Amnesty International (commonly known as Amnesty or AI) is an international non-governmental organization (NGO) with the stated purpose of campaigning for internationally recognized human rights. In particular, Amnesty International campaigns to free all prisoners of conscience; to ensure fair and prompt trials for political prisoners; to abolish the death penalty, torture, and other treatment of prisoners held by international law to be cruel or inhumane; to end political killings and forced disappearances; and to oppose all human rights abuses, whether committed by governments or by other groups. Amnesty International states that it is independent of economic, political, and religious interests. It does not support or oppose any particular government or group, nor does it support or oppose the views of the victims whose rights it seeks to uphold. It is concerned solely with the impartial protection of human rights. Amnesty International is sometimes criticized, but its principles and efforts are well respected by many. It is a Nobel peace prize laureate and its information is sought both by news agencies and governments alike.
Amnesty International was founded in 1961 by a Roman Catholic British lawyer named Peter Benenson and a Quaker named Eric Baker. Benenson was reading his newspaper and was shocked and angered to come across the story of two Portuguese students sentenced to seven years in prison—for the "crime" of raising their glasses in a toast to freedom. Benenson wrote to David Astor, editor of The Observer newspaper, who, on May 28, published Benenson's article entitled The Forgotten Prisoners  that asked readers to write letters showing support for the students. The response was so overwhelming that within a year groups of letter writers had formed in more than a dozen countries, writing to defend victims of injustice wherever they might be.
By mid-1962, Amnesty had groups working or forming in West Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Ireland, Canada, Ceylon, Greece, Australia, the United States, New Zealand, Ghana, Israel, Mexico, Argentina, Jamaica, Malaya, Congo, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Burma, and India. Later in that year, a member of one of these groups, Diana Redhouse, designed Amnesty's Candle and Barbed-Wire logo, based on an old Chinese phrase: “Better to light a candle than curse the darkness.”
In its early years, Amnesty focused only on articles 18 and 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights: those dealing with political prisoners, or more precisely, prisoners of conscience who espoused non-violence.
In 1977 Amnesty won the Nobel Peace Prize for its work defending human rights around the world.
Amnesty and its writers campaigned for the release of prisoners in many oppressive regimes around the world; all such regimes were pressured equally, no matter which side (if either) of the Cold War they might align with. For example, the spring 1986 newsletter campaigned for the release of specific prisoners from Guatemala, South Korea, South Africa, Syria, the Soviet Union, and Vietnam.
Amnesty International was in particular a thorn in the side of the Soviet Union; they published detailed reports both of conditions in Soviet prisons and of how the Soviet political system as a whole was structured to prevent dissent and political freedom.  Soviet internal security documents later found in archives indicated concern about Amnesty's anti-Soviet activities. Natan Sharansky is one of the more famous Soviet prisoners whose eventual release was secured with the help of Amnesty.
Amnesty was also very active in condemning oppressive regimes which committed murders, disappearances, extra-judicial killings, and outright massacres against their own citizens. For example, the September/October 1988 newsletter's lead article was an appeal to the United Nations Security Council to "act immediately to stop the massacre of Kurd civilians by Iraqi forces" under Saddam Hussein.
During the 1980s, Amnesty increased its visibility via popular culture events, including The Secret Policeman's Ball series, the 1986 U.S.-based A Conspiracy of Hope Tour, and the 1988 worldwide Human Rights Now! Tour.
Over time, the organization has expanded its mission to work to prevent and end grave abuses of the rights to physical and mental integrity, freedom of conscience and expression, and freedom from discrimination, within the context of its work to promote all human rights. Amnesty works with Oxfam International and International Action Network on Small Arms, on international campaigns to control arms globally, working in 50 different countries. Its stated intent is to control arms on the international, regional, national, and community level. It states:
The Control Arms campaign is calling for urgent and coordinated action, from the local to the international level, to prevent the proliferation and misuse of arms. The campaign is calling for: Civil society and local government agencies to take effective action to improve safety at community level, by reducing the local availability and demand for arms."
It also has international campaigns to "Stop Violence Against Women" and to end the death penalty, amongst others.
