Amnesty International

views updated May 29 2018

Amnesty International

Press Office, International Secretariat
Peter Benenson House
1 Easton Street
London WC1X ODW
United Kingdom
Telephone: (44) 0 207 413 5566
Fax: (44) 0 207 413 5835
Web site:

Non-Profit Organization
Established: 1961
Employees: 350
Operating Revenues: £20.9 million (2001-2002)
NAIC: 813311 Human Rights Organizations

Two students in Portugal raise their glasses and toast, To freedom. Akin to the butterfly whose wings were reputed to have started a hurricane, this simple act launched a worldwide organization that has changed the way people think about human rights. Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977, Amnesty International (AI) is a force to be reckoned with. With a membership of more than 1 million worldwide and originator and sponsor of countless campaigns for a host of human rights issues, AI is, in the words of Jean-Pierre Hocke, former United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, simply unique.

Amnesty International founder, Peter Benenson, was a wealthy British lawyer with a social conscious when he read about the Portuguese students in the fall of 1960. At the time, Portugal was under the dictatorial rule of António Salazar. The two students who toasted to freedom were arrested and sentenced to seven years in jail for this offense.

Benenson had been involved in human rights issues for nearly 20 years prior to 1960. He founded Justice, a British lawyers organization working to further the cause of the UNs Declaration of Human Rights. After reading the article about the students, he approached Louis Blom-Cooper, the legal correspondent at the London Observer. Benenson had an idea for an amnesty campaign for political prisoners. Blom-Cooper suggested an article in the Observer to launch the campaign. Benenson and his friend Eric Baker, and several of Benensons colleagues, spent the next several months outlining a strategy for their Appeal for Amnesty, 1961 campaign. Along the way, Baker and Benenson collected material for a book on political prisoners cases, called Persecution 61.

According to Linda Rabbens Fierce Legion of Friends: A History of Human Rights Campaigns and Campaigners, The Appeal for Amnesty had four aims: to work impartially for the release of those imprisoned for their opinions; to seek for them a fair and public trial; to enlarge the right of asylum for political refugees; and to advocate for effective international machinery to guarantee freedom of opinion.

The Observers editor, David Astor, who knew Benenson, gave him free space in the newspaper. On May 28, 1961, The Forgotten Prisoners was published. The piece highlighted eight such prisoners, from various countries around the world. The response to the article was swift and tremendous. Newspapers around the world picked up the piece and ran it. Letters, donations, and information on other prisoners of conscience flooded to the Observer and the Appeals Office. Benenson and his colleagues put responders who lived close to each other in touch and encouraged the formation of local groups. Benenson came up with the Threes idea: each local group would be given three names of prisoners from the three different political blocs (Communist, West, and Developing World), and the group would be responsible for the campaign to release these prisoners and assist their families.

Diana Redhouse, a British artist who also founded what may be the first AI local group, was asked by Benenson to design Als logo, a candle surrounded by barbed wire. Benenson said the image was inspired by an ancient proverb: Better to light a candle than curse the darkness. The first Amnesty Candle was lit in December 1961. By that time, Benenson and representatives of groups working outside Britain had met and decided that the work was too important to last for only one year. The organizations name was changed to Amnesty International. By mid-1962, AI groups were in place or forming all over the globe, including West Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Canada, Ceylon, Greece, the United States, New Zealand, Ghana, Israel, Mexico, Argentina, Jamaica, Malaya, Congo, Ethiopia, and India.

A New Model for Objective Advocacy

Benenson and his colleagues set up AI as a nonpolitical, nonreligious organization. The group established that it would not accept money from governments or governmental organizations and thus would be able to remain objective, not subject to political pressure. The organization set out to follow Voltaires famous philosophy: I may detest your ideas, but I am prepared to die for your right to express them. AI decided never to engage in comparisons between countries nor flag any political system as inferior or superior to another. The London Times pointed out Als truly impressive impartiality, when AI was announced as the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1977: [Amnesty International] is disliked equally by Chile and the Soviet Union, by the Philippines and South Africa.

