Biden’s Pick for Top Human Rights Post Stuck in Nomination Limbo

The time it takes a president’s nominees to clear Senate confirmation is getting longer and longer.

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Sarah Margon speaks on a panel discussing human rights.
Sarah Margon speaks on a panel discussing human rights.
Sarah Margon, then-Washington director of Human Rights Watch, speaks on a panel at the Hoover Institution in Washington on Oct. 18, 2018. Alex Wong/Getty Images

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U.S. President Joe Biden’s nominee to be the top State Department human rights envoy is stuck in limbo, reaching an impasse in the Senate confirmation process that has left a key administration post overseeing one of the president’s top foreign-policy priorities unfilled for months.

U.S. President Joe Biden’s nominee to be the top State Department human rights envoy is stuck in limbo, reaching an impasse in the Senate confirmation process that has left a key administration post overseeing one of the president’s top foreign-policy priorities unfilled for months.

Sarah Margon—nominee to be assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor (DRL)—faced intense scrutiny from a top Republican lawmaker over several of her past tweets on Israel, leading to heated exchanges between the two during her nomination hearing last September.

Since that hearing four months ago, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee overseeing her nomination has yet to move forward on a vote. Her nomination now languishes with no end in sight, multiple U.S. officials and congressional aides said, as the administration continues to back her appointment while the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Idaho Sen. James Risch, continues to oppose it.

Margon’s stalled nomination is reflective of a broader breakdown in the Senate confirmation process, the officials and aides said. Senators on both sides of the aisle have lamented the glacial pace of approving nominees as both Republicans and Democrats occupy the White House—a trend that has gotten worse over time. The average time it took the Senate to confirm political appointees during former U.S. President George W. Bush’s administration was 48 days, according to a recent study by the Partnership for Public Service. Under former U.S. President Donald Trump, that grew to 100 days. Under Biden, it’s 103 days.

“I’ve never seen it this bad,” said one State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Other nominations for key foreign-policy posts that are stalled in the Senate due to opposition from Republican lawmakers include Barbara Leaf, Biden’s nominee to be the State Department’s top Middle East envoy, and Tamara Cofman Wittes, Biden’s nominee to a senior U.S. Agency for International Development post. The nominee for special envoy for countering antisemitism, Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt, faced delays in her confirmation process due to her past tweets criticizing Republican lawmakers, but she now has a Senate hearing scheduled for Feb. 8.

In a recent op-ed for Foreign Policy, Risch pinned the blame for delayed confirmations on Biden himself. He said the president has been too slow to issue nominations for key State Department posts, including ambassador posts. (More than a year into office, Biden has yet to nominate an ambassador to Ukraine, South Korea, or over 30 other ambassador posts, for example.) “Failure to tap nominees to fill these posts sends the wrong message that diplomacy with these countries is not that important,” Risch wrote.

Republican congressional aides also pointed to examples of Democrats blocking some of Trump’s State Department nominees for extended periods of time. Democrats held up Trump’s nominee for the DRL assistant secretary post, Robert Destro, for 276 days, over concerns about Trump’s policies on global human rights issues. Other nominees were held up for longer, some over controversial past public comments and questions over their qualifications.

Democrats blamed the Biden-era backlog on Republican intransigence—including, most notably, a sweeping, monthslong blockade on dozens of State Department nominees from Republican Sen. Ted Cruz starting last July. State Department officials characterized the hold as unprecedented and damaging to the institution. Cruz held dozens of State Department nominations over a dispute with the Biden administration on its refusal to sanction certain entities involved in a controversial Russian gas pipeline project in Europe. That dispute was only resolved last month, clearing nearly 50 nominations for Senate votes.

Sen. Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and one of the most prominent supporters of U.S.-Israeli relations in the Democratic caucus, supports Margon and criticized Republicans over the impasse on nominations. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee relies on the practice of comity, where the chairperson and ranking member jointly agree to set agendas on business meetings, including when to schedule votes on nominees.

“The U.S. needs to fully reclaim the mantle of leading the global fight in defense of democracy and human rights,” Menendez said in a statement to Foreign Policy. “Sidelining experienced diplomats and leaders poised to advance our national interests makes our country less safe. What’s more, we are not demanding Republican’s support for these nominees, we are simply asking them to allow for a vote to be scheduled so every member can cast it however they wish.” Menendez added that if votes on Margon and other nominees are allowed to move forward, he is confident they will be confirmed by an “overwhelming majority of the Senate.”

