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Biden’s National Security Council to get a key human rights official

Rob Berschinski, a top official in Obama’s State Department, will be the NSC’s senior director for democracy and human rights.

Chinese President Xi Jinping shakes hands with then-Vice President Joe Biden in 2013 in Beijing. Now as president, Biden must further contend with China’s human rights record.
Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

The Biden administration has committed to protecting human rights as a centerpiece of its foreign policy. Now, the National Security Council has hired a key official who will help the president and his team carry out that work.

Rob Berschinski, currently the senior vice president for policy at the Human Rights First advocacy group, will begin serving as the NSC’s senior director for democracy and human rights on Monday, multiple sources told me. He’ll report to Shanthi Kalathil, the NSC’s coordinator for those issues. Foreign Policy also reported on the appointment.

A former top State Department official for human rights during the Obama administration, Berschinski will help lead the US response to China’s mistreatment of Uyghur Muslims and corruption in autocratic nations, among other things. It’s likely he’ll also play a role in organizing the upcoming Summit for Democracy, a meeting Biden aims to hold to bolster democracy around the world against what groups like Freedom House call a “democratic recession.”

Berschinski’s new position will thrust him into the heart of Biden’s handling of global affairs, given both the reality of the state of democracy and human rights globally, and the administration’s stated foreign policy objectives.

“The United States is committed to a world in which human rights are protected, their defenders are celebrated, and those who commit human rights abuses are held accountable,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a February statement. “President Biden is committed to a foreign policy that unites our democratic values with our diplomatic leadership, and one that is centered on the defense of democracy and the protection of human rights.”

“[Biden] will not hold back, and he will speak out when there are concerns he has about human rights abuses, about the lack of freedom of speech or the lack of freedom of media and expression,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told journalists last month.

Such an emphasis on human rights might make Berschinski’s portfolio more important than it would’ve been in other administrations, experts told me. It’s likely he’ll be brought into discussions about how the US should handle policy toward Russia, Venezuela, Iran, and other nations known to violate human rights.

But the appointment comes at an awkward time. Last month, Biden chose not to punish Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman over the 2018 assassination of US resident, Saudi dissident, and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, even though intelligence released by the administration named the royal as the plot’s orchestrator.

Biden’s team said it was important not to completely sever US-Saudi ties after the grisly murder, especially after decades of partnership in economic and security areas. But that led some to question the administration’s true commitment to human rights.

Of course, striking the right balance between when to press another country on their human rights record and when to push such concerns aside in pursuit of the national interest has been a nagging problem for nearly all US administrations. Now Berschinski will have to deal with that tricky problem.

The White House didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Berschinski declined to comment when reached.

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