US State Dept human rights officer latest to resign in Gaza protest

A boy walks with bags of produce as others ride bicycles near a destroyed building in Gaza City [AFP]

While Biden administration has faced internal dissent over policy, only a handful of officials have resigned.

Annelle Sheline, a Middle East analyst who promoted human rights on behalf of the United States government, has become the latest staffer at the US Department of State to leave her post in opposition to President Joe Biden’s Israel policy.

Sheline announced her resignation in an interview with the Washington Post on Wednesday, as the official death toll in Gaza reached 32,490 since October 7 and the World Food Programme has warned that famine in the enclave is imminent.

“I wasn’t able to really do my job any more,” Sheline told the newspaper. “Trying to advocate for human rights just became impossible.”

Sheline’s resignation followed another State Department official, Josh Paul, a director in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, who resigned in October of last year, and Department of Education official Tariq Habash, a Palestinian American and Biden political appointee, who resigned in January.

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Habash said Sheline’s decision to leave underscored how the United States’s standing both at home and abroad has diminished amid the war in Gaza.

“It’s not surprising that there are people who tried to do important and critical work related to human rights at the State Department who felt like they were unable to do their job,” he said.

“It’s not surprising that [Sheline] felt like the only way that she can make an impact is by leaving, because in almost six months we’ve seen no substantive change in policy, and our influence at the international stage seems to be disintegrating by the day,” he said.

Sheline joined the State Department through a fellowship with the Bureau of Democracy, Labor, and Human Rights (DRL) as part of the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. She was tasked with promoting human rights and compiling annual reports on the issue. She holds a PhD and had previously been a researcher at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

Her work at the State Department, she told the newspaper, involved coordinating with activist and civil society groups across the Middle East and North Africa region. She said she saw firsthand how US credibility has degraded among those groups as the war progressed.

“If they are willing to engage, they mostly want to talk about Gaza rather than the fact that they are also dealing with extreme repression or threats of imprisonment,” Sheline said of the groups she worked with across the region.

“The first point they bring up is: How is this happening?”

Sheline’s departure came as the Biden administration has continued to pledge support for Israel, even while rhetorically warning Israeli counterparts about an expected ground operation in the southern Gaza city of Rafah.

Earlier this week, US Vice President Kamala Harris warned of “consequences” if Israel launches a ground assault, but officials have so far refused to leverage aid. A day after Harris’s comments, the US abstained from a UN Security Council vote calling for a temporary ceasefire in Gaza.

On Tuesday, US State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the administration had received “written assurances” from Israel that US weapons were not being used in violation of international human rights law, despite repeated allegations from rights groups. He said the State Department had so far found no evidence of violations in its “ongoing” assessment.

‘Who’s next?’

Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Miller described Sheline as a “fellow at the State Department” who had finished the first year of a programme with an option for a second year.

He said that Secretary of State Antony Blinken “meets with employees who have a broad range of views. He listens to their feedback and he takes it into account in his decision-making and he encourages other senior leaders in the department to do so as well.”

For his part, Habash described Sheline’s departure as “a really big moment” that shines a light on the internal dissent within the Biden administration.

That has included letters signed by staffers with USAID and the Department of Homeland Security, protest actions by federal workers, and a growing number of legislators in Biden’s Democratic Party calling for a full ceasefire or at least for aid to be conditioned.

“I think it will continue to send a message to the president, the secretary of state and to the world that even though the United States policy hasn’t changed, there are a lot of people who fundamentally disagree with the position that our government and our elected officials have taken,” he said. “And we are finding ways every single day to communicate that in whatever ways we know how to.”

In a post on LinkedIn, former State Department official Paul also said he was “so proud of” Sheline for becoming “the third US official to publicly resign over the absolute disaster that is the Biden Administration’s continuing support for Israel’s war crimes, bombings, and starvation of innocent civilians in Gaza”.

“Who’s next?” he said.

Feds United for Peace, a group of anonymous federal employees across 27 government agencies who formed in opposition to the war, hailed Sheline as “courageous”, while adding her decision “comes at a personal and real cost to her, and is a loss of a patriotic and deeply qualified employee for the Department of State”.

Her departure “speaks for itself, and also reflects the outrage and demoralisation felt by millions of Americans and thousands of federal government workers”, the group said.

For her part, Sheline recounted to the Washington Post that she had been hesitant to go public with her decision to discontinue her work at the department, fearing she was not “senior enough” to make an impact. She said she was supported by colleagues who were unable to resign because they had other considerations and commitments.

“I know I’m foreclosing any sort of future at the State Department, or maybe even in the US government,” she said. “Which I think is unfortunate because I really valued the work that I was doing there.”



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