Why I Had to Challenge Amnesty International-USA's Claim That NATO's Presence Benefits Afghan Women

A controversy has been brewing about Amnesty International-USA's ad campaign and shadow summit during the NATO summit last May in Chicago. The headline, "NATO: KEEP THE PROGRESS GOING" superimposed over Afghan women in burqas has since been termed by Amnesty as an unfortunate choice of words, but is actually consistent with both the tone of the shadow summit featuring Madeleine Albright, and a letter she and others sent to presidents Karzai and Obama. 


The messaging appears to support NATO's absurd claim, signed by heads of state at the summit: “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 the 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.”  Suggesting living in war zones is good for women.

Moderate progress in the areas of women's representation in Parliament and local government, in primary education for girls, and in the training of healthcare providers -- particularly midwives – can be demonstrated. But life expectancy for women is still only 51 years. And, according to UNICEF, 68% of children under five suffer from malnutrition. Also, much vaunted rights for women guaranteed in the Afghan constitution are far from being effectively or consistently implemented, and security for all sectors of society is deplorable. 

And in fact the presence of foreign troops is the leading cause of ever-rising insurgency in Afghanistan.  Even U.S. military experts from Gen. David Petraeus to Prof. Andrew Bacevich have consistently explained that there is no military solution to be had in Afghanistan.

On Tuesday, July 10 in Beverly Hills, Amnesty-USA introduced a new executive director to its donor community. Suzanne Nossel came on board in January after a career that included several years at the U.S. State Department. According to her bio on the Amnesty Web site, Nossel also served as "vice-president of U.S. Business Development at Bertelsmann Media Worldwide, vice-president of strategy and operations for the Wall Street Journal and a media and entertainment consultant at McKinsey & Company."

CodePink organizers had been creating a campaign to ask the Amnesty board for Nossel's resignation, spurred by an article by Ann Wright and Colleen Rawley after we protested NATO in Chicago and the two of them attended the shadow summit. "Amnesty Shilling for Nato's Wars" ran in Consortium News, with a response from Amnesty-USA posted in the comments.

After Nossel spoke, during question-and-answer I said, “I have stood with Amnesty for ten years now to demand an end to torture and Guantanamo, and I hear you have let go the staff working on that project, which is tragic. But the most horrific experience of your leadership at Amnesty was in the streets of Chicago a few weeks ago as thousands of us were protesting. The billboards from Amnesty said “NATO, keep the progress going.” It was heart-wrenching. What has happened to Amnesty that both things have occurred since recently?”

Nossel said the signs were a mistake but the intent was to talk about how the women were better off and to tell NATO they needed to keep the women safe. I replied that her messaging was still off, and that telling the audience of supporters of Amnesty that war is good for women was a horrible lie. As Wright and Rawley wrote in their article, "When NGOs, even good ones, become entwined with the U.S./NATO war machine, don’t they risk losing their independent credibility?"

I had the sense, as did my companion, that Nossel appeared to believe that NATO is good for women. This is the sort of propaganda we hear out of feminist war hawks like Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush. So it's not surprising that members of Amnesty-USA are wondering what has become of an organization that had stood for principled opposition to the might-makes-right doctrine.

One man said, “Maybe I need to take them out of my will." I asked him to tell that to the board of Amnesty-USA. Maybe it's not too late to hope for a turnaround.  

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Note: 100 long-time Amnesty volunteers have signed on to a letter protesting Suzanne Nossel's firing much of the organization's most-talented staff. 

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