Top White House Human Rights Official Leaving Post

Shanthi Kalathil played a key role in organizing Biden’s Summit for Democracy.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
President Joe Biden speaks at a virtual summit on democracy.
President Joe Biden speaks at a virtual summit on democracy.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks to representatives of more than 100 countries during a virtual democracy summit at the White House in Washington on Dec. 9, 2021. Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

A top White House official overseeing U.S. President Joe Biden’s policies on democracy and human rights is leaving her post in the coming weeks, officials familiar with the matter confirmed to Foreign Policy.

Shanthi Kalathil, the National Security Council coordinator for democracy and human rights, is expected to depart her job at the end of February, leaving a key post overseeing one of Biden’s top foreign-policy agendas vacant in the short term.

Kalathil, a veteran foreign-policy expert and former journalist, served as the top NSC official coordinating Biden’s agenda on democracy and human rights from the early days of the administration.

A top White House official overseeing U.S. President Joe Biden’s policies on democracy and human rights is leaving her post in the coming weeks, officials familiar with the matter confirmed to Foreign Policy.

Shanthi Kalathil, the National Security Council coordinator for democracy and human rights, is expected to depart her job at the end of February, leaving a key post overseeing one of Biden’s top foreign-policy agendas vacant in the short term.

Kalathil, a veteran foreign-policy expert and former journalist, served as the top NSC official coordinating Biden’s agenda on democracy and human rights from the early days of the administration.

Kalathil played a leading role in organizing Biden’s Summit for Democracy—including which countries made the invite list and which did not, an exercise that prompted intense scrutiny from foreign governments and human rights advocates. The virtual summit, which took place in December 2021 and involved officials from over 100 countries, was aimed at rolling back the spread of authoritarianism abroad and was portrayed by Biden officials as a hallmark diplomatic accomplishment of the president’s first year in office.

During his presidential campaign, Biden vowed to make reviving democracy globally a top foreign-policy priority in an effort to distinguish himself from his predecessor, Donald Trump.

With Kalathil’s expected departure, however, the Biden team has a shallower bench of top officials working on those issues. Undersecretary of State Uzra Zeya, Biden’s top diplomat overseeing democracy and human rights issues, has been in place since last July. But Biden’s pick to be the another top State Department human rights envoy, Sarah Margon, has been stuck for months in the Senate confirmation process after a top Republican lawmaker, Sen. James Risch, signaled his opposition to her nomination. That post, the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, is filled in an acting capacity by seasoned career diplomat Lisa Peterson.

Rob Berschinski, the NSC senior director for democracy and human rights—one level below Kalathil’s position—will take over her responsibilities in the short term, according to a senior administration official.

Kalathil’s departure comes as another senior NSC official is preparing to leave the administration. Beth Cameron, the National Security Council senior director for global health security and biodefense, who oversaw the administration’s international strategy to combat the coronavirus pandemic, is also leaving her post at the end of the month, as Politico and other outlets reported on Tuesday. (Traditionally, it’s not uncommon for some White House officials to leave their jobs as a new administration wraps up its first year.) Raj Panjabi, a senior U.S. Agency for International Development appointee overseeing the government’s global response to malaria, is expected to replace Cameron.

Kalathil, who early in her career covered the rise of China for the Asian Wall Street Journal, transitioned to a career in policy and academia, and climbed steadily through the ranks of various think tanks, government offices, and advocacy groups before joining the top ranks of the Biden administration. She previously worked for the National Endowment for Democracy, U.S. Agency for International Development, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University.

In 2003, she co-wrote Open Networks, Closed Regimes, a book that warned of how autocrats would take advantage of the rise of the internet to consolidate their grip on power at a time when most scholars in the field viewed an open internet primarily as a threat to authoritarian regimes.

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

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