Coup d’etat at Amnesty International?

Now, this is truly depressing. We have long defended Amnesty International against "left-wing" charges that it is a front for US imperialism (ironically mirrored by establishmentarian charges that it is a pawn in some sinister anti-American conspiracy). We've held its ruthless objectivity in the highest regard—its unwillingness to lower its vigilance against abuses by any regime, East or West, right or left, conservative or populist. We've relied on the organization for truthful, documented reports on the actual human rights conditions in countries all over the world. But earlier this year, for the first time we began to have doubts…

During the NATO summit in Chicago in May, we were disturbed that Amnesty hosted a "Shadow Summit"—which, far from opposing the occupation of Afghanistan, provided a forum for groups that actively support it, such as Women for Afghan Women. The main focus was to oppose negotiations with the Taliban, then being broached in the "official" summit, as a betrayal of Afghanistan's women. Which we heartily agree that it would be. But the "Shadow Summit" loaned no voice to the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), or its stateside ally the Afghan Women's Mission—which oppose both negotiations with the Taliban and the NATO occupation. This was disconcerting. It is now brought to our attention that before the summit, Amnesty purchased space on advertising kiosks around the city proclaiming its support for "Human rights for women and girls in Afghanistan" and urging: "NATO: KEEP THE PROGRESS GOING!" Under criticism, it later issued a half-hearted and equivocal retraction, stating: "The shadow summit—and the poster—is directed at NATO, not to praise it, but to remind the leaders who will be discussing Afghanistan's future this weekend about what is really at stake if women's rights to security, political participation and justice are traded away or compromised." But you can bet far more people saw the poster than the retraction—and were left with the perverse impression that NATO is protecting Afghanistan's girls and women, rather than enabling women's oppression by conniving with reactionary and often femicidal warlords. (Which isn't to say things couldn't get worse in a power-sharing deal with the Taliban.) Tony Greenstein's Blog on Aug. 15 takes a look at the politics behind this alarming erosion of Amnesty's independence…

So what happened at Amnesty USA?

The organization has been under fire from the U.S. political establishment, especially for its harsh criticisms of the Guantánamo prison camp. The Wall Street Journal denounced Amnesty reports on Guantánamo as "pro al-Qaeda propaganda."  As the Washington Post ranted in an editorial, "Turning a report on prisoner detention into another excuse for Bush-bashing or America-bashing undermines Amnesty's legitimate criticism of U.S. policies and weakens the force of its investigations on closed societies."

But Amnesty and its leaders have also been courted by the Obama administration, which set out to present a human rights façade to cover the U.S. government's foreign policy agenda.

This combination of pressure and seduction had an impact at Amnesty USA directly. In January 2012, the group's board of directors appointed Suzanne Nossel–fresh from serving in Hillary Clinton's State Department–as the organization's new executive director.

Nossel is responsible for accelerating a shift already in motion at Amnesty before her appointment. She has used the cover of a budgetary crisis to implement a new strategic plan that has reoriented the organization in closer alignment with the U.S. empire, closed many of its offices, and laid off some of its best and most critical staff.

Nossel is a product of the business and political establishment. She graduated from Harvard University Law School, where she edited the Harvard Human Rights Journal. Upon graduation, she has served in corporate boardrooms, U.S. State Department and the headquarters of human rights organizations.

In the corporate world, Nossel was an executive at the media conglomerate Bertelsmann, the consulting firm and renowned CEO factory McKinsey & Company and none other than the Wall Street Journal, archenemy of Amnesty's campaign against Guantanamo.

In the Washington bureaucracy, Nossel worked for the Clinton administration as an assistant to UN Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, who manipulated concerns about human rights to justify the U.S. war in Kosovo in 1999. Far from defending human rights, the war led to the largest wave of ethnic cleansing in the history of the conflict.

When the Democrats lost the White House in 2000, Nossel took fellowships at key think-tanks for liberal imperialism, including the Council on Foreign Relations. In their history of the Council, titled Imperial Brain Trust,  Laurence Shoup and William Minter describe the organization as playing "a key part in molding United States foreign policy. In the Council, the leading sectors of big business get together with the corporate world's academic experts to work out a general framework for foreign policy."

Nossel has also worked in the NGO world as the Chief Operating Officer at Human Rights Watch (HRW), which set an example for other human rights organization to become apologists for imperialism. For example, HRW legitimized the U.S.-orchestrated coup against Haiti's democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004. Peter Hallward documents in his book Damming the Flood how HRW exaggerated human rights abuses under Aristide beyond all recognition. Thus, he argues, the group gave "moral justification for imminent regime change."

Nossel is an unabashed supporter of U.S. hegemony over the world, neoliberal economics and Zionism, all cloaked in the mantle of human rights. In a 2004 article in Foreign Affairs, she coined the term "Smart Power," which has been taken by Hillary Clinton as the watchword of the Obama administration's foreign policy.

Nossel put forward "Smart Power" as an alternative to Bush's neocon hawks, who isolated the U.S. from its historic allies. Instead of relying on the unilateral deployment of the military, Nossel argued that the U.S. must use its whole arsenal of weapons, from diplomacy to trade pressure to the war machine, as "the best long-term guarantee of United States security against terrorism and other threats."

Naturally, she was overjoyed to hear that Obama's new Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had adopted "Smart Power" as a motto. Nossel gushed that Clinton "was fundamentally optimistic. She's saying that by using all the tools of power in concert, the trajectory of American decline can be reversed. She'll make Smart Power cool." Obama appointed Nossel to a State Department post where she joined the cabal of "humanitarian interventionists," including Samantha Power, Susan Rice and Hillary Clinton herself.