Before taking on a case or publishing a country report, AI practice has been to appoint a Research team to verify the facts of the case. The organizations accuracy has been widely recognized and its credibility has helped it remain influential. AI policy established that members would not work on their own countrys research or on behalf of prisoners in their own country. Nor would members be responsible in any way for any of Als work in their own country. Members could, however, lobby their government to implement human rights measures.

Prisoners of conscience adopted by AI, become the subjects of a global campaign. Members write letters on the prisoners behalf, support the prisoners families, arrange vigils, and more. AI also issues Urgent Action appeals for prisoners who are in imminent danger due to factors such as ill health or prolonged poor prison conditions. The first Urgent Action appeal, issued on behalf of Professor Luiz Basilio Rossi of Brazil, was issued on March 19, 1973. I knew that my case had become public, I knew they could no longer kill me. Then the pressure on me decreased and conditions improved, he said.

In addition to its research and publicity campaigns, AI has routinely sent missions into hot spots around the world. The missions delegates are carefully selected based on the proposed delegates qualifications, experience, and gender in countries where the latter might be an issue. Missions always enter a country with permission. Missions often (but not always) have presented their report to the host countrys government. At times a mission would be refused entry into a country and in some cases delegates have been harassed and imprisoned.

A nine-member International Executive Committee (IEC), whose members are elected every two years, governs AI. The IEC consists of seven members, each representing a different area of the world in which AI is active. Other members of the IEC are a treasurer and a member from the International Secretariat, Als London headquarters. With the exception of the International Secretariat representative, the International Council elects all IEC members. The IEC meets at least twice a year. Its members can serve up to three consecutive two-year terms.

The International Council consists of IEC members and representatives of Als sections. It is, according to Als statue, the ultimate authority for the conduct of the Affairs of Amnesty International. The International Council determines Als strategic plan, and its vision, mission, and core values. The Council is also responsible for accountability among Als sections, and for evaluating performance against goals in the organization at large. The Office of the International Secretariat in London, handles the daily operations of AI. The secretary general is the head of the Office of the International Secretariat.

Als mandate is the set of rules that has established the organizations action parameterswhat the organization and its individual groups can and cannot doand goals. The early mandate was simple, focusing on articles 18 and 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Prisoners of Conscience Campaign. In the mid-1970s, AI added a rule, forbidding members from taking on cases in their own country. Over the years the mandate expanded to include many social issues, such as womens rights and the rights of asylum seekers in the country to which they flee. In a controversial decision, AI added to their list of prisoners of conscience, people imprisoned solely due to their sexual orientation. Many members worried, over the years, that with each expansion of its mandate the organization was spreading itself too thin, and its work would suffer. So far, it appears that has not been the case.

The Crisis Years: 1962-1967

In 1962, AI decided to take on the case of Nelson Mandela, who was charged with trying to organize a strike and leave the country without a passport. At the time, he was leading peaceful antiapartheid activities. In 1964, Mandela was charged with sabotage and sentenced to life in prison. His turn to violence meant that, according to AIs mandate, he could no longer be considered a prisoner of conscience. But the British group that had adopted him continued campaigning for his release. Their actions resulted in a crisis that led to a membership poll. The overwhelming majority felt that AI should stick to its mandate and drop Mandela as a prisoner of conscience. However, many people felt it was wrong to abandon him at the time he was sentenced to a life term. The compromise that was reached, and used many times later for other cases, was that Mandela would be dropped as a prisoner of conscience. However, AI would petition the court on his behalf if it found out that the prison conditions were inhumane, if torture was used, or if the trial was deemed unfair.

Company Perspectives:

Amnesty Internationals 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. Amnesty International undertakes 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.

