Since its founding in 1961, Amnesty International USA has been a voice of conscience against torture and human rights violations around the world. But over the last decade, American activists have confronted a unique challenge: how to respond to U.S. government policies such as “targeted killings” and other aggressive anti-terrorism measures. Before executive director Suzanne Nossel came to Amnesty International, she was a top foreign policy advisor to the Obama State Department. She talks with Kojo about human rights in tumultuous times.


  • Suzanne Nossel Executive Director, Amnesty International USA; Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs (2009-2011)


  • 13:29:54

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIAfter half a century on the frontlines of human rights activism, Amnesty International USA has a new director, a new challenge. A lot of Amnesty's work focuses on improving human rights for people living under repressive regimes, dissidents in Burma, women and girls in Afghanistan, civilians in Syria. But the group now finds itself at odds with the U.S. government over drone strikes and targeted killings of alleged terrorists and the continued operation of the prison at Guantanamo Bay. Amnesty says the U.S. is denying people due process and undermining the rule of law around the world.

  • 13:30:29

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIAmnesty's executive director has worked on human rights in both the Clinton and Obama administrations at Human Rights Watch and on the ground in South Africa, Bosnia and Kosovo. As she wraps up her first year on the job Suzanne Nossel joins us to talk about fighting for human rights in the age of drones, Twitter and President Obama's second term in office. Suzanne Nossel is the executive director of Amnesty International USA. Thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:30:56

    MS. SUZANNE NOSSELThanks for having me.

  • 13:30:57

    NNAMDIYou're finishing your first year, as I mentioned, as executive director of Amnesty International USA. What were your goals when you arrived and what have you spent the most time on this past year?

  • 13:31:08

    NOSSELSure. Well, it was a thrill really to take on leadership of Amnesty USA and be part of the world's largest grassroots human rights organization with over 3 million members worldwide, more than a million activists here in this country. And really the core of Amnesty is our role as a people's movement, a vehicle and an engine through which ordinary citizens here in the United States and all over the world can take action directly to put pressure on their own governments and on foreign governments to uphold their international human rights responsibilities.

  • 13:31:44

    NOSSELAnd there's huge power in that for even an ordinary student on campus, you know, struggling with their course load to recognize they can become part of an amnesty group. They can start mobilizing their peers. They can organize actions and protests and demonstrations. They can write letters. They can get involved in individual cases where they're demanding the freedom of somebody who's been unjustly imprisoned and actually be able to see the progress and the results of their work.

  • 13:32:15

    NOSSELI'll just give you kind of one quick story. Just this morning we learned that Nasrin Sotoudeh an Iranian human rights lawyer who was on a hunger strike whose case we took up and we mobilized our activists all over the world, she was on hunger strike to protest travel restrictions on her husband and daughter. And we just learned this morning that she's ended her hunger strike because those restrictions on her daughter have been lifted. And that kind of victory is incredibly empowering to our activists.

  • 13:32:46

    NOSSELIt's incremental. There's still an enormous amount of change that needs to happen in a place like Iran but our role is creating the connective tissue so that people can become involved so that they have the tools to become educated and knowledgeable and to become forces for human rights in their own communities and globally.

  • 13:33:06

    NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number. Where do you see the most egregious human rights violations taking place today? 800-433-8850 is the number you can call to join the conversation. You can also send email to Our guest is Suzanne Nossel, executive director of Amnesty International USA. How would you rate the Obama Administration's record on human rights including women's rights, gay rights and the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba?

  • 13:33:35

    NOSSELSure. It's a mixed bag. The administration has shown leadership in certain areas. Women's rights have been a priority for Secretary of State Clinton. On LGBT rights, as your last segment touched on, the administration has been strong in their statements and in initiating action at the United Nations and a presidential decision directive spelling out the responsibilities of U.S. embassies around the world to stand with LGBT rights activists. They've also been good on internet freedom, which is a new terrain.

  • 13:34:09

    NOSSELHowever, we have real concerns about some of the core and most difficult issues that the administration confronted during the second term, and that really are unfinished business that needs to be taken up as the president gets inaugurated for his second term. The president promised to close the prison at Guantanamo within his first year in office. And what we see now is 166 detainees still there. The releases and transfer slow to a trickle, the reintroduction of military commissions, no trials in federal court for these detainees.

