Suzanne Nossel, executive director of Amnesty International USA, was tired but beaming.
The New York-based social justice and human rights activist, who assumed Amnesty International’s top job in January, had reason to be happy. Earlier that day, on Sept. 20, Amnesty hosted a boisterous celebration of Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi’s freedom at the Newseum in Washington.
The event, which drew hundreds of young activists from up and down the eastern seaboard, was a feel-good, town hall-style celebration that included a surprise visit from a husband of one of the members of Pussy Riot, a Russian punk rock band jailed for an irreverent — some say blasphemous — performance in a Moscow cathedral.
As the sun began to fade outside Amnesty’s Capitol Hill office, Nossel, whose organization gave its highest honor, the Ambassador of Conscience Award, to Suu Kyi over the summer, reflected on the day.
“We saw this as a really unique opportunity to celebrate [Suu Kyi’s] release and freedom, and to show our activists some of the rewards of this work because they can be few and far between,” Nossel told The Diplomat. “She’s an iconic figure for our activists.”
Nossel added: “The champagne moments are rare, so when you can celebrate someone’s freedom and political rise, it’s something not to be missed.”
Amnesty International, one of the world’s foremost human rights organizations, was founded in 1961 by a British lawyer who published an appeal in the Observer newspaper urging readers to write letters on behalf of “prisoners of conscience” around the world. It has grown into a global movement of more than 3 million supporters, members and activists in more than 150 countries and territories who campaign to end grave abuses of human rights. The organization is perhaps best known through its work with rock stars and other artists who are deeply connected to Amnesty’s mission of free speech and basic human rights.
Today, Nossel juggles multiple duties, from weighing in on the reported abuse of civilians by the Syrian military or police brutality in the Maldives, to devising strategies to make better use of social media among Amnesty’s activists and volunteers.
“One of my goals has been to bring this work even more powerfully to a new generation and liberate them to use all of the tools and devices they are hooked on all day long — their phone and their computers,” Nossel said. “We want to get them to use these tools to do the kinds of advocacy and apply the pressure both on individual cases and wide policy issues.”
Nossel has a long history of championing human rights, dating from her childhood when she became interested in the plight of Jews in the former Soviet Union and traveled to Moscow with her family to advocate on their behalf. As an adult, Nossel has worked in both nongovernmental and governmental roles relating to diplomacy and human rights.
Most recently, she was deputy assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs at the State Department. There she played a leading role in U.S. engagement with the U.N. Human Rights Council, including the initiation of groundbreaking resolutions on Iran, Syria, Libya, Côte d’Ivoire, freedom of expression and the first U.N. resolution on the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons.
Nossel is also the former chief operating officer for Human Rights Watch and vice president of strategy and operations for the Wall Street Journal. She has also served as a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, the Center for American Progress and the Council on Foreign Relations.
One of Nossel’s most well-known contributions to international foreign policy dialogue is her coining of the term “Smart Power” in the title of a 2004 Foreign Affairs article. In it, she proposed a policy of “liberal internationalism” whereby the United States could employ its military power as well as other forms of “soft power.” It’s an approach that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has made a defining feature of U.S. foreign policy.
Nossel, whose grandparents escaped Nazi Germany in the 1930s, was keenly aware of the atrocities Jews suffered during the Holocaust, and as a high school student in Scarsdale, N.Y., she formed a Soviet Jewry Club that marched on the United Nations and otherwise advocated for more humane treatment of Soviet Jews. She also traveled to Moscow to lend help to Jews there.
“That was my first cause as a kid,” Nossel recalled. “We marched and mobilized and had speakers and things and I think that kind of shaped my values. It made a big impression on me.”
After graduating magna cum laude from Harvard Law School, Nossel spent a couple of years working in South Africa during the transition when anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela was released from prison after 27 years of confinement.
“It was before the first elections and I got involved in the townships there,” Nossel said. “It was very fluid and all the old order had been upended and nothing had replaced it yet so there was a lot of opportunity to get involved.”
Nossel arrived in South Africa at a time of major social unrest and civic disarray and was able to work with different political groups, as well as the police, the army, civic organizations, religious groups and labor unions to try and foster some harmony.
“That was formative without question — just having the chance to see such a complex situation from so many different vantage points,” she recalled.
Years later, at the State Department, Nossel continued to work in the human rights arena, but from the U.S. government’s perspective.
“My portfolio focused heavily on human rights issues so there was a chance to get involved in a whole range of countries’ situations and issues like freedom of assembly, expression of the rights of gay and transgendered individuals, women’s rights,” she said. “It’s helpful to have an understanding of how government policymaking works from the inside — what the levers are, what can stand in the way of the U.S. government doing the right thing, taking a stand on behalf of human rights, and figuring out how to work around those obstacles and how to pull the levers.”
Nossel said she learned firsthand how diplomatic goals, such as economic or political initiatives, can supersede human rights.
“Human rights get pitted against so many other issues, whether it’s regional considerations, bilateral relationships, economic considerations or security considerations,” she said. “Those are the pre-eminent issues in the minds of so many policymakers.”
