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In the vast and ever expanding firmament of Western Human Rights NGO’s, PEN, America Center, the writers’ organization, is far from the most luminous and ordinarily barely visible. But a dark side of PEN came clearly into view with the hiring of Suzanne Nossel as its executive director. And the same dark side is becoming all too apparent in organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, both of which have also employed Nossel in the past.
Nossel is former Undersecretary of State under Hillary Clinton and advocate of “Smart Power,” the title which she gave to an article in Foreign Affairs some years back and which emerged as a catch phrase for State’s policies under the bellicose Clinton. In Nossel’s words, ““To advance from a nuanced dissent to a compelling vision, progressive policymakers should turn to the great mainstay of twentieth-century U.S. foreign policy: liberal internationalism…(which) should offer assertive leadership — diplomatic, economic, and not least, military — to advance a broad array of goals…” (Emphasis, jw)
Nossel’s hiring by PEN was enough to cause Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Chris Hedges, to resign from PEN and cancel his talk at PEN’s “Festival” in NYC last week, citing Nossel’s “relentless championing of preemptive war—which under international law is illegal—as a State Department official along with her callous disregard for Israeli mistreatment of the Palestinians and her refusal as a government official to denounce the use of torture and use of extra-judicial killings.” Nossel’s appointment also spawned a petition calling for her dismissal at Change.org (Readers are encouraged to sign here.)
Last Monday at the opening of PEN’s “Festival of World Voices” at Cooper Union in NYC, a protestor distributed fliers containing the same the information as above. The flier called on attendees and others to sign the petition calling for Nossel’s dismissal. When the leafleter stood on the steps of Cooper Union so that he was able to reach each person entering, a security guard appeared and told him to go back onto the sidewalks. Upon questioning by a passer by, the security guard stated that the order came from PEN, not Cooper Union. The leafleter stood his ground, and the guard backed down.
Then once the proceedings began, the protester carried in a large sign, “No to War. No to Nossel. Sign the Petition.” Nossel was there in the front row watching what happened next. A swarm of guards tried to stop the protester, but he continued to the front and sat down with his sign. They told him to leave or abandon his sign. He did not. Finally, after some scurrying around by the PEN officials, Nossel’s enforcers departed. It seemed that an arrest would be unseemly publicity for PEN. As Coleen Rowley and Anne Wright have shown us in the case of Amnesty International, America, “free speech” organizations are not very tolerant of speech that points out their blind spots or their service to the U.S. Empire.
In fact Nossel’s appointment is an epiphenomenon, like an unsightly rash or foul odor that warns of a long festering disorder inside. Nossel’s appointment may be seen as the most visible and overt symptom of Western subversion that goes back to the very founding of the “human rights” NGO’s, as James Peck demonstrates in his meticulously researched study, Ideal Illusions: How the U.S. Government Co-opted Human Rights. So like many symptoms that may seem minor at first, it attracts our attention as to its underlying meaning. And if one looks more carefully at PEN’s web site, one finds evidence of the underlying rot. There one finds not one mention of Julian Assange or Bradley Manning but a good deal about Pussy Riot and Ai Weiwei, as well as Cuban and Iranian dissidents. And that is certainly just as the U.S. State Department would want it.
It is time for the human rights movement to return to the ideals of the UN Declaration of Human Rights and to end its succor to the US Empire. And to remember that human rights begins at home.
So what can be done now? For starters we can all sign the petition addressed to the president, officers and trustees to remove Nossel. It is a small first step but a concrete one. Sign here and send to your contacts, high and low, far and wide.