So it should shock no one that Nossel sees human rights not as a goal in itself, but as a means to assert American hegemony. In a 2008 article in Dissent,  she argued, "The more the United States can join and mobilize others to send similar messages, take common positions, and mount coordinated pressure, the more influence Washington will have."

Nowhere was Nossel's subordination of human rights to U.S. imperial interests more clear than in her work at the United Nations–where she made it her mission to ward off any criticism of Israel and its ongoing dispossession and oppression of Palestinians. In testimony to Congress in 2011,  for example, Nossel claimed that the UN Human Rights Council:

remains far from the institution that it needs to be, particularly with regard to its biased treatment of Israel. By joining the Council and becoming its most prominent, most assertive voice, we are beginning to influence the direction and conduct of this body…Palestinians and others seek to use UN forums to put pressure on and isolate Israel. This is simply unacceptable and the Administration has been clear on this point. At every turn, we have rejected efforts to single out Israel and have taken steps to bolster its status in Geneva. 

Nossel has even expressed sympathy for Israel's threats to launch a pre-emptive military strike against Iran's alleged nuclear facilities. In a 2006 article,  she declared, "[T]he international community will put diplomacy and other forms of peaceful response to the Iranian threat to the test. If those efforts fail, Israel may have to put the question of preemptive war back on the center stage."

We've long felt that Amnesty had greater independence than HRW, and was more committed to the nuts-and-bolts work of actually monitoring human rights, and mobilizing to protect the threatened, than making policy pronouncements from on high. Amnesty following HRW in this elitist direction is a betrayal of its mission—and we don't see anyone else on the landscape ready to fill its extremely vital shoes. And now, any idiot apologist for Bashar Assad or Alexander Lukashenko or Kim Jong-un will be able to plausibly dismiss Amnesty's findings on their pet dictatorships as imperialist propaganda. Just wonderful.

While applauding Greenstein's investigative work, we do have to take some exception to his portrayals. It is more accurate to say the US exploited than "manipulated" concerns about human rights to justify the 1999 Kosova intervention. The human rights crisis was extremely real, and a "war" already well underway (with some 200,000 Kosovar Albanians displaced) before the US started bombing. (See our Balkan Historical Outline.) It is true the crisis immediately got worse when the bombing began, with the number of displaced rapidly jumping to 800,000. But also true the Kosovar Albanians overwhelmingly supported the intervention. Anti-war voices do not gain credibility by failing to grapple with such realities.

Also note that Suzanne Nossel is only president of Amnesty International USA—not the UK-based parent organization, Amnesty International, whose current secretary general is Salil Shetty. His Wikipedia page informs us he was formerly director of the UN Millennium Campaign, an anti-poverty initiative, with no suggestion that he is similarly tainted by ties to US imperialism. In fact, we had to protest a couple of years back that the British branch of Amnesty had featured Noam Chomsky as its guest lecturer—who (we hate to say) has problems of his own, having embraced ugly revisionism over the Kosova and Bosnia wars of late. Still, on balance, we'll take Chomsky over the State Department! So perhaps the British and American wings of Amnesty are going in divergent directions… And perhaps the parent organization can do something to bring its wayward stateside offspring back to the fold…

  1. Ex-Amnesty chief dissents from interventionism
    A truly welcome piece on Huffington Post that ran Oct. 31, 2011 after Human Rights Watch endorsed Obama’s mobilization of troops to chase down the Lord’s Resistance Army. It is by Jack Healey, who was the head of Amnesty International USA from 1980-1993 and has since founded the Human Rights Action Network. It is entitled “Should Human Rights Groups Support an Army?” and given AI-USA’s following HRW towards a neo-interventionist stance, it is more timely than when he wrote it.

    As a 50-year veteran of the human rights movement, I was surprised to hear human rights groups’ responses to President Obama’s recent announcement that the U.S. would send 100 military advisers to central Africa to aid the fight against the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

    Extreme pro-interventionist groups, such as the ENOUGH Project, unequivocally cheered the decision as an “important step towards a more effective approach” and called for the U.S. to provide an additional “surge of military, intelligence, logistical, and diplomatic support.” Tom Malinowski from the more moderate Human Rights Watch commented in the New York Times that Human Rights Watch had “been advocating for such a deployment.”

    This endorsement of military action illustrates a lot about how the human rights movement has changed. During the Cold War, when I was the executive director of Amnesty International U.S.A., special caution was made to ensure that we were a neutral voice in conflict. In fact, in the early days of Amnesty International, members would send an equal number of letters supporting political prisoners in the communist, capitalist and third world blocs.

    When the Cold War ended, political distinctions were less clear and the human rights movement began to strategize around how to leverage power to hold human rights abusers accountable.. For those skeptical of any one country having the power of enforcement the International Criminal Court seemed to be a good solution. However, others were comfortable leveraging unilateral U.S. action. The conversation around Obama’s recent deployment illustrates the challenges of this new approach.

    There is no question as to the wickedness of the Lords Resistance Army. However, the militaries of Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, and South Sudan themselves have very spotty human rights records. After supporting U.S. military advisers to these countries, the human rights community now has a vested interest in portraying their mission as a success. What does it mean when the groups that are supposed to be referees now have a horse in the race? Who will make the condemning declarations if the well-intentioned training that the U.S. is providing is used against the innocent? The problem of vested interests goes deeper.

    For the United States, this mission is not strictly humanitarian… [T]he U.S. military advisers are partly a reward to the Ugandan military for being a good ally to the United States in its global war on terror. There is a danger when human rights groups ally themselves too closely with U.S. security interests that they may lose their legitimacy as neutral actors…

    Thank you. But are Healy’s erstwhile comrades at Amnesty listening?