In 1966, a far worse crisis erupted that threatened to destroy the organization. It resulted in Peter Benensons resignation as president, and his severing his ties with AI for a few years. The crisis began with AIs decision to investigate British conduct against suspected terrorists in Aden, a British colony. The Swedish section of AI was given the task of investigating the allegations. Once the highly critical report was written, Benenson was convinced the London office was suppressing it under pressure from the British Foreign Office. After investigating the report in person, Benenson published it himself in Sweden. And he became convinced that the British government was unduly pressuring someone at AI, probably then Director General Robert Swann. Benenson began a campaign to move AIs headquarters to Switzerland, known for its neutrality. He could not convince anyone else at the organization of this need. Eventually, Benenson contacted famed human rights activist and AI member Sean MacBride, and together they decided to appoint an impartial investigator to look at Benensons allegations. While the report was being compiled, proof that Benenson himself took money from the British government to finance a fact-finding mission in Rhodesia came to light.

In March 1967, with AI on the brink of self-destruction, the executive board held an emergency meeting, in which Benensons resignation was accepted. The position of president was abolished, and Eric Baker was chosen as interim director general.

Building A Strong Organization: 1968-1992

Eric Baker faced a formidable taskwith morale at its lowest and distrust in the London office running high, Baker had to reestablish AIs stability and sense of purpose. His leadership skills proved equal to the task. By July 1968, when Martin Ennals was appointed secretary general, the number of AI groups was growing again, and more than a tenth of the prisoners of conscience the group adopted were freed.

Ennals headed AI for 12 years, and the highlight of his administration was the Nobel Peace Price awarded to the organization in 1977. He was known as a warmhearted individual, eager to help in every situation. These characteristics helped reduce the tension and mistrust that still lingered in the wake of the 1966 crisis. Under Ennals direction, AI formalized its stand against the death penalty, and formalized its methods of work.

Thomas Hammarberg was chosen as secretary general in July 1980. He was more of a stickler for rules, compared to Ennals. He strode to streamline the organization, and placed emphasis on clarity and consistency in AIs global communication. In the first two years of his administration, AI doubled its membership.

Ian Martin, Hammarbergs successor, saw AI through the changes in Eastern Europe that started in 1989. In addition, as part of his campaign to attract younger members, he came up with the Human Rights Now! Rock Tour, a tour that swept through 19 countries featuring the likes of Peter Gabriel and Sting. Martin initiated sweeping organizational changes in the Secretariat, and introduced management training to the people in charge.

Key Dates:

British lawyer Peter Benenson, launches Amnesty International (AI) with the London Observer article Appeal for Amnesty 1961.
AI takes its first mission to Ghana in January; a Prisoner of Conscience Fund is established to assist prisoners and their families.
Sean MacBride is elected chairman of the newly established International Executive Committee (IEC); the International Secretariat is established in London.
Peter Benenson is named president; the United Nations gives AI consultative status in August.
AI issues its first reports; the Monthly Postcards for Prisoners Campaign starts.
Eric Baker takes over the running of AI from Benenson; the position of president is abolished.
Martin Ennals is appointed secretary general; the First Amnesty International WeekPrisoner of Conscience Weekis observed in November.
AI launches its first worldwide campaign for the abolition of torture.
AI issues its first full Urgent Action, on behalf of Professor Luiz Basilio Rossi.
Sean McBride, chair of the IEC, is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of his lifelong work for human rights; the IEC expands from seven to nine members; McBride retires from the IEC; and Miimtaz Soysal of Turkey becomes first-ever prisoner of conscience elected to the IEC.
AI is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
AI wins the United Nations Human Rights prize.
Thomas Hammarberg of Sweden becomes secretary general.
AI publishes its first educational pack, Teaching and Learning about Human Rights, and broadens its statute to include work for refugees.
Ian Martin becomes secretary general.
AI pledges to promote all the rights in the UNs Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Pierre Sane becomes secretary general; membership passes the 1 million mark.
AI campaigns for a permanent International Criminal Court.
AI appoints Irene Khan secretary generalthe first woman, first Muslim, and the first person from Asia, to serve as secretary general.
AI wins The Revolution Awards 2001 for best use of e-mail with its Web site.