Amnesty also works directly on behalf of individuals suffering human rights abuses. In 2000 alone, AI worked on the cases of 3,685 named individuals, and in over a third of those cases, an improvement in the prisoner's condition occurred. As of 2006, there were upwards of 7,500 AI groups with almost two million members operating in 162 countries and territories. Amnesty has over 1,800,000 members, including 350,000 in the United States, one of the largest sections. Since AI was founded, it has worked to defend more than 44,600 prisoners in hundreds of countries.
Vision and mission
According to the organization’s website, "AI’s vision is of a world in which every person enjoys all of the human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international standards." In addition, it has recently expanded its campaigns to include "economic, social and cultural rights."
In pursuit of this vision, Amnesty International's mission is to undertake research and action focused on preventing and ending grave abuses of the rights to physical and mental integrity, freedom of conscience and expression, and freedom of discrimination, within the context of its work to promote all human rights.
Amnesty International forms a global community of human rights defenders with the principles of international solidarity, effective action for the individual victim, global coverage, the universality and indivisibility of human rights, impartiality and independence, and democracy and mutual respect.
The rationale of Amnesty International is formed from several key ideas:
- Human rights are unalienable and universal. They are natural laws which are the birthright of all human beings. Everyone is entitled without distinction.
- Human rights are indivisible. Violating rights to protect other rights or in the name of “higher” causes undermines the principle of universality. There is no conflict between rights, they share common bonds. When rights are deprived others are threatened, when secured others can follow.
- Human rights will not be protected by governments alone. Governments have declared their commitment to human rights and have bound themselves by covenants, yet violations persist throughout the world. There are many pressures on governments to disregard human rights and it is at this point of failure that human rights organizations have a role to play.
- Defense of human rights requires individuals to act on behalf of others. The violation of one individual’s rights can set in motion a pattern of further abuses. The place to stop patterns of abuse emerging is at the level of the individual. Moreover, it is at this level that the action of the ordinary individual can make a difference.
- Independence and impartiality are necessary in the defense of human rights. It is not appropriate to support or oppose any particular political, economic or religious ideology. Neither is it appropriate to single out any country or regime, or method of violation as the “worst.” The focus is on the individual and all individuals.
Goals and strategy
Amnesty International’s vision is of a world in which every person enjoys all of the human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights standards.
In pursuit of this vision, Amnesty International’s mission is to undertake research and action focused on preventing and ending grave abuses of the rights to physical and mental integrity, freedom of conscience and expression, and freedom from discrimination, within the context of its work to promote all human rights.
- —Statute of Amnesty International, 27th International Council meeting, 2005
This mission translates into specific aims which are to:
- Free all Prisoners of Conscience (a "POC" is a person imprisoned for the peaceful exercise of their beliefs, which differs somewhat from the typical use of the term political prisoner, but not including persons whose beliefs Amnesty International define as "hate speech").
- Ensure fair and prompt trials
- Abolish all forms of torture and ill-treatment of prisoners, including the use of the death penalty
- End state-sanctioned terrorism, killings, and disappearances
- Assist political asylum-seekers
- End all forms of violence against women
- Co-operate with organizations that seek to put an end to human rights abuses
- Raise awareness about human rights abuses around the world
- Raise awareness of the threat that poverty is to human dignity and promotion of peace and justice
To fulfill these goals, Amnesty sends teams of researchers to investigate claims of human rights abuses. It publicizes its findings and mobilizes its members to lobby against the abuse, by letter-writing (to various government officials), protesting, demonstrating, organizing fund-raisers, and educating the public about the offense.
Amnesty International works to combat individual offenses (such as one man imprisoned for distributing banned literature in Saudi Arabia) as well as more general policies (such as the recently overturned policy of executing juvenile offenders in certain U.S. states). Amnesty works primarily on the local level but its 45-year history of action and its Nobel Peace Prize gives it international recognition.
Most AI members utilize letter-writing to communicate their message. When the central Amnesty International organization finds and validates to its satisfaction instances of human rights abuse, they notify each of more than seven thousand local groups as well as over one million independent members, including 300,000 in the United States alone. Groups and members then respond by writing letters of protest and concern to a government official closely involved in the case, generally without mentioning Amnesty directly.
