Suzanne Nossel '86 - Exec. Director Amnesty International

Nossel, 42, took over as executive director of Amnesty International USA in January. In an interview with The Advocate this week, she discussed how human rights advocacy can be advanced and abused.

‘When you have a system that singles out one country … that objectivity isn’t there.’ Suzanne Nossel understands what happens when human rights are overlooked, ignored, and trampled. She understands because she’s worked her entire professional life to protect those rights. But there is another reason.

Nossel understands because her family escaped Nazi Germany in the 1930s and fled to South Africa. She understands because as a girl she heard stories of Nazi atrocities and saw Apartheid firsthand when visiting South African relatives.

Nossel, 42, took over as executive director of Amnesty International USA in January. In an interview with The Advocate this week, she discussed how human rights advocacy can be advanced and abused.

Nossel’s first foray into human rights activism was as a young girl at the Solomon Schechter Day School in Scarsdale, N.Y.
Along with many members of her community, she became involved in the fight for Soviet Jewry. In high school she founded the Soviet Jewry Club – recruiting more than 30 students to the cause.

Nossel recalled marching with thousands of activists down New York’s Fifth Avenue in New York City to UN Headquarters, protesting the treatment of Soviet Jews with thousands of other activists.

“That really excited me,” she said. “People coming together for a common cause. You felt like you were all raising your voice … and you were taking a stand and making the issue visible.”

After completing her undergraduate degree at Harvard University, Nossel spent two years in South Africa, working with local government and communities in and around Johannesburg to stem violence during the political transition of the early 1990s.
Nossel said she was able to earn people’s trust despite being a white American woman. Actually, being an American helped Nossel move easily between sparring factions in the tumult of post-Apartheid South Africa.

“There was a lot of mistrust, but people could trust me because I was an outsider,” Nossel recalled. “I was such an anomaly … and I didn’t have a vested interest.”

After graduating from Harvard Law School, she served from 1999 to 2001 as a deputy to then UN Ambassador Richard Holbrook. She went on to become chief operating officer of the non-profit Human Rights Watch and, most recently, a senior State Department official.

Her State Department job involved working with the UN Human Rights Council, offering a firsthand look at the council’s anti- Israel bias. Out of all the world’s nations, she said, only Israel had the distinction of being on the agenda of every council meeting.
“The goal is for every country to be looked at with objectivity and to be assessed and evaluated on a common standard,” Nossel said. “It’s appropriate and necessary for Israel to be looked at like any other country. They should not be above scrutiny, but at the same time, when you have a system that singles out one country … that objectivity isn’t there.”

Nossel worked to get agenda items for Libya, Iran, Tunisia, Syria and Yemen, among others, included in UNHRC meetings.
The Israeli government and pro-Israel organizations have criticized Amnesty International for being unduly harsh on Israel over human rights violations.

Nossel said that Israel should not be judged by a higher standard, but neither should it or any other democratic country get a free pass.

“I look at the most serious violations that are happening in every setting,” Nossel said. “Some people say we shouldn’t work on the United States because it’s not as bad as Iran. Our approach is that there need to be improvements everywhere.”
In her new post, Nossel said she would stress social media and other technology to recruit and connect with young volunteers. At the same time, she said, she hoped to recapture those person-to-person experiences she had as a young activist fighting for Soviet Jewry.

“That kind of immersive experience you’ll never have behind a computer screen,” she said. “You’ll never think back to that profound moment when you opened an email.”