In 1992, AI saw its first secretary general from outside EuropePierre Sane from Senegal. Sane brought AI into the campaign for a human rights commissioner inside the United Nations, a position that was established and grew into a prominent and visible human rights advocate. As AI entered the new millennium, it recorded another first in Secretary General Irene Khan, the first woman, first Muslim, and first one from Asia to serve in that position.

The Nobel Peace Prize: 1977

When AI was selected to receive the 1977 Nobel Peace Prize, it was only fitting that it won the award on the Prisoners of Conscience Year. AI designated the award money to promote the organization in the Third World, where its presence was traditionally weak.

The Nobel Committee based its selection on a number of factors, not the least of which was Als apolitical stance. In the presentation speech, Aase Lionas, chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, also cited the impressive results AI achieved in its prisoners of conscience campaign. Of 6,000 prisoners AI adopted between 1972 and 1975, more than 3,000 had been released.

Als secretary general, Martin Ennals, remained true to form and elected to keep a prior commitmentAls first anti-death-penalty conferenceinstead of going to Oslo to receive the prize. In its place he sent a delegation headed by IEC chair Thomas Hammarberg. Mumtaz Soysal, a former Turkish prisoner of conscience and the IECs vice-chair, delivered the Nobel lecture for AI.

The award was considered by many to be the second recognition of the organization by the Nobel Committee. Sean MacBride had won the award in 1974, for a peace activism career that included many leadership years at AI.

The New Millennium: Changing Times and a Youthful Image

AI, known for creative campaigns, proved itself capable once again in October 2000. A pilot Web site for AI campaigns,, took Als letter-writing campaigns into cyberspace. Winner of The Revolution Awards 2001 for best use of e-mail, StopTorture allows registered users to launch an e-mail avalanche as soon as they are alerted to a case AI wants to take on. In Lebanon, the government found itself pleading with AI to stop the e-mails just one day after a petition for the rights of asylum seekers in Lebanon went up on the site. The Web site idea stemmed from a research done by AI that showed, according to the Web site developers, that the chances of an individual being tortured are greatly reduced if awareness can be raised within the first 48 hours of someone being arrested or abducted.

Another creative new campaign for AI began in 1998, with the creation of a fund marked toward the purchase of stock in corporations that can be subject to shareholders actions. The funds most prominent purchase was stock in Exxon Mobil Inc. AI planned to introduce a shareholders resolution during the May 29, 2002, Exxon Mobil annual meeting, calling on the company to promote human rights in some of the volatile areas the company does business in, such as Chad and Nigeria.

A member survey in 1999 revealed a disquieting fact about AI. Members were getting older, and for an organization wholly dependent on member support, this was a problem. In the spring of 2000, AI hired Bonnie Abaunza to head a new national office of artist relations. Abaunza started Artists for Amnesty, a campaign aimed to enlist young, popular, Hollywood luminaries who would lend their star appeal to the aging organization. AI hoped to start attracting high school and college students in order to continue building a culture of human rights, as Dennis R. Palmieri, spokesman for Amnesty International USA, said in January, 2002. Palmieri continued: And in order for us to do that, we have to be at the epicenter of pop culture. In 2002, AI was planning its first post-Oscar party, and a film festival in West Hollywood, with a human rights theme, of course.

On its Web site, AI quotes a former torturer from El Salvador if theres lots of pressurelike from Amnesty International or some foreign countrieswe might pass them on to a judge. But if theres no pressure, then theyre dead. Since 1961, the organization has proved that individuals coming together can wield enough power to sway countries and affect real change. With the changing times AI has to modify some of its tactics, but has remained true to its philosophy and ethics to make the world a better place for all people.

Principal Subsidiaries

The Childrens Network; The Company Approaches Network; The Lawyers Network; The Medical Network; The Military Security and Police (MSP) Network; The Womens Network; The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Network.

Principal Competitors

UN Human Rights Commission; Médcins Sans Frontières; Human Rights Watch.