  • 13:34:45

    NOSSELAnd our concern is that if he does not live up to his promise in his second term that many of these detainees may die of old age in Guantanamo decades from now because it's hard to see a future president taking up the mantel to surmount the hurdles, legal and political, to closing the prison. So that's a crucial piece of unfinished business that President Obama needs to get to.

  • 13:35:11

    NNAMDIThe Obama Administration has used drone strikes to target and kill people in Pakistan it believes are terrorists. How have these drone strikes affected America's credibility around the world on the rule of law?

  • 13:35:25

    NOSSELIt's a real concern because the administration really has written its own rules. These strikes are shrouded in secrecy. The administration is unwilling to disclose details of how they choose their targets, what kind of evidence is used, what kind of process they undertake to determine when a strike is warranted. And we do see significant collateral damage, civilian injuries and deaths as a result of these strikes. And this set of rules that the administration has claimed for itself, you know, overtime we're quite certain will be invoked by others.

  • 13:36:01

    NOSSELThis is not a technological monopoly that's going to last forever. We're already seeing other countries beginning to develop their own drone programs. So it's incredibly dangerous to open up this hole in the international legal regime and to put a set -- a category of extrajudicial killings really above scrutiny, which is what the administration's program currently does.

  • 13:36:25

    NNAMDIBefore I move on to other countries -- and I will, despite your criticism or your concern about the administration policies on drones, some people -- and on Guantanamo Bay -- some people have charged that Amnesty International USA has to some extent become a mouthpiece for the Obama Administration on foreign policy spending less time looking at defending specific political prisoners, spending less time looking at the U.S. being the world's largest jailer and more time denouncing far ranging abuses. What would be your reaction to those criticisms?

  • 13:36:59

    NOSSELWell, as Amnesty International, a lot of our work is unpopular with all kinds of regimes and individuals around the world so we're used to the criticism. And we're open to that, but I would just say look at the record. We've been very tough on Guantanamo and the use of drones, very tough on the administration's abdication of leadership toward a global arms trade treaty. And we really doubled down on our work on the death penalty -- the abolition of the death penalty here in the United States.

  • 13:37:27

    NOSSELWe led in developing the case of Troy Davis and really making that a national cause, an individual who had a very strong claim of innocence but was nonetheless executed last year...

  • 13:37:40

    NNAMDIIn Georgia?

  • 13:37:41 Georgia subject to, you know, very widespread protests in a campaign I Am Troy Davis, that Amnesty initiated. So I would say look at the record. We're tough on governments here at home and all over the world.

  • 13:37:54

    NNAMDIOne of the highest profile human rights cases today is that of a Russian feminist punk group known as Pussy Riot. The group is made up of three young women who were thrown in jail after a February performance at an Orthodox cathedral in Moscow, the performance protesting the impending third term of Russian President Vladimir Putin. One of the women has been released and Amnesty is calling for the release of the other two. Why has their plight, in your view, gotten so much attention?

  • 13:38:21

    NOSSELWell, it's a very vivid case that our movement and our activists around the world have been able to easily relate to. They're young women who have been jailed for the crime of a peaceful performance in a cathedral. And what it's done in a way is kind of taken the old traditional image of a dissident in Russia -- you know, I think of a kind of black and white photograph fuzzy of a faraway man. And it's kind of turned it on its head because it's this colorful image of women in jumpers with tights, with balaclavas on their head, dancing and chanting.

  • 13:39:01

    NOSSELAnd for a youth activist, it's allowed them to relate to human rights work and to freedom of expression and to the chance to connect with faraway individuals and stand with them in a new way. So our student activists are doing punk rock concerts on their campus. And on our Pussy Riot we've distributed balaclavas for them to wear as part of a Halloween action. And it's something that's also activated the artistic community. We have artists like Paul McCartney and Madonna wanting to stand with Pussy Riot. And that brings into the mix all of their fans.

  • 13:39:37

    NOSSELSo what it's done is taken a really troubling and pernicious pattern of abuses by President Vladimir Putin in Russia, something that we at Amnesty and other human rights organizations have been documenting and working on for many years and brought it into the public domain so that ordinary people, not just in the United States, but all over the world, are taking up this cause.

  • 13:40:01

    NOSSELAnd it's not just about Pussy Riot. It's Pussy Riot as an emblematic case illustrating a much broader pattern of abuses that -- and a tightening noose on the role of human rights activists and defenders in Russia.