Amnesty International has followed a neutrality policy called the "own country rule" stating that members should not be active in issues in their own nation, which also protects them from potential mistreatment by their own government. This principle is also applied to researchers and campaigners working for the International Secretariat to prevent domestic political loyalties influencing coverage.
Amnesty has expanded the scope of its work to include economic, social, and cultural rights, saying that these concerns had arisen out of its traditional work on political and civil rights. The 2004 annual report said that "it is difficult to achieve sustainable progress towards implementation of any one human right in isolation. ... AI will strive to ... assert a holistic view of rights protection. It will be particularly important to do so in relation to extreme poverty, and the human rights issues underlying poverty." As an example it asserts that "The right to effective political participation depends on a free media, but also on an educated and literate population.
One of the most controversial internal issues the organization has faced is that of its position on abortion. It has been argued that under certain circumstances abortion is a human right and that AI should recognize it as such; while many AI members support this stance, many other members are fundamentally opposed to it and reject the premise on which the argument is founded. AI’s position, therefore, has been to adopt a neutral stance on the issue of abortion, although the topic continues to be highly controversial within the organization.
Amnesty International has also been a leader in addressing the human rights of women around the world. The AI campaign to address the enormous problems faced by girls and women focuses on the following points:
- Governments should recognize that women's rights are universal and indivisible.
- Ratify and implement international instruments for the protection of human rights.
- Eradicate discrimination, which denies women human rights.
- Safeguard women's human rights during armed conflict.
- Stop rape, sexual abuse and other torture and ill-treatment by government agents and paramilitary auxiliaries.
- Prevent "disappearances" and extrajudicial executions by government agents and compensate victims.
- Stop persecution because of family connections.
- The battle for women's human rights must involve the action of the private and public sectors at both the grassroots and policy levels.
Amnesty International is governed by an International Executive Council (IEC)—a board of eight members elected for two-year terms by the International Council Meeting, which is itself composed of delegates from each country's Board of Directors. The IEC hires a secretary-general (since 2001, Irene Khan) and an International Secretariat, located in London.
National and local organizational structures vary. In the United States, individual members, regardless of age, and each individual organization votes to elect members to the 18-seat national Board of Directors for a three-year term. The Board of Directors hires an executive director and a staff.
Criticism and response
Criticisms of Amnesty International include accusations of selection bias and ideological bias. In addition, many governments, including those of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, China, Vietnam, Russia and the United States, have attacked Amnesty International for what they assert is one-sided reporting or a failure to treat threats to security as a mitigating factor. The actions of these governments, and of other governments critical of Amnesty International, have been the subject of human rights concerns voiced by Amnesty, and have not escaped the negative publicity that often accompanies such accusations.
Alleged selection bias
Some contend that there are a disproportionate number of AI reports on relatively more democratic and open countries. This is the major source of the charge of "selection bias," with critics pointing to a disproportionate focus on allegations of human rights violations for example in Israel when compared with North Korea or Cambodia. In 2006 the organization accused Israel of violating humanitarian law in connection with the attacks on Lebanon.
Supporters claim that AI's intention is not to produce a range of reports which statistically represents the world's human rights abuses. Instead, its aim is to document what it can, in order to produce pressure for improvement. These two factors skew the number of reports towards more open and democratic countries, because information is more easily obtainable, these countries have usually made strong claims and commitments to uphold human rights, and because their governments are more susceptible to public pressure. AI also focuses more heavily on states than other groups. This is due in part to the responsibility states have to the citizens they claim to represent.
Israel and Sudan
In 2004, the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs' NGO Monitor released a study comparing Amnesty International's treatment of Israel to its response to the twenty years of ethnic, religious, and racial violence and slavery in Sudan (a predominantly Arab country) in which (at that time) two million people had been killed and four million displaced. They argued that Sudan's human rights abuses were incomparably worse than Israel's. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said, “there is perhaps no greater tragedy on the face of the earth.” Columnist Anthony Lewis further wrote that “the Sudanese Government in Khartoum bombs southern villages and blocks food relief flights to areas where it wants the population to starve.” In June 2001, the UN's International Labor Organization reported that in Sudan, as well as in three other African countries, “the wholesale abduction of individuals and communities is not uncommon.” The New York Times reported murder, abductions, and property destruction against the southern Sudanese.