Further Reading

Amnesty International Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, December 10. 1977, Discovering World History, Detroit: Gale Research, 1997,

Amnesty International Is Founded, May 28, 1961, Discovering World History, Detroit: Gale Research, 1997,

Calvo, Dana, Amnesty Makeover: Human Rights Group Seeks Younger Members by Reworking Image, Houston Chronicle, January 9, 2002, p. 1.

Dougherty, Carter, Amnesty to Use Oil Stake for Lobbying, Washington Times, April 4, 2002, p. Cl 1.

Human Rights Breakthrough, Internet Magazine, January 2001, p. 12.

Power, Jonathan, Like Water on Stone: The Story of Amnesty International, Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2001, 331 p.

Rabben, Linda, Fierce Legion of Friends: A History of Human Rights Campaigns and Campaigners, Brentwood, Maryland: The Quixote Center, 2002, 272 p.

Adi R. Ferrara

Amnesty International

views updated May 29 2018


Amnesty International (AI) is a nonprofit, independent international organization that works zealously to protect human rights around the world. Since its inception in 1961, Amnesty International has coordinated research, information, and education campaigns in order to focus world attention on such issues as freedom of conscience and expression, freedom from discrimination, and the cessation of physical and mental abuse and torture suffered by the victims of human rights violations.

With a membership of more than one million people and supporters and donors in more than 140 countries and territories, Amnesty International is the world's largest grassroots human rights organization. The organization was started by a British lawyer, Peter Benenson, who in an article he wrote in 1961 in The Observer posited that the pressure of public opinion could be brought to bear on those who were imprisoning, torturing, and killing people based on their political opinions. Benenson wrote in support of several political prisoners whom he termed "prisoners of conscience" because they had been imprisoned for expressing their beliefs in a peaceful manner. The term came to encompass all men, women, and children who have been imprisoned because of their political or religious beliefs.

Amnesty International carries out its struggle for human dignity for all human rights victims by mobilizing public opinion throughout the world to pressure government officials and other influential persons to stop human rights abuses. Violations of human rights include the following: torture of a person and/or his or her family members by mental or physical means, the "disappearance" of persons considered to be enemies of the state, the imposition by governments of the death penalty, the death of those held in custody or being detained, and the forcible return of persons to countries where they face torture or death. Amnesty International describes "disappeared persons" as persons who are taken into custody, kept hidden and unable to communicate with others, and whose whereabouts are denied by the government agents who arrested them. The prisoners are often tortured. If they are not murdered, they can be held incommunicado for years while the government agents responsible routinely deny that they have custody of these prisoners or knowledge of their fates and often suggest that the prisoners have "disappeared" of their own volition.

Amnesty International's primary goals include the following: (1)freeing all prisoners of conscience; (2)ensuring prompt and fair trials for all political prisoners; (3)abolition of the death penalty, torture, and other degrading punishment; (4)ending extra judicial executions and "disappearances"; and (5) working to ensure that the perpetrators of human rights abuses are brought to justice in accordance with international standards. Over time Amnesty International has expanded its scope to cover human rights abuses committed by non-governmental bodies and private individuals, including armed political groups. The organization has also begun to focus on human rights abuses in homes or communities where governments have permitted such abuses or failed to take action to stop them.

Amnesty International does not accept government funding and remains independent of governmental, economic, or political interests. It has no religious affiliations. Members include people of various religious, political, and societal points of view who share the common goals mentioned above. Financial support for the organization comes from individual members and groups as well as trusts, foundations, and companies that are committed to support the cause of human rights worldwide.

The central body of Amnesty International is the International Secretariat, which is located in London. The organization has more than 350 staff members and over 100 volunteers from more than 50 countries around the world. Amnesty International is a democratic, self-governing body that is led by a nine-member International Executive Committee (EIC). The International Council that represents the sections elects committee members every two years. The organization consists of more than 7,800 groups representing local activists, youths, specialists, and professionals in more than 100 countries and territories. The organization has nationally organized sections in 56 countries; as of 2003, another 24 countries and territories had developmental organizations that were working on creating sections.

