Most people associate Amnesty International with challenging torture, protesting the death penalty and agitating for the liberation of political prisoners. On top of these important campaigns, Amnesty has over the last decade opposed the Iraq war and demanded the closure of America’s concentration camp in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.So antiwar activists in Chicago were shocked during last May’s NATO Summit to find that Amnesty International USA had plastered city bus stops with ads declaring: “Human Rights for Women and Girls in Afghanistan: NATO, Keep the Progress Going!”
Worse still, Amnesty USA put on a “shadow summit” of its own during the NATO meeting, featuring Madeleine Albright, Bill Clinton’s notorious secretary of state, who will be forever remembered for her chilling response to a question on 60 Minutes about sanctions imposed on Iraq in the 1990s. Correspondent Lesley Stahl asked, “We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?” Albright responded, “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price–we think the price is worth it.”
With a veritable war criminal as one of its star speakers, Amnesty USA’s shadow summit launched a campaign that, for all intents and purposes, called for the extension of NATO’s “good works” in Afghanistan. Its speakers and promotional materials recycled George Bush’s “feminist” justification of the invasion and occupation–that NATO would liberate women from Taliban rule.
Amnesty USA claimed in “An open letter to Presidents Obama and Karzai”: “Today, three million girls go to school, compared to virtually none under the Taliban. Women make up 20 percent of the university graduates. Maternal mortality and infant mortality have declined. Ten percent of all judges and prosecutors are women, compared to none under the Taliban regime. This is what we mean by progress: the gains women have struggle to achieve over the past decade.”
Compare that to NATO’s own propaganda: “In the ten years of our partnership, the lives of Afghan men, women and children have improved significantly in terms of security, education, health care, economic opportunity and assurance of rights and freedoms. There is more to be done, but we are resolved to work together to preserve the substantial progress we have made during the past decade.”
There is barely any difference at all.
The Truth about Women Under NATO Occupation
Such claims are laughable. The NATO occupation of Afghanistan has involved a reign of terror against all the people of the country, meting out repression, blowing up wedding parties and propping up puppet President Hamid Karzai and his corrupt warlord regime.
Even the New York Times admits there has been next to no development. A Times editorial reports: “According to the World Bank, an estimated 97 percent of Afghanistan’s roughly $15.7 billion gross domestic product comes from international military and development aid and spending in the country by foreign troops.”
Any claims from U.S. or NATO officials about improving conditions for Afghans should be met with the deep suspicion. In the most recent exposure of their lies about development, a congressional investigation revealed that the U.S.-funded Dawood Hospital trapped its patients in “Auschwitz-like conditions.” As Democracy Now! reported:
Army whistleblowers revealed photographs taken in 2010 which show severely neglected, starving patients at Dawood Hospital, considered the crown jewel of the Afghan medical system, where the country’s military personnel are treated. The photos show severely emaciated patients, some suffering from gangrene and maggot-infested wounds.
Conditions for women in Afghanistan are no exception to this general pattern. Neither NATO nor the Karzai regime has advanced women’s rights–Karzai signed legislation giving husbands the power to coerce sex and withhold food from their wives. As Sonali Kolhatkar, founder of the Afghan Women’s Mission, and Mariam Rawi, of the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan, wrote:
Under the Taliban, women were confined to their homes. They were not allowed to work or attend school. They were poor and without rights. They had no access to clean water or medical care, and they were forced into marriages, often as children. Today, women in the vast majority of Afghanistan live in precisely the same conditions, with one notable difference: they are surrounded by war.
After over a decade of military occupation, the average life expectancy for Afghan women is 51 years of age. The country ranks last in both maternal and infant mortality. UNICEF reports that 68 percent of children under the age of five suffer from malnutrition.
Since Barack Obama’s surge, conditions for women have gotten dramatically worse, not better. “The conflict outside their doorsteps,” write Kolhatkar and Rawi, “endangers their lives and those of their families. It does not bring them rights in the household or in public, and it confines them even further to the prison of their own homes.”
That’s why Malalai Joya, a former member of the Afghan parliament, argues that the only good thing the U.S. and NATO can do is get out of her country. In a statement to the demonstration against the NATO summit, she declared:
We have many problems in Afghanistan–fundamentalism, warlords, the Taliban. But we will have a better chance to solve them if we have our self-determination, our freedom, our independence. NATO’s bombs will never deliver democracy and justice to Afghanistan or any other country.