For 2000–2003, they found 52 reports on Sudan and 192 reports on Israel. They state “[t]his lack of balance and objectivity and apparent political bias is entirely inconsistent with AI's official stated mission.”
In 2004, Professor Don Habibi of UNC-Wilmington condemned Amnesty International, among others, for their obsession with Israel, to the exclusion of other, worse violators. He wrote:
This obsession would make sense if Israel was among the worst human rights offenders in the world. But by any objective measure this is not the case. Even with the harshest interpretation of Israeli’s policies, which takes no account of cause and effect, and Israel’s predicament of facing existential war, there can be no comparison to the civil wars in Sudan, Algeria, or Congo. Like the UN, the policies of AI and HRW have more to do with politics than human rights.
AI defenders respond by asserting that all nations should aspire to absolute respect for human rights, and that the difficulties associated with monitoring “closed” countries should not mean that “open” countries should receive less scrutiny.
With the outbreak of the more easily covered Darfur conflict, the imbalance was rectified. Between 2003 and 2006, AI issued 110 reports per year on Sudanese issues. This compares with less than one hundred articles per year for Israel and the Palestinian Authority combined between 2001 and 2006.
Freedom of expression vs. hate speech
Amnesty International endorses restrictions on speech which incites hatred towards any group of people, whether racial, religious, or otherwise:
The right to freedom of opinion and expression should be one of the cornerstones of any society ... However, the right to freedom of expression is not absolute—neither for the creators of material nor their critics. It carries responsibilities and it may, therefore, be subject to restrictions in the name of safeguarding the rights of others. In particular, any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence cannot be considered legitimate exercise of freedom of expression. Under international standards, such 'hate speech' should be prohibited by law. ... While AI recognizes the right of anyone to peacefully express their opinion, including through peaceful protests, the use and threat of violence is unacceptable.
The proponents of AI argue that this position, however, is consistent with international human rights law. Article 3 of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide ("The Genocide Convention"), for example, lists "direct and public incitement to commit genocide" as an act which should be punished alongside the actual commission of genocidal acts. This very clause has allowed for the prosecution of a number of top-level génocidaires who organized the Rwandan genocide via public radio broadcasts, which provided the names and locations of prominent Tutsis and encouraged ordinary civilians to take part in the mass killing. The critics, on the other hand, point out that the convention only refers to incitement of actual crime which is illegal almost anywhere whether the speech is related to hate crime or not, and therefore, irrelevant to the issue of hate speech restriction which AI endorse.
Guantánamo Bay comments
In the foreword  to AI's Report 2005 , the secretary-general, Irene Khan, referred to the Guantánamo Bay prison as "the gulag of our times, entrenching the practice of arbitrary and indefinite detention in violation of international law. Trials by military commissions have made a mockery of justice and due process." In the subsequent press conference, she added:
If Guantánamo evokes images of Soviet repression, "ghost detainees"—or the incommunicado detention of unregistered detainees—bring back the practice of "disappearances" so popular with Latin American dictators in the past. According to U.S. official sources, there could be over one hundred ghost detainees held by the U.S. In 2004, thousands of people were held by the U.S. in Iraq, hundreds in Afghanistan and undisclosed numbers in undisclosed locations. AI is calling on the U.S. Administration to ‘close Guantánamo and disclose the rest.’ What we mean by this is: either release the prisoners or charge and prosecute them with due process."
U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld called the comments "reprehensible," Vice President Dick Cheney said he was "offended," and President George W. Bush called the report "absurd." The Washington Post editorialized that "lately the organization has tended to save its most vitriolic condemnations not for the world's dictators but for the United States."
I note that abuses that I reported on in those inhumane systems parallel abuses reported in Guantanamo, at the Bagram air base in Afghanistan and at the Abu Ghraib prison: prisoners suspended from the ceiling and beaten to death; widespread "waterboarding"; prisoners "disappeared" to preclude monitoring by the International Committee of the Red Cross—and all with almost no senior-level accountability.
Amnesty International in the twenty-first century
AI grew out of the outrage of one man about two students. From one man, AI gained international recognition with almost two million members in 162 countries by 2006. The focus began with prison abuse and expanded to speaking out about human rights issues in oppressive regimes and then to representing freedom from discrimination and international gun control.