  • 13:40:14

    NNAMDII know you have a letter on your website calling for the women's release. How many people have signed it, and more importantly, what has been the response from Russia?

  • 13:40:22

    NOSSELWell, we've had hundreds of thousands of people joining our campaign, and we've gone and presented our petitions directly to the Russian embassy here in Washington. It was really kind of appalling, I think. We came a team of Amnesty members and staff to the Russian embassy to present our petition, and the senior official there got very hot under the color, and in fact refused to take our petitions, shoved a member of our staff, and when our staff member wouldn't take the petitions back out with her, he actually marched down the driveway of embassy and dumped the petitions out on the curb, which is, you know, this is a diplomat we're talking about.

  • 13:41:04

    NOSSELSo we were surprised by the frankly kind of lack of respectful interchange on that occasion. And I think what it does show though is that this case has gotten under the skin of the Putin government. We've seen the president himself and other senior Russian officials talk about the case. We've been able to involve senior leaders from many European countries as well as the U.S. in raising the case in a high profile way with Russian interlocutors.

  • 13:41:35

    NOSSELSo I think what they recognize is that the world is watching their handling of this case very closely, and I think they feel the heat. They don't like it. It's not something they're going to respond to right away, but, you know, the whole premise of our work is that over time this kind of pressure and focus and sustained attention does work, and we see in the cases of more than 40,000 prisoners of conscience over the years that we've been able to secure their release through these kinds of tactics. So it's a long game.

  • 13:42:03

    NNAMDIAnd what has been the response of the Obama administration to your concerns and your criticism about not closing Guantanamo Bay and drone strikes?

  • 13:42:12

    NOSSELWell, the president renewed his commitment to close Guantanamo in the waning days of the 2012 campaign, actually during an appearance on "The Jon Stewart Show." So that's noteworthy. And it's now our job to hold is feet to the fire. He's not denying the promise. He's not giving up, and the pressure needs to maintained. On drone strikes, they've really taken, you know, what we think is a very troubling position that these strikes are above scrutiny.

  • 13:42:40

    NOSSELThey've undertaken, it's been reported, an effort to lay out some ground rules but through a secretive process that's not transparent, and we think it's very important that this be a wider dialogue and that any rules that are set forth are really based on international human rights norms. It can't be just the U.S. writing its own playbook.

  • 13:43:00

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break. If you have already called, and quite a few of you have, stay on the line. We will get to your calls. The number is 800-433-8850. You can also go to our website, and join the conversation there. What role do you think activists should play in exposing and denouncing human rights violations around the world? Our guest is Suzanne Nossel, executive director of Amnesty International U.S.A. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:45:03 Suzanne Nossel, executive director of Amnesty International U.S.A. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. You've donned your headphones so I can go directly to Tom in Middleburg, Va. Tom, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:45:19

    TOMThanks. I think one of the most appalling and egregious abuses of human rights in this country is what was done to Bradley Manning. I'm a columnist for a local newspaper, and my column this month is going to be devoted to it. Imagine the treatment that this young man has been forced to endure when he hasn't been convicted of anything. And I think it goes probably up to Obama, because I heard Obama call him a traitor before he was even -- basically even shipped to this country.

  • 13:45:48

    TOMAnd to have the Marines think that they can take this young, gay man and make him and break him is absolutely appalling. When he testified last week, he was articulate, intelligent, and testified with rancor about his abuse and I just urge every listener to write to your Congressman...

  • 13:46:08

    NNAMDIWell, Tom -- Tom. Our guest is Suzanne Nossel. I assume that you had a question for her, that you weren't just...

  • 13:46:14

    TOMOh, I'm -- I'm sorry.

  • 13:46:15

    NNAMDI...making a speech to the listening audience.

  • 13:46:15

    TOMI'm just so passionate about this. What are you doing about him?

  • 13:46:20

    NNAMDIThank you very much.

  • 13:46:21

    NOSSELSure. Thanks. We have addressed the case of Bradley Manning, who is the individual who's accused of leaking government documents to Wikileaks, and we've raised serious concerns about his treatment in custody, and the conditions under which he has been held. And we've also had monitors monitoring his trials and court appearances to make sure that they adhere to international human rights requirements.

  • 13:46:45

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Tom. We move onto Hassan in Gainesville, Va. Hassan, your turn.

