Tough Luck

Obama’s Human Rights Chief Missing in Action

The Senate was set to confirm a new State Department human rights leader. But at the last minute, Obama’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia cut in—just in time for Obama’s trip.

Mark Tenally/Getty

Last week, Secretary of State John Kerry made calls to senators urging them to confirm the State Department’s top human rights official; he thought the Senate leadership was on board. But suddenly, the White House stepped in and bumped the human rights nominee in favor of Joseph William Westphal, the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, only days before President Obama is set to visit the country to repair a damaged relationship.

Westphal was confirmed Wednesday night. Tom Malinowski, the nominee to become Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, has lingered in limbo after being nominated over 250 days ago.

Having quit his job as the Washington Director of Human Rights Watch, Malinowski now waits for the glacial pace of the new Senate confirmation process to put him back on the payroll. Meanwhile, the most senior position in the Obama administration for human rights remains vacant, while crises from Syria to Ukraine make the need for American advocacy on human rights more crucial than ever.

President Obama gave a landmark speech Wednesday in Brussels, touting the American legacy of human rights and democracy promotion and prodding European countries to increase their advocacy for the downtrodden and defend Western values in the face of Russian aggression.

“I believe that over the long haul as nations that are free, as free people, the future is ours. I believe this not because I’m naive. And I believe this not because of the strength of our arms or the size of our economies. I believe this because these ideals that we affirm are true. These ideals are universal,” Obama said. “And I believe that if we hold firm to our principles and are willing to back our beliefs with courage and resolve, then hope will ultimately overcome fear, and freedom will continue to triumph over tyranny, because that is what forever stirs in the human heart.”

The speech was a call to action. But the human rights community sees a disconnect between the speech and the policies his administration has pursued since coming to office in 2009. There’s hope that Obama might be turning over a new leaf in the wake of the Crimea invasion and could raise the priority of human rights and democracy promotion.

“I’m hoping this speech will in fact mark an increase of attention emphasis and priority on these issues, which we haven’t seen in the past five years,” said David Kramer, who held the State Department human rights post during the Bush administration and now is the president of Freedom House. “Tom’s nomination has sort of fallen through the cracks, which is particularly unfortunate considering the President’s speech today. If we had Tom in place, he would in a position to take the lead on a lot of the issues.”

Inside the State Department, there’s a lot of frustration with the overall chaos that has become of the Senate confirmations process, ever since Majority Leader Harry Reid changed the rules to require only 50 votes to confirm a member of the administration. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has been using his power to slow the flow of confirmations to a trickle.

But each week, some nominations do get through. The process for choosing these lucky nominees is anything but democratic.

“McConnell determines how many people go through every week and Reid determines who is on that list, in consultation with the White House,” one administration official explained.

Several officials and Senate aides told The Daily Beast that McConnell, Reid, and the White House had all agreed to let Malinowski get confirmed in this last round, but then the White House intervened to get Westphal on the list alongside four federal judges, at Malinowski’s expense. Obama arrives Friday in Riyadh.It’s not the first time an ambassador got to skip the line because a White House official was about to visit their country. Ambassador to Chile Mike Hammer got confirmed just before Vice President Joe Biden’s trip there. Last week, the Senate confirmed Tim Broas to be ambassador to the Netherlands, just before Obama’s trip to The Hague.

A Senate Democratic leadership aide said that nominees are stalled at agencies all over the federal government and argued the overall problem was Republican intransigence.

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“You could write 140 different stories about nominees (including 32 ambassador nominations) that are pending because of Republican obstruction. Unfortunately Mr. Malinowski is one of many,” the aide said. “We’d vote on him tomorrow if Republicans agreed to drop the procedural roadblocks. We hope that the Republicans who support him will help get the rest of their team on board.”

A Republican leadership aide said that it was up to Reid when to schedule Malinowski for a vote. The State Department blamed the Senate overall.

“We’re determined to see Tom Malinowski confirmed very soon and we’re confident his long wait is almost over. The only thing that stands in the way of his confirmation is the United States Senate,” State Department Spokesman Alec Gerlach told The Daily Beast. “Secretary Kerry has personally made the case that with so many pressing human rights issues on the agenda, and strong bipartisan support for Tom, it is urgent to get him confirmed.”

Malinowski has broad, bipartisan support, including the vocal support of some Republican senators, including John McCain and Lindsey Graham. He also has widespread support in the broader foreign policy and human rights communities in Washington. Over a dozen senior former officials from David Petraeus to Madeleine Albright wrote a letter last week to Reid and McConnell urging them to let Malinowski take up his post.

“Mr. Malinowski’s confirmation is particularly urgent given the number of challenges the United States faces in the world that are closely linked to issues of governance and human rights: the crisis in Crimea and Ukraine, the consolidation of authoritarian rule in Russia, and the continuing turmoil in Syria and elsewhere in the Arab World,” they wrote. “Leaving this position vacant handicaps our diplomacy in crucial areas and sends a deeply unfortunate message about our priorities in the world.”

Dozens of leading NGOs and human rights organizations followed this week with a letter of their own. The human rights community is also engaged in an effort this week to persuade Obama to raise the issue of human rights while in Riyadh.

According to the State Department’s own human rights report for 2013, Saudi Arabia is guilty of massive and systematic human rights violations, including “'citizens’ lack of the right and legal means to change their government; pervasive restrictions on universal rights such as freedom of expression, including on the Internet, and freedom of assembly, association, movement, and religion; and a lack of equal rights for women, children, and noncitizen workers.”

The White House declined to comment on why they chose to request the Senate confirm Obama’s envoy to Saudi Arabia ahead of his lead official on human rights.

“We are eagerly looking forward to Tom being confirmed and becoming part of the Administration,” said Spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden. “As we have made clear, time and again, that agenda is central to our foreign policy. It’s what our history and values demand, and we know that our commitment to human rights and democracy reinforces our national security.”