The advancement of internet technology as well as the capability of individuals to send and access information has expanded the quality and quantity of very current outreach of AI and similar organizations. Even in countries where there is extreme oppression of people, individuals can create a personal website to post articles and send news, photos, and video. Many prisons in developed countries allow the use of the internet to inmates.
Videos sent by individuals in refugee camps, war zones, environmental disasters and so on can appear on computer screens anywhere it the world as events are unfolding with the voice and perspective of the person witnessing the event as it happens. This use of the internet is expanding awareness of human rights abuses all over the world.
The continued work of AI will depend more and more on individuals working together across borderlines and in virtual reality to bring peace and equality to the entire planet.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- "The Forgotten Prisoners." Amnesty International.
- History - The Meaning of the Amnesty Candle from Amnesty International Canada.
- “Amnesty's Amnesia.” The Washington Post, June 8, 2005. Access date: May 15, 2006.
- Soviet Archives posted by V. Bukovsky, INFO-RUSS. Retrieved May 15, 2006.
- Amnesty International Report 1990. Amnesty International, 1991.
- Amnesty International, Oxfam, IANSA Control Arms Campaign Media Briefing
- "About Amnesty International." Amnesty International. Access date: August 28, 2006.
- “Promoting economic, social and cultural rights.” Amnesty International, 2004. Access date: May 15, 2006.
- “Statute of Amnesty International.” Amnesty International. Access date: Dec. 26, 2006.
- DR Congo blasts Amnesty International report on repression.” The Namibian, January 14, 2000. Access date: May 15, 2006.
- The U.S. and China This Week, U.S.-China Policy Foundation, February 16, 2001. Access date: May 15, 2006.
- “The Cream of The Diplomatic Crop from Ha Noi.” THIÊN LÝ BỬU TÒA. Access date: May 15, 2006.
- “Russian official blasts Amnesty International over Chechnya refugees.” Human Rights Violations in Chechnya, August 22, 2003.
- Press Briefing By Scott McClellan, The White House, May 25, 2005. Retrieved May 30, 2006.
- Heard, Linda. "Criticism of Israel Is not 'anti-Semitism." Arab News, Sept. 5, 2006. Access date: Dec. 26, 2006.
- As quoted in Anthony Lewis, “Abroad at Home; 'No Greater Tragedy.'” The New York Times, March 24, 2001. Access date: July 27, 2006. Subscription required.
- “Forced labor and human trafficking is increasing across the world, a United Nations study says.” CNN.com, July 5, 2001. Access date: July 27, 2006.
- Onishi, Norimitsu. “Sudan government tops list of those causing agony for oil.” The New York Times, October 13, 2001. Access date: July 27, 2006.
- Fredman, Asher Ahuvia. Asleep at the Wheel: Comparing the Performance of Human Rights NGO's on Sudan and Arab-Israeli Issues.” NGO Monitor, August 26, 2004.
- Habibi, Don. “Human Rights NGOs and the Neglect of Sudan” (Microsoft Word document.)] July 2, 2004.
- “Sudan” (Online documentation archive). Amnesty International. Access date: Dec. 26, 2006.
- “Israel and the Occupied Territories” (Online documentation archive).] Amnesty International. Access date: Dec. 26, 2006.
- “Freedom of speech carries responsibilities for all.” Amnesty International, February 6, 2006. Access date: Dec. 26, 2006.
- Khan, Irene. “AI Report 2005: Foreword.” Amnesty International, 2005.
- “AI Report 2005.” Amnesty International, 2005.
- “Amnesty International Report 2005 Speech by Irene Khan at Foreign Press Association.” Amnesty International, May 25, 2005. Access date: Dec. 26, 2006.
- “American Gulag.” Washington Post, May 26, 2005. Access date: Dec. 26, 2006.
- “A U.S. Gulag by Any Name.” Washington Post, June 2, 2005. Access date: Dec. 26, 2006.
- Witness.org — an international human rights organization that provides training and support to local groups to use video in their human rights advocacy campaigns.
All links retrieved June 18, 2021.
- Amnesty International website
- Amnesty International UK section
- Amnesty International USA section
- Amnesty International Canadian section
- Amnesty International Australian section
- Amnesty International New Zealand section
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