy advocacy at the Open Society Foundations and former Washington director at Human Rights Watch, would be one of the most senior progressive foreign-policy experts to join the administration. The State Department declined to comment for the story. 

The Biden administration has faced mounting pressure from the progressive flank of the Democratic party to bring in more progressives, pushing the new president to shake up traditional foreign-policy orthodoxy by curbing defense spending, reengaging Iran in nuclear talks, and reevaluating Washington’s relationship with Israel.

Several administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, lauded the proposed nomination and said Margon has deep congressional contacts on both sides of the aisle from her time as an advocate, a potential asset as Biden seeks to rope in lawmakers from both parties to back his foreign-policy agenda. 

Margon was an outspoken critic of former President Donald Trump’s track record on human rights, including leaving the United Nations Human Rights Council, rolling back U.S. funding for foreign aid related to women’s health and family planning, and coddling authoritarian leaders such as Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. In a 2018 Foreign Affairs essay, she argued that “unless it changes course dramatically, the Trump administration—and the president himself—will remain one of the greatest threats to human rights in decades.”

She also criticized the former Obama administration for arms sales to Saudi Arabia as it waged a costly war against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, considered the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. 

“For too long, Washington has adopted policies in the name of protecting national security that come at the expense of human rights, forgetting the long-term costs of doing so,” she wrote in Foreign Affairs.

Margon has also hinted at how she would approach the top human rights post if nominated, calling on the State Department to rotate foreign service officers through human rights-focused roles and for human rights coordinators to be posted at U.S. embassies in a piece co-written for Just Security with Francisco Bencosme, a recently appointed official at State. She also called for human rights offices in all of the U.S. military combatant commands, which oversee the Defense Department’s operations around the world.

Richard Fontaine, head of the Washington-based think tank Center for a New American Security, said he worked closely with Margon when he was an aide to the late Republican Sen. John McCain and Margon was an aide to former Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold.

“When I was on the Hill, particularly on the human rights and democracy front, there were really only a handful of members and staffers on each side of the aisle that were really committed to a bold democracy and human rights agenda and were active in pursuing it, and she was one of them,” he said.

Margon succeeded Tom Malinowski as Washington director at Human Rights Watch, after Malinowski was nominated by Obama in 2013 to the same State Department post Margon is likely up for. Malinowski served as assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor from 2014 to the end of the Obama administration in 2017. He is now a Democratic representative for New Jersey’s 7th District.

Her nomination would come as Biden’s seeming honeymoon with the left wing of the Democratic party is facing challenges. Progressive foreign-policy groups have pushed Biden to stop supporting Saudi Arabia’s six-year-long war in Yemen, and the president sent an early signal by cutting intelligence support to Riyadh for the conflict and tapping a special envoy for peace talks. But progressives are still irked with Biden’s decision not to punish Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for his role in the 2018 killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and with his approval of arms sales to Egypt despite the government’s widespread human rights violations.

It’s unclear whether the Biden administration can live up to its pledges to prioritize human rights across the board. The president’s plans to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan leave an uncertain future for Afghan people, and particularly Afghan women, who fear the return of Taliban control. Despite the withdrawal plans, the Biden administration has not signaled it would end ongoing counterterrorism operations in other parts of the world, such as in the Sahel region of Africa, where Western powers cooperate with authoritarian regimes in countries like Chad.

The Biden administration is also pivoting to compete with China on a global stage, which some analysts believe will lead Washington to weigh forging ties with nondemocratic countries against ceding influence in those countries to Beijing.

Writing in Foreign Policy’s “It’s Debatable” column in February, Emma Ashford, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, wrote that the long-term U.S. response to the military coup in Myanmar and subsequent violent crackdown on protests would be “a test of which way the administration will tilt: human rights, or great power competition—and a reminder that these two missions are in tension.”

But the Biden team has continued to signal that it can walk and chew gum at the same time. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a speech last month that the administration would consistently denounce human rights violations at home and abroad, including in allied countries. “The Biden-Harris administration will stand against human rights abuses wherever they occur, regardless of whether the perpetrators are adversaries or partners,” he said.

Update, April 21, 2021: This article was updated to include additional quotes and background on Sarah Margon’s career.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch