Amnesty International (Amnesty), an organization dedicated to advancing human rights and ending arbitrary detention, has been active worldwide for over forty years. By the early 1990s, Amnesty had worked on behalf of 33,500 prisoners and has since added to its long list of successes. With hundreds of researchers and full-time employees combating injustice around the globe, Amnesty International has become among the world’s most visible Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs).
The group has articulated four major objectives: (1) securing the release of prisoners of conscience (Amnesty defines a prisoner of conscience as one who is imprisoned on the basis of sex, religion, national origin, or belief who has not used or advocated violence.); (2) fair trials for political prisoners; (3) an end to torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment; and (4) an end to executions. It pressures governments to comply with international law obligations embodied in treaties such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which nearly all nations have ratified.
Amnesty was the brainchild of Peter Benenson, a Catholic lawyer of Jewish descent. Having been previously involved in human rights advocacy, Benenson, at the age of forty, was spurred into action in 1961 at reports that two Portuguese students had been sentenced to prison for raising their glasses in public and toasting to freedom. He recruited Eric Baker, a prominent Quaker, and Louis Blom-Cooper, an internationally known lawyer, and they began an effort to pressure Portugal’s Salazar regime to release the students as well as to address and publicize the status of political and religious prisoners throughout the world.
The campaign was called ‘‘An Appeal for Amnesty, 1961’’ and was launched when the influential liberal British Sunday newspaper The Observer agreed to provide a platform for an expose´ highlighting the plight of eight prisoners of conscience entitled ‘‘The Forgotten Prisoners.’’ The article attracted worldwide media attention along with a flood of letters and donations. What began as a one-year campaign soon morphed into a permanent effort. Branches soon appeared in France, Ireland, Greece, Switzerland, Norway, the United States, and others. In over 160 countries Amnesty volunteers are now working to further the organization’s goals.
The group has campaigned for causes such as exposing the use of child soldiers in Africa, responsible economic development and globalization, the rights of asylum-refugees-and-the-convention-against-torture.html">refugees, and arms control. Amnesty was particularly active in documenting and exposing human rights abuses in Argentina during its period of military rule and in Chile under Gen. August Pinochet. More recently, it has successfully campaigned for a permanent International Criminal Court, whose statute was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1998. Amnesty has assured its impartiality and independence by refusing to accept monetary contributions from governments.
Amnesty has developed a successful formula of aggressive on-site investigation to uncover abuses, followed by an intensive letter-writing campaign supplemented by posters, advertisements, and media spots designed to publicize human rights violations and to pressure governments to end them. Its efforts have paid off. In 1963, of the 770 individuals ‘‘adopted’’ by Amnesty International, 140 had been freed from detention. In 1975, 1,403 of its adopted prisoners had been released. In 1978, the group won the United Nations Human Rights Prize for ‘‘outstanding contributions in the field of human rights,’’ and by 1992 its membership had exceeded one million.
The group has attracted members and publicity in innovative ways. During the 1980s, Amnesty began to organize rock concerts designed to spread awareness of human rights issues. The 1986 ‘‘Conspiracy of Hope’’ concert sponsored by Amnesty’s U.S. section was followed in 1988 by the ‘‘Human Rights Now!’’ concert tour (featuring Sting, Bruce Springsteen, and others) to mark the fortieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Although its primary focus has often been elsewhere in the world, Amnesty has been involved in the United States from the beginning. Of the eight individuals profiled in its 1961 launch piece, one of them was Ashton Jones, a sixty-five-year-old minister who had been beaten, harassed, and imprisoned several times in Louisiana and Texas for his activities in support of civil rights for African Americans.
Its activities in the United States, however, have long focused on the issue of capital punishment. In 1965, Amnesty circulated a resolution at the United Nations that sought to suspend or outright abolish executions for peacetime offenses. In 1977, the group gathered delegates from over fifty countries to Stockholm, Sweden, to denounce the death penalty, labeling it a cruel, arbitrary, and irrevocable punishment that does not deter crime. In this sense, Amnesty’s opposition to the death penalty is well received by domestic opponents of capital punishment, who argue that it constitutes a type of ‘‘cruel and unusual’’ punishment proscribed by the Eighth Amendment. Amnesty has been particularly critical of the United States for executing child offenders—those under eighteen at the time of their crime—which Amnesty characterizes as being ‘‘in contravention of international law.’’ Moreover, it also decries execution of criminals with histories of mental illness.
More recently, the group has been particularly vocal in denouncing U.S. government tactics in prosecuting what PresidentGeorgeW. Bush had dubbed theGlobal War on Terror, or GWOT. Amnesty has focused particularly heavily on revelations of torture at the Abu Ghraib detention facility in Iraq (see Abu Ghraib entry) and has accused the American administration of sanctioning interrogation techniques that violate the Convention on Torture. The detentions of suspected terrorists in Guanta´namo Bay, Cuba, has also been criticized. Although the United States maintains that detainees at the facility do not qualify for protections under the Geneva Conventions and may be held indefinitely without judicial review, Amnesty has protested the prolonged detentions without charge or access to U.S. courts. In its 2005 annual report, the organization pilloried President Bush’s proposal to try certain suspects using military tribunals and has similarly denounced the practice of renditions—in which suspects in American hands are transferred to third-party countries to be interrogated and possibly tortured.
References and Further Reading