After Amnesty USA’s poster and shadow summit were subjected to widespread criticism, the organization issued a clarifying statement on its website entitled “We Get It.” It conceded that its poster was confusing, especially when thousands of protesters were preparing to protest NATO’s occupation of Afghanistan.
But it’s not at all clear that Amnesty USA does get it.
The organization claims, “We’re not calling for NATO to remain in the country.” But in its supposed retraction, it reiterates all the myths about women’s advancement under the NATO occupation, and it demands that NATO implement a peace process and post-war settlement in the interests of advancing women’s equality. Expecting NATO to play a feminist role in peace talks is like hoping for a pyromaniac to suddenly become a firefighter.
Amnesty USA’s statement was merely a public relations ploy to deflect attention from what its poster revealed in a political Freudian slip–that Amnesty supports NATO’s occupation in the hopes that the military alliance of the world’s most powerful governments ill play a progressive role in Afghanistan.
The truth is that while Amnesty USA has continued its progressive work in some areas–including issuing an important report critical of the NATO war in Libya and human rights violations in its aftermath–it seems to be tailoring its international human rights campaigns to fit the foreign policy agenda of the Obama administration.
To take one example, Amnesty USA was once unrelenting in its criticism of the U.S. prison camp at Guantánamo, where select prisoners of the “war on terror” are detained. Amnesty’s former Secretary General Irene Khan called it the “gulag of our times” and described the U.S. as an “unrivaled political, military and economic hyper-power” that “thumbs its nose at the rule of law and human rights.”
But at the Amnesty shadow summit in Chicago, Code-Pink co-founder Jodie Evans challenged what she claimed was a retreat from work to close Guantánamo. Backed by a delegation of antiwar activists, Evans declared, “I have stood with Amnesty for 10 years now to demand an end to torture and Guantánamo, and I hear you have let go the staff working on that project, which is tragic.”
At its general meeting this March in Denver, Amnesty USA featured U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford. Ford worked previously under former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq John Negroponte during the most brutal period of the American occupation of Iraq.
Negroponte first came to prominence during Washington’s dirty wars in Central America in the 1980s, backing the rise of right-wing death squads against left-wing forces in the region. In Iraq, Negroponte and Ford’s office served the same purpose, implementing the so-called “Salvador Option” of backing sectarian paramilitaries to repress the Iraqi resistance. Their work helped trigger the civil war in Iraq.
Anyone who cares about justice supports the wholly legitimate struggle against Bashir al-Assad and his brutal regime. But Ford, in his brief term as ambassador before he was recalled, was accused of trying to develop quisling forces to serve as U.S. puppets in a post-Assad Syria–something that seems in keeping with his record in Iraq and with U.S. government aims in Syria. Nevertheless, Amnesty turned over a prime speaking spot at its meeting to this mouthpiece for Washington’s imperial policy.
Amnesty USA’s campaign for a global arms trade treaty to restrict the sale of small weaponry raises the same questions. As Brendan O’Neill, editor of the Spiked website, wrote:
The demand for a treaty that would prevent Western countries from selling their guns to basket-case nations overseas sounds radical. But in truth, what Amnesty is calling for is the concentration of weaponry in the hands of the powerful, allegedly trustworthy nations, and also for those nations to play the role of global governors of war and peace by granting the flow of weapons to some nations, but not to others. There’s nothing remotely radical in begging Washington and its mates in the West to decide who may and may not fight wars.
A Coup at Amnesty USA
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 in January 2012.
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.”
NGOs, Corporate Funding and Imperialism
While Nossel has played a decisive role in Amnesty USA’s degeneration, the roots of its collusion with imperialism are part of a broader pattern among mainstream human rights organizations. Many of the most prominent of them have developed closer ties with the powers they are perceived as challenging.
In his book The Thin Blue Line, Conor Foley documents how NGOs like Doctors Without Borders have abandoned their traditional humanitarian stance of neutrality in conflicts and even called for imperial intervention to “save lives.” Thus, he argues, organizations “that were established to alleviate human suffering could, on occasion, be given the task of making the case for war.”
