Interview with Suzanne Nossel, Executive Director of Amnesty International USA


Suzanne Nossel is the Executive Director of Amnesty International USA. Ms. Nossel has also served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations, COO of Human Rights Watch, and Ambassador for UN Management and Reform at the US Mission to the United Nations. The following interview was conducted on May 30, 2012. Questions were submitted from writers at three ACE member publications: Columbia Political Review, Fordham Political Review, and Harvard Political Review.

ACE: At what point does the US government have an obligation to intervene against oppressive regimes?

Suzanne Nossel: At Amnesty, we do not take a position on military intervention. We focus on human rights abuses and how to bring an end to those through all means that may be available or necessary. We always have a concern about what the consequences of different means will be. If they’re violent means, those can lead to additional abuses. That doesn’t mean that we take a position against it, but we would argue that that needs to be taken into account.

These are very tough calls. There are times when there are valiant diplomatic efforts, and those efforts are unavailing, and where at the same time, the consequences of military intervention are not knowable, and there are unforeseeable consequences by its very nature. War and military action is dynamic, risky, and difficult to control, so those pose some of the hardest cases, where you always have a preference for peaceful means, but there are times where those means are exhausted and yet really serious systematic abuses and war crimes continue and there are calls for stronger action. Our role in those debates is to underscore what abuses are taking place, to bring to light information, and to try to inform a really robust debate and the most informed debate that we can.

ACE: What do you think can be done to end extraordinary renditions by the American government, or by any government, if that government is not willing to end it itself?

SN: Extraordinary renditions are a grave concern of ours, and we’ve done a lot of work on individual cases. We’ve done a lot of work on the case of Maher Arar. Last week we sent a petition to the United States government with a great deal of public support urging them that the case be further investigated and there be an acknowledgement of wrongdoing, and we think that’s really an important step for the government to face up to this conduct and its consequences and acknowledge its role in the abuses, the torture that people undergo or have undergone in some of these cases. If that acknowledgement takes place, if there’s an apology, that will be influential in forming future conduct and preventing future abuses. We need to shine the light of day on these cases and these practices and on the inadequacy of diplomatic assurances and the other safeguards that have been cited but which really haven’t been demonstrated to work in practice to protect people.

ACE: So it sounds like you’re pretty optimistic about popular pressure and democracy in affecting change in government.

SN: As someone who leads a grassroots organization, I do believe that awareness and pressure make a difference. I’ve also served in government, so I’ve seen that myself. It’s not always a linear path. There can be countervailing forces and imperatives. Some of these struggles take a long time but yes, I think in the long run I think it can work.

ACE: President Obama recently showed support for gay marriage. Do you this issue should be left to the federal government, or should it be left to the states? How should action be taken?

SN: We view the right to marry and to choose the person you marry as a human right and not as a matter that should be left up to the states to regulate, so we support the Respect for Marriage Act, federal legislation which would ensure everyone’s right to marry and to enjoy the whole set of rights that go along with marriage. We see those as human rights and so something that shouldn’t be subject to restrictions at the state level or at any other level. At the same time, I think the President’s step in speaking out in favor of marriage equality was an important one, and that kind of political message can be catalytic. There’s more progress that needs to be made, but certainly it was significant.

ACE: What do you think can be done to protect people from covert government surveillance, specifically in the US? What sorts of defense do citizens have against that sort of invasion of privacy?

SN: There are robust constitutional protections and there are legal avenues that are being pursued to challenge these methods of surveillance. It’s our view that the these protections have to be upheld and that the right to freedom of expression and freedom of association can be at risk through some of these methods. There are legal avenues; public pressure can be an important avenue to make sure that the laws are enforced and that they’re not misinterpreted or distorted to enable practices that violate these rights.

ACE: What do you think about the recent case of Chen Guangcheng in China, the US response to it, and what this all says about the state of human rights in China?

SN: It was and remains a riveting case, both in terms of Chen Guangcheng’s personal story and the courage that he showed in escaping and the challenge that his situation posed to these two very large and important governments. It really underscored the kind of circumstances that activists in China are living under and what they must endure simply to exercise their basic rights, in his case as an advocate of women’s rights and a human rights activist. In his situation right now, he’s safe, he’s able to have a respite and study here in the United States, so that’s a positive outcome for him, but we also recognize it’s crucial that people like be able to remain in China and be voices for human rights and reform within that country. We hope that if he chooses to go back that the Chinese government will respect his rights and enable him to resume his activities freely. We’re also very much concerned about his colleagues, his family, others who have been subject to retaliation back in China, and about the many other activists who are still languishing in prison, under house arrest, and vulnerable to abuses from detention to execution. If this case can serve to shine a spotlight and draw more attention to the situation there, then that is positive. I think it also underscores that while the government is very repressive, the Chinese people have nonetheless found means and mechanisms through social media to make their voices and opinions heard. That’s a crucial development.