  • 13:46:51

    HASSANKojo, thank you for taking my call, and I thank your guest for being a human rights advocate. My question is, you asked, where are human rights being committed today and no one is paying a lot of attention to them. I would argue that it is in Syria, over 40,000 have been killed, over 3,000 children, over 7,000 women. Millions displaced, and this regime is now content on using chemical weapons (unintelligible) even more people.

  • 13:47:17

    HASSANAnd all we've heard from the administration are promises and redlines and threats of that nature. What does the human -- what is Amnesty International doing? What is the international community doing? What are we as human beings doing for those who are being slaughtered...

  • 13:47:31

    NNAMDIThere was a statement, Suzanne Nossel, yesterday from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and implicitly from the President of the United States that if chemical weapons are invoked in Syria, the United States will -- well, do something. They wouldn't specify what action was taken, but our caller wants to know what Amnesty International is doing about this.

  • 13:47:50

    NOSSELSure. We've been documenting and shining a spotlight on this crisis since it began 21 months ago. We have had teams that have snuck in and out of Syria on more than half a dozen occasions under conditions and circumstances where very few journalists or other international monitors have been able to get in, where UN monitors essentially had to fold their tents because they weren't able to move around due to the very dangerous conditions there.

  • 13:48:19

    NOSSELSo we've been on the forefront of bringing the attention of the world to this crisis. We documented in a report a couple of months ago more than 30 forms of the most horrific torture that the Assad regime has been perpetrating on people accused for the most part of just participation in peaceful protests, being subject to floggings being put on racks and hung on hooks, absolutely horrific.

  • 13:48:47

    NOSSELOur role in a situation like this is to continue to shine the spotlight, to demand the attention of world governments, to insist that action be taken. We've been pressing on the UN Security Council for many, many months, pressing on the Putin government and the Chinese government to end their opposition to Security Council action. We've been pressing for a referral of the case to the international criminal court which can help put pressure on Assad's top deputies to stop backing this campaign of repression and brutality by the regime.

  • 13:49:23

    NOSSELWe've also used satellite imagery to document the devastation of Syrian villages and communities showing before and after photographs that just make it apparent in such a visually arresting and disturbing way, the breadth and the depth of this war that President Assad has been waging on his own people. We would certainly like to see, and hope to see, more decisive international action. We do not take a position on military action. We believe the diplomatic channels through the UN Security Council are the best way to resolve a crisis like this.

  • 13:50:01

    NNAMDIHassan, thank you very much for your call. At the same time, Amnesty International is calling on Israel to end the blockade of the Gaza Strip saying that while Israel does have the right to prevent weapons from entering Gaza, it should not be restricting the movement of people and goods in and out of the territory. Talk about that conflict from a human rights standpoint.

  • 13:50:20

    NOSSELYou know, our concern with the blockade is that it amounts to a form of collective punishment on the people Gaza. It may be directed at the authorities and in retaliation for the rocket attacks, which do constitute in themselves a serious human rights abuse because they are targeted at civilians, but to impose this long-term collective punishment that affects every individual in Gaza including women, children who are not culpable for these abuses is excessive and is not consistent with international human rights norms. So that's why we've called for it to be lifted.

  • 13:50:58

    NNAMDIAmnesty International has also championed the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan, especially once the United States military pulls out. It looks as if the Senate may adopt a measure to protect Afghan women as part of the Defense Authorization Act. What is the issue for Afghan women, and what would this measure do?

  • 13:51:18

    NOSSELWell, the situation of Afghan women under the Taliban before 2001 was really one of the most restrictive in the world. Women barred from going to school, barred from entering the professions, not able to even leave the house without a male companion. After NATO's intervention there has been progress. It's halting, it's incomplete, but we now see significant numbers of women being trained as lawyers, sitting on the bench in the judiciary, girls' schools opening up, and progress in addressing sexual violence and maternal mortality.

  • 13:51:55

    NOSSELAnd the concern is to ensure that all of those strides in these incredibly courageous women's rights activists in Afghanistan that have started organizations, done rural development projects to allow women to earn income, opened up schools for girls, that all of that isn't simply set back as the Taliban resurges and becomes a more influential factor in Afghan politics. So we began by developing our own action plan for Afghan women, and we got together a list of very prominent signatories to back that plan leading Afghan women.