Amnesty International members and supporters "wage peace" in numerous ways ranging from writing individual letters of support to participating in public demonstrations. The organization raises public awareness through educational information for school children and other groups, training programs for teachers, the encouragement of training programs for government officials and security personnel, internet communications, and fund-raising concerts. In addition to reporting on human rights issues and lobbying members of government both privately and publicly, the organization works with other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) as well as community organizations and human rights activists to secure its goals. Advocacy efforts range from targeted appeals for support of a single individual to worldwide campaigns concerning specific countries or issues. Each year the organization highlights a particular country or human rights issue and mobilizes its members and supporters to focus global opinion to achieve change.

In over 40 years of work, Amnesty International delegates have visited numerous countries and territories and met with human rights victims, observed trials, and interviewed local activists and officials.

Under the auspices of Amnesty International, research teams focus on particular countries in which they investigate reports of human rights abuses. The organization strives to be rigorous in its investigations, checking and cross-checking information and trying to get corroboration from as many sources as possible. Information comes from interviews and meetings with prisoners and their families, lawyers and journalists, as well as persons working for other human rights organizations, humanitarian agencies, and local community groups. Investigators also monitor the information contained in newspapers, journals, and Web sites. In addition, whenever possible, investigators observe trial proceedings and meet with government officials. Where reports of abuses arise in countries that deny access to Amnesty International, the organization relies on outside sources such as reports from news media and interviews with refugees, diplomats, and other sources.

To ensure accuracy and impartiality, the organization's International Secretariat approves the text of all organization statements or reports. If information is alleged rather than based on observable facts, the organization notes that the statements are based on allegations. If a statement or report contains errors, Amnesty International is quick to acknowledge its mistakes. As a result, the organization has a worldwide reputation for accuracy and reliability. In 1977, Amnesty International was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and in 1978 the organization received a united nations Human Rights Award.

The organization's specialist networks include the following: Lawyers' Network, which helped with ratification of legislation to establish the international criminal court; the Military Security and Police Network, which continues to campaign for the control of electro-shock weapons and other arms used to commit human rights abuses; the Company Approaches Network, which works with companies to help them develop policies that are compatible with human rights standards; the Children's Network, which lobbies states to help prohibit the involvement of "children soldiers" in armed conflicts; the Women's Network and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Network, which have campaigned on numerous issues concerning torture and ill-treatment based on gender and/or sexual orientation; and the Medical Network, which consists of doctors, nurses, psychologists, and other health professionals who have provided aid to victims of torture and other types of abuse.

The organization developed its first global campaign against torture in 1973, and in 1984 the United Nations (UN) passed the Convention Against Torture, which called for governments to punish those who committed torture within their jurisdictions and which took effect in June of 1987. As of February 2001, 123 of the 192 UN member nations have ratified the Convention.

In 2001, Amnesty International continued its focus on the torture and abuse of women, children, ethnic minorities, and persons discriminated against based on sexual orientation including homosexual, bisexual, and transgendered persons. At year's end, more than 35,000 persons from 188 countries had signed up at AI's Web site, <>, indicating their willingness to send e-mail appeals regarding urgent cases. In the same year, Amnesty International supporters took action on behalf of more than 2,813 persons who were identified as being the victims of human rights abuses.

The Internet has been extremely useful to Amnesty International in reaching members to quickly organize campaigns and to mobilize for other purposes. Via its Web site, E-mail, and other methods of communication, the organization issues "Urgent Actions," Rapid Response Actions, and special campaign appeals. Over time, Amnesty International has proven that a steady stream of letters, faxes, e-mails, and other communications sent to government officials and others regarding the fate of a particular person or group of persons, has a tangible effect. Torture and mistreatment has been stopped and, in a number of cases, the subjects of the letter campaigns have been released. AI members and supporters are also encouraged to send positive letters and other communications to governments that have released prisoners or taken other steps to alleviate human rights abuses in order to reinforce the importance to the global community of these cases.