ACE: What do you think organizations like Amnesty International USA can do to improve the condition of human rights in China?

SN: We work on a number of fronts. We spotlight the issues through our reporting, our advocacy, and our media work. We work directly with activists on the ground in supporting them, getting their messages out, and amplifying those messages. We make direct appeals to the government and mobilize our membership around the world to send not just the voice of a single government or population but really a global voice of concern and sometimes outrage over practices. Those are the ways that we work. We’re a grassroots organization, so we mobilize our membership, we do high level advocacy, and we work in the media, and we do human rights reporting.

ACE: Do you think the governments will be responsive to that? It seems that states like Iran or North Korea are almost entirely resistant to outside pressure. China relented a bit with Mr. Chen, but it seems that sometimes governments are just totally not responsive to outside pressure.

SN: It really varies. It’s not a one-size-fits-all. You really have to look at the government and try to work out what is going to be the most effective channel to have influence. Some governments are more responsive to pressure from the United Nations. Some governments are more responsive to domestic pressure from their own civil society. Some are responsive to aid donors or other regional governments that have a lot of influence over them. So the trick is to try to divine a pretty nuanced understanding of how the decisions get made. What are the pressure points? Where does the resistance derive from? If there are repressive practices, which forces are behind those and how can you influence them? It’s not simple. There’s not a single tool that will work in every case. Very often it’s a long-term process of really sustained advocacy over time, often working both inside the country and outside the country. It is very rarely just sort of the silver bullet, and a high-level diplomat comes, and the people are released. That’s more the exception.

ACE: What do you think about the Arab Spring and what the American government has done to foster an environment in which international standards of human rights can be upheld?

SN: It’s a mixed picture. There have been some really strong statements and gestures. For example, on Syria, the United States has been very resolute in condemning the actions of Assad’s government and calling for strong action in the Security Council and the UN Human Rights Council, and working with regional actors to explore a range of diplomatic solutions and has pressed for an urgent diplomatic solution for that situation. There are other cases, for example, in Bahrain, where we think the United States frankly could have done and could be doing more to press the government of Bahrain to implement the recommendations that emerged from the international commission’s inquiry that the government itself sponsored but has not fully embraced and implemented in practice. In Egypt, we have concerns that when it comes to the treatment of protestors, the United States government could be more forceful in its messages and dealings with the Egyptian government. The United States is a big arms supplier, and we do have serious concerns with how some of those arms are being used and about whether there’s enough pressure being applied in relation to the arms deals to ensure that these governments are upholding basic human rights. So there have been some positive steps but there are definitely some additional steps that must be taken.

ACE: Next, something that’s relevant to your work as an advocacy organization. What lessons do you think can be learned from the KONY 2012 campaign?

SN: It was fascinating to see how within a short space of time the video really caught fire and got people talking about a set of issues that were not on the radar screen previously. We’ve been certainly intrigued and paying close attention to how that worked and would like to be able to bring that kind of explosive passion and energy to the issues we work on. We mobilize people, and we sometimes do it quickly and in large numbers, but never at that magnitude, so it’s a challenge for us to figure out how we can bring a similar level of energy and dynamism to our work.

At the same time, it can’t be all a flash of energy. As I mentioned before, many times the change is months or years in the making, and I think there was more of a story to the video as well, in terms of the work that went into it, and the groundwork that was done to really make it into the kind of sensation that it became, so recognizing that even that really wasn’t just an overnight phenomenon but there’s a lot of leg work that goes into it.

ACE: Finally, what sort of role do you think college students interested in politics should be taking and can be taking right now toward human rights and what should they consider in the future as they move on into their careers?

SN: There’s a lot they can do. Especially with social media and online tools, there are so many new ways to raise your voice, to bring your creative energy to call attention to an individual human rights defender or somebody who is at risk or threatened because of their work. You can apply your creative energy. You can make a video, you can have a Twitter campaign, you can use mobile, you can create a photo exhibit, or you can do a demonstration or sit-in on your campus. So there are so many ways to apply your creative energy that are innovative and that can capture attention, whether it be the attention of your campus or local media or national media. Those things get noticed, and they get talked about, and they reverberate around Washington, around the United Nations, and around global capitals.

I think there’s great scope for people at every level to make a difference. The respect for human rights or lack therefore is so determinative of what kind of society people around the world live in and whether they feel safe and free and comfortable and able to live out their aspirations. We at Amnesty are looking to build our reach and to make our movement even more of a dynamic and creative place to pursue this kind of advocacy.