There are two key reasons for this transformation. First, NGOs rely on donations to function, and much of it comes from corporate-connected bodies such as the Ford Foundation or George Soros’ Open Society Foundations. NGOs are thus shackled by golden manacles to the system and its priorities.
As a result, humanitarian organizations are more and more integrated into the liberal establishment. At best, they document abuses and problems, not to empower the exploited and oppressed to transform the system, but to attempt to morally influence the ruling class and its state to adopt better policies.
Thus, the mainstream NGOs have grown intertwined with the imperial rulers and their states. The clearest expression of this cozy relationship is the revolving door between the bureaucracies of corporations, the state and the leadership of NGOs. Nossel’s transformation from corporate executive to State Department bureaucrat and executive director of a humanitarian NGO is increasingly the norm, not the exception.
This development coincides with the use of “humanitarianism” as a justification for the projection of U.S. military power in the post-Cold War world. None other than former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Colin Powell himself exposed the incestuous relationship between mainstream NGOs and U.S. militarism when he declared that NGOs were “a force multiplier for us, such an important part of our combat team.”
For this reason, Amnesty USA’s recent shift into a partisan for American empire didn’t come out of the blue.
Francis Boyle, who served on Amnesty USA’s board in the 1980s and early 1990s, told Covert Action Quarterly that the organization has long been more enthusiastic about exposing human rights violations among the targets of U.S. imperialism. If, on the other hand, it is:
dealing with violations of human rights by the United States, Britain, Israel, then it’s like pulling teeth to get them to really do something on the situation. They might, very reluctantly and after an enormous amount of internal fighting and battles and pressures, you name it. But you know, it’s not like the official enemies list.
Boyle also contends that Amnesty USA has played a role in pushing Amnesty International, which receives about 20 percent of its funding from its U.S. chapter, in the direction of imperial partisanship. The worst example of this is Amnesty’s collusion with the U.S. in justifying the first Gulf War in 1991.
Amnesty played a key role in promoting the story that Iraqi soldiers were removing Kuwaiti infants from incubators, letting them die and sending the machines back to Baghdad. The Bush Sr. administration trumpeted the allegation to provide cover for a war that was obviously about maintaining U.S. dominion over the Middle East and its strategic oil reserves.
But the incubator story was a hoax–nothing of the sort ever happened. And when the truth came out, Amnesty refused to retract the story. “Absolutely nothing happened,” Boyle states. “There was never an investigation, there was total stonewalling coming out of London. They refused ever to admit that they did anything wrong. There has never been an explanation, there has never been an apology.”
A Campaign for Reform at Amnesty
Recognizing the depth of the rot at Amnesty USA, more than 100 long-term volunteers for the organization have launched a campaign to stop Nossel from further undermining the group’s mission. In a petition addressed to the executive director, they call for “an immediate moratorium… on the implementation of the Strategic Plan and the staff changes recently announced.”
On a Facebook page created to press Nossel to listen to an increasingly disgruntled membership, Marcia Lieberman, a leader of Amnesty in Providence, R.I., wrote:
We asked you, respectfully, to listen, but you closed your ears. We asked you, respectfully, for a short pause to allow real engagement with the membership, but you raced ahead and forced your plan through. You could not have chosen better, had you determined to eliminate the wisest, most experienced, most valuable members of our staff. You destroyed the institutional memory of this organization you have so decisively taken over.
After the debacle of the shadow summit in Chicago and amid growing discontent among Amnesty USA staff and membership, Code Pink launched a petition campaign whose initial signatories include Col. Ann Wright and Medea Benjamin. They encourage Amnesty USA’s “board members to call for Suzanne Nossel’s resignation; her loyalty to powerful government players can only be a hindrance to the true work and mission of Amnesty.”
Opponents of war and injustice should support such efforts. But at the same time, the left must see the compromised nature of the NGO model of organizing. At times, NGOs can play a role in various movements, as Amnesty USA has. But because of their integration with the liberal establishment, they can’t challenge the system and its priorities.
The disaster of Amnesty’s support for the occupation of Afghanistan provides the perfect evidence for why the new left we need to build must break with the NGO model and organize grassroots democratic organizations that can lead a struggle against the system.