  • 13:52:33

    NOSSELFormer U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, Meryl Streep, Sandra Day O'Connor, the former Supreme Court Justice, and we issued this open letter and our action plan. We brought a group of prominent Afghan women here to Washington to do a briefing on Capitol Hill and talk to the pentagon and the State Department, and their message was that the progress that's been made, the quotas that they now have to protect their participation in Parliament and in the security forces, they said this is like oxygen.

  • 13:53:08

    NOSSELThis is as essential to life as the air that we breathe. If this goes away, we will die. And so we're standing with those women, and we are very heartened that Senators Bob Casey and Kay Bailey Hutchison have introduced this legislation, that it's now in the Senate version of the National Defense Authorization Act, and that there's a good chance of passage. And this will help ensure that the U.S. lives up to its obligations to ensure a future for women's rights in Afghanistan.

  • 13:53:44

    NNAMDIAnd you celebrated a great human rights success, the release of Burmese dissident, Aung San Suu Kyi, with a party at the Newseum in September. But some people objected when President Obama visited Myanmar last month saying that despite the release of its most famous dissident, the county is still a human rights abuser. Was, in your view, his visit premature?

  • 13:54:07

    NOSSELWell, just a moment on Aung San Suu Kyi's first visit here to the United States in over 40 years. We had the chance to host her, and we turned it into a town hall meeting for our youth activists. We had more than 450 kids in the room asking her questions, having a dialogue with her and thousands of others participating online and sending in their questions, and it was just a very powerful moment for her to inspire the next generation of activists to work on behalf of thousands of others -- of prisoners of conscience around the world the way that Amnesty members had worked o her case with such determination and tenacity for over 20 years.

  • 13:54:47

    NOSSELAnd we also brought there, as a surprise guess, Pyotr Verzilov who is the husband of Nadya Tolokonikovoy, one of the three imprisoned members of Pussy Riot, and his young daughter Gera, and they came up on stage, and it was this incredible kind of passing of the torch of one generation of prisoner of conscience to the next. And we also heard Aung San Suu Kyi calling for the release of Pussy Riot and making news, and what I learned was that there are many, many thousands of Americans who had not heard of Aung San Suu Kyi, but have heard of Pussy Riot.

  • 13:55:25

    NOSSELSo linking the two was a powerful message to the next generation. We do have serious ongoing concerns about the human rights situation in Burma. The reform is far from complete. There is rampant violence in ethnic areas targeting the Rohingya, which is a Muslim minority group that is denied citizenship. There are still prisoners of conscience. We also released at the time of Aung San Suu Kyi's visit a set of recommendations directed at U.S. corporations because sanctions have now been lifted.

  • 13:55:59

    NOSSELU.S. companies are able to enter Burma for the first time, and it's incredibly important that they not put profits above people, and that they adhere to their obligations. So ahead of his visit, we met with the White House to ensure that President Obama carry a strong human rights message.

  • 13:56:19

    NNAMDIAnd here now is Linda in Takoma Park, Md. Linda, you're on the air. Please be aware that we only have about a minute and a half left.

  • 13:56:26

    LINDAOkay. Many Amnesty members and friends are very concerned about changes in Amnesty structure, and these proposals have led to strikes by Amnesty workers in London, and I'd like to know how AIUSA is addressing these changes.

  • 13:56:45

    NOSSELAmnesty's undergoing a transformation to take staff that historically were based in London, staff positions, and move those to the regions of the world that people are working on. We've created, for example, a new presence in India that has, over the last few months, mobilized 1.2 million Indians on the issue of human rights abuses in Sri Lanka, which is a first. It's part of developing a truly global movement, not just in our traditional strongholds in the United States, western Europe, but broadening beyond that to build a movement that is powerful, including in areas -- the frontline areas where some of the most serious abuses happen, as well as in countries the governments of which are becoming more and more influential on the global stage.

  • 13:57:33

    NOSSELIs a challenging transition because there are a lot of moves underway, and understandably it's unsettling. But overall, I think for an organization operating...

  • 13:57:43

    NNAMDIWe've got about 30 seconds left.

  • 13:57:44

    NOSSEL...2012, it's essential for us to be close to the ground, for us to be a presence in every continent, and to have members and a movement that is active and influential right on the ground. It can't all be done from western capitals.

  • 13:58:02

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Linda. Suzanne Nossel is executive director of Amnesty International U.S.A. Thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:58:10

    NOSSELThanks so much for having me.

  • 13:58:12

    NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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