Margon, who grew up in a Jewish family, has worked at a number of high-profile humanitarian organizations and human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, Oxfam, and the Open Society Foundations. She also served as a foreign-policy advisor to former Democratic Sen. Russell Feingold from 2007 to 2011, when he served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. During part of her time in the Senate, she worked closely with current Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who overlapped with her when he was Democratic staff director of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Risch objected to Margon’s nomination over several tweets she made while she worked at human rights advocacy organizations—including a tweet in November 2018 supporting vacation rental company Airbnb’s boycott of West Bank settlements. “Thanks @Airbnb for showing some good leadership here. Other companies should follow suit,” Margon wrote at the time. (Airbnb later reversed its policy.)

Risch charged that Margon supported the so-called Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, one of the United States’ most important allies—a charge Margon rejected during her Senate Foreign Relations Committee nomination hearing. “Senator, I am not and have never been a supporter of the BDS movement. I oppose it,” she said.

“With all due respect, ma’am, I don’t believe it,” Risch responded. “Saying it over and over again just doesn’t square with your actions.”

When pressed by Republican members of the committee, Margon also said that Israel has the right to defend itself and does not believe Israel was guilty of committing war crimes when countering attacks from Palestinian territories.

Months later, Risch is sticking to his position, indicating that any subsequent behind-the-scenes efforts by the Biden administration to sway him on the vote have fallen short. “When a nominee makes statements in support of the BDS movement, that person is going to be aggressively vetted,” he told Foreign Policy. “In the case of the nominee Sarah Margon, I have given her the opportunity to walk back her statements applauding private companies supporting BDS, including publicly during her confirmation hearing. She has not done that. Therefore, I will not support her nomination.”

Another right-wing political advocacy group, the Republican Jewish Coalition, criticized Margon’s nomination due to her past work at human rights organizations that have been sharply critical of Israel, including Human Rights Watch. Margon, the former deputy Washington director of Human Rights Watch, left the organization almost two years before it determined that Israel was an apartheid state.

Supporters of Margon’s nomination have joined in public calls dismissing the charges of her being anti-Israel. “We lament the attacks questioning Ms. Margon’s position on and support of Israel and the U.S.-Israel relationship, and fundamentally reject these claims,” dozens of former Democratic and Republican government officials wrote in a December 2021 letter to senators urging them to support her confirmation. “She has the full confidence of President Biden and Secretary of State Blinken and is committed to ensuring the U.S. plays a leadership role in responding to rising global authoritarianism and democracy deficits that undercut core U.S. national security concerns and national interests.”

The State Department official said that the backlog in confirming nominees is hampering Washington’s ability to conduct day-to-day foreign-policy work. “Most of our adversaries and competitors around the world aren’t facing the same kind of blockade,” the official said. “They have ambassadors serving in capitals around the world, they’re not resting on their laurels, and they have the kind of access that you don’t get without an ambassador.”

Several other administration officials said Risch has worked with the administration and congressional Democrats to help move some State Department nominees through the confirmation process, recognizing the importance of getting Biden’s people in place—even as he remained adamantly opposed to Margon’s nomination.

The DRL assistant secretary position is particularly critical for the Biden administration. Early in his presidency, Biden vowed to bring human rights and democracy to the center of his foreign-policy agenda, making the absence of a top human rights envoy at the State Department all the more glaring. The Senate confirmed another senior diplomat above the post Margon would take if confirmed—Uzra Zeya, undersecretary of state for civilian security, democracy, and human rights—but that post also oversees a broad range of State Department bureaus beyond human rights issues, including offices on counterterrorism, law enforcement, refugees, and religious freedom.

The assistant secretary position is currently filled in an acting capacity by Lisa Peterson, a lower-level seasoned diplomat. But privately, several Biden administration officials concede that no diplomat in an acting capacity, no matter how skilled, carries the weight or diplomatic firepower of a presidentially picked and Senate-confirmed envoy.

The absence of a Senate-confirmed DRL assistant secretary was especially notable to foreign governments during Biden’s Summit for Democracy in December 2021, a virtual conference with more than 100 countries involved that administration officials and their allies considered to be one of the hallmark foreign-policy events of his first year in office.

“Having a senior Senate-confirmed official focused on human rights advocacy is extremely important, particularly in this era of authoritarian regimes trying to reassert their influence across the world,” said Lisa Curtis, a former senior National Security Council official during the Trump administration and one of the officials who signed the letter backing Margon’s nomination.

“Without that person in place, you just don’t have a powerful voice weighing in with the bureaucracy … to make sure human rights dimensions are at the top of every foreign-policy discussion,” she added.

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

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