Amnesty International has been a major factor in a number of victories including an international agreement to ban torture, an increasing number of countries that reject capital punishment, and, in 2003, the inauguration of the International Criminal Court in the Hague, Netherlands.

Yet the organization continues to face many obstacles. Although torture has been banned by international agreement, it continues secretly in many countries. Moreover, the governments and political organizations of numerous countries still permit or participate in the wrongful imprisonment and the disappearance of political prisoners as well as other human rights abuses.

further readings

Amnesty International Website. Available online at <> (accessed May 30, 2003).

Clark, Anne Marie. 2001. Diplomacy of Conscience: Amnesty International and Changing Human Rights Norms. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press.

Schulz, William. 2002. In Our Own Best Interests: How Defending Human Rights Benefits Us All. Boston: Beacon.


International Court of Justice; International Law; Prisoner of War; Prisoners' Rights.

Amnesty International

views updated Jun 11 2018

Amnesty International

Amnesty International is a global organization with an international, grass-roots membership devoted to the protection and promotion of human rights around the world. It was founded in 1961 in London on the inspiration of Peter Benenson (1921–2005), a lawyer with a long-standing interest in civil liberties. Amnesty International started as a short-term publicity campaign, launched in a newspaper article and coordinated through Benenson's office. Within two years Benenson and his colleague Eric Baker, a Quaker activist, had established a permanent but small and frugally run organization whose central purpose was to coordinate local groups of ordinary citizens who would "adopt" individuals imprisoned in other countries for their nonviolent beliefs.

Amnesty International referred to the adopted prisoners as prisoners of conscience, a term coined by Baker. Prisoners were assigned to the earliest groups in politically balanced sets of three. One prisoner would be assigned from a Western country, one from the Soviet bloc , and one from a nonaligned country. Group members were not permitted to adopt prisoners in their own countries. Members worked to support a prisoner and the prisoner's family, educating themselves about the political system in the adopted prisoner's country, and working for the prisoner's release by writing letters to the relevant authorities. Although local groups may still adopt prisoners, not all do, and as of 2003 not all Amnesty International members belonged to a local group. Members may also participate in campaigns targeting particular kinds of human rights abuses or focusing on the human rights situation of one particular country.

Amnesty International is well known for its commitment to accurate, impartial reporting on human rights violations around the world. Its yearly Amnesty International Report assesses in brief the human rights performances of most countries in the world. Amnesty International's fact-finding activity started in the late 1960s, when the organization began to employ researchers to write special reports on human rights in various countries. Amnesty International uses research both to inform its own work and also to educate the public about human rights violations across the world. In the 1970s the organization began to combine its members' activism with the professional staff's activities to press the United Nations (UN) and regional intergovernmental human rights bodies to develop legal standards prohibiting torture, political killings, disappearances, and other human rights abuses. Amnesty International is widely credited with bringing torture to world attention through its global campaign for the abolition of the practice in 1973. That campaign also saw the beginning of Amnesty International's Urgent Action Network, a global quick-response system based in Colorado and linked to Amnesty International headquarters in London. In an extension of the letter-writing technique for prisoner adoption, the Urgent Action office asks members to act quickly and send letters, e-mails, telegrams, or faxes to authorities on behalf of threatened individuals around the world.

From its inception Amnesty International has based its demands on select parts of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights: those articles concerned with freedom of speech, freedom of religion and of thought, humane treatment of prisoners, and the right to a fair trial. This set of principles was incorporated in Amnesty International's mandate, which served as a benchmark for all its work. Periodically, the mandate has been expanded or altered to address new human rights issues. In 2001 Amnesty International broadened its mandate considerably to encompass a full array of civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights, as well as the body of international law governing armed conflict.

structure, funding, and governance

As of 2002, the global headquarters in London, known as the International Secretariat, housed approximately four hundred paid staff members and over one hundred volunteers. Research activities and campaigning strategies are directed from London, as are the organization's contacts with various parts of the UN and other intergovernmental organizations. For the most part, however, few Amnesty International members have direct contact with the International Secretariat. Instead, they are served by national Amnesty International offices that maintain contact with London. The national offices, especially the larger ones, have a good deal of independence and are expected to recruit members and funds to both further their own work and support the work of the International Secretariat.