And many of those interests, especially economic ones, come to Washington or other countries armed with high-dollar lobbying operations.
“You have to be very tenacious in your fight to get a fair hearing for these issues and to press the point that human rights can’t be traded away,” Nossel said. “Doing so very often is not just wrong as a moral matter, but in the long term can also be an impediment to realizing what other objectives are at stake.”
Nossel concedes that human rights will never be America’s sole consideration in dealing with countries that don’t place an emphasis on protecting fundamental individual freedoms.
“I don’t think we are naïve enough to think that human rights are always, or ever going to be, the only consideration that governs a diplomatic relationship or a policymaking process,” she said. “But I also think the notion that these are one-for-one tradeoffs, and by defending human rights the U.S. would be compromising other interests, is rarely the case.
“If you stick to universal human rights principles and are firm in defending them, there is a way to do it that, in the end, isn’t pitted against other types of diplomatic interests and comes across as principled and as a matter of national values,” Nossel added.
Nossel called Amnesty International’s reporting on human rights abuses around the globe “essential.”
“Part of it is simply putting the facts in front of policymakers to try to force a response,” she explained.
Syria is a case in point.
The organization in September issued a scathing report condemning President Bashar al-Assad’s regime for torturing and killing women and children connected to the rebel groups fighting his government. The organization employs skilled — and obviously intrepid — investigators to go to the frontlines of horrific war zones. It’s the kind of firsthand insight that gets the attention of world leaders and can alter their decisions to sit on the sidelines of brutal conflicts.
“We are focused on digging out the facts,” Nossel said. “A situation like Syria has been very treacherous for journalists and very few reporters have been able to get in and document the scale and intensity of the brutality.
“We have emergency researchers who are trained to go in and investigate and interview witnesses and put together evidence on the ground under the most difficult circumstances, and we’ve continued to do that throughout this crisis,” Nossel said. “This report is the latest evidence we’ve collected over the last months and weeks to document these persistent and devastating attacks on civilians, the terrorizing of civilians, sweeping up women and children who have nothing to do with it.”
She said she hoped the report would gain a place at the table at United Nations meetings and beyond.
“This is a grinding crisis that has worn on for 19 months while the diplomatic community has been at loggerheads and paralyzed,” she lamented. “It’s our hope that in continuing to bring these facts to life when heads of state meet in New York, they can’t turn a blind eye … that they are forced to face up to these heartbreaking and horrific facts.”
In the Maldives — a seemingly idyllic vacation paradise in the Indian Ocean — Amnesty International has been doggedly documenting police brutality against those who have peacefully protested the government after the abrupt power transfer of former President Mohamed Nasheed to current President Mohammed Waheed Hassan. Nasheed won the presidency in 2008 after defeating the country’s autocratic ruler Maumoon Abdul Gayoom but resigned in 2012, saying he was pushed out by a military coup.
More recently, in early October, Nasheed was arrested for failing to appear before court on previous charges, though supporters of the longtime opposition leader, who’s been imprisoned multiple times, say the charges are politically motivated.
Amnesty’s reporting on the situation garnered the attention of the State Department, whose spokeswoman addressed it at an Oct. 9 news conference.
“We’ve seen the reports by Amnesty International about allegations of police brutality. We would take any kinds of allegations of police abuse very seriously,” Victoria Nuland said.
Maldivian officials have denied the charges in the Amnesty report, despite the documentation. Nossel says that kind of government pushback is routine.
“We get it all the time,” she said. “It’s not a surprise that governments are not happy that we’re out there reporting on human rights violations they are responsible for. It’s not a surprise that they will rebut and criticize our work and try to undermine us.
“We stand by our work,” Nossel added. “It’s all based on firsthand documentation. We are very careful about making judgments about what constitutes a violation.”
Official reports are one thing, but Amnesty also has a long tradition of grassroots correspondence from its members to prisoners of conscience and the governments that incarcerate them.
Nossel said social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook certainly help spread the word about Amnesty’s mission around the world. The organization now has half a million Twitter followers and the number continues to grow.
“It gives us this incredible reach and speed, and it’s also a way of making the work new and fresh to a generation that is not all that accustomed to letter writing,” she said.
But letters — those paper, handwritten pieces of correspondence sealed in an envelope and mailed the old-fashioned way — maintain a special relevance.
“What I’ve learned over my time here is that letters still really matter,” Nossel said. “When I meet [persecuted dissidents and others], they really talk about it. There are people younger than me who have been imprisoned and they receive these letters and talk about what it means.
“I’ve come to realize there may not be a substitute for something tangible in your hand that creates that human connection,” she said.
While letters may be especially poignant, Nossel said Amnesty will continue to use every tool at its disposal to raise awareness of injustice around the globe.
“At the heart of Amnesty International is really a grassroots movement,” she said. “It’s really about the constituency for human rights in this country. It’s about all of the people who take the time to write letters, send emails, attend vigils, tweet, sign petitions and get others to do the same.
“It’s about raising a voice for human rights that gets heard in Washington and other capitals around the world.”
About the Author
Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.