In order to preserve its independence and impartiality, Amnesty International does not accept any funding from governments, other than small amounts for prisoner relief and human rights education. Members' donations and other fund-raising activities support the bulk of its day-to-day operations.

Amnesty International relies heavily on participation and governance by its members. A board of directors elected by the membership sets priorities for the national section of Amnesty International in the United States, for example, and the direction of the organization is further shaped by members at annual meetings. Similarly, international policies are established by an elected International Council and International Executive Committee. The International Executive Committee appoints a secretary-general, Amnesty International's director.

sources of challenge and change

Because they monitor the changing activities of governments and other potential abusers of human rights, Amnesty International and other human rights organizations must also change. Not surprisingly, an added source of debate and innovation for Amnesty International has been the creative tension between the demands of its grassroots membership and its organizational policy. Amnesty International's original, narrowly focused mandate coupled with its members' strong commitment to human rights was a source of strength for it as a young organization. The mandate's expansion to encompass economic and social rights reflects two aspects of Amnesty International's growth.

First, its members, including many in developing countries, have become sensitive to poverty and international economic injustices as major sources of human rights problems. They want Amnesty International to address such issues. Second, Amnesty International has become a nearly global household word as a result of its human rights advocacy. Just as human rights problems may evolve over time, Amnesty International's high profile leads to expectations that it will explore in depth the causes underlying human rights problems and implement active strategies for their resolution, in addition to the more reactive approaches reflected in its time-tested prisoner adoption and campaigning techniques.

See also: American Civil Liberties Union; Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


Amnesty International. Facts and Figures: The Work of Amnesty International New York: Amnesty International, 2002. <>.

Amnesty International. "Globalise This: Human Rights." OECD Observer, no. 231/232 (May 2002):38–39.

Amnesty International. Statute of Amnesty International, as Amended by the 26th Meeting of the International Council, Morelos, Mexico, August 16–23 2003. <>.

Amnesty International. Amnesty International Report 2004. New York: Amnesty International Publications, 2004.

Baehr, Peter R. "Amnesty International and Its Self-Imposed Limited Mandate." Netherlands Quarterly of Human Rights 12, no. 1 (1994):5–21.

Buchanan, Tom. " 'The Truth Will Set You Free:' The Making of Amnesty International." Journal of Contemporary History 37, no. 4 (2002):575–597.

Clark, Ann Marie. Diplomacy of Conscience: Amnesty International and Changing Human Rights Norms. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.

Kaufman, Edy. "Prisoners of Conscience: The Shaping of a New Human Rights Concept." Human Rights Quarterly 13 (1991):339–367.

Power, Jonathan. Like Water on Stone: The Story of Amnesty International. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2001.

Robertson, Fiona. "NGOs and the Advancement of Economic and Social Rights: Philosophical and Practical Controversies." International Relations 17, no. 1 (2003):79–96.

Ann Marie Clark

Amnesty International

views updated May 23 2018

Amnesty International Human rights organization, founded in 1961 by Peter Benenson. It campaigns on behalf of prisoners of conscience. Based in the UK, and funded entirely by private donations, it champions the rights of individuals detained for political or religious reasons. Advocating non-violence, and politically impartial, it opposes the use of torture and the death penalty. Today, Amnesty has more than one million members and offices in more than 40 countries. In 1977 it received the Nobel Peace Prize.

Amnesty International

views updated May 21 2018

Amnesty International an independent international organization in support of human rights, especially for prisoners of conscience, founded in London in 1961. The organization was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977.