Amnesty International

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Image:Amnesty Logo.gif Amnesty International (commonly known as Amnesty or AI) is an international, non-governmental organization with the stated purpose of promoting all the human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international standards. 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 it regards as cruel; to end political killings and forced disappearances; and to oppose all human rights abuses, whether by governments or by other groups.



Amnesty International was founded in 1961 by a 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 [1] 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 (Amnesty International Aotearoa New Zealand), Ghana, Israel, Mexico, Argentina, Jamaica, Malaya, Congo (Brazzaville), 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.

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.

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 campaigns for the release of specific prisoners from Guatemala, South Korea, South Africa, Syria, the U.S.S.R., 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. [2] Soviet internal security documents later found in archives indicated concern about Amnesty's anti-Soviet activities. [3] 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, extrajudicial 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 Kurdish civilians by Iraqi forces" under Saddam Hussein.

In 1977 Amnesty won the Nobel Peace Prize for its work defending human rights around the world.

During the 1980s, Amnesty increased its visibility via popular culture events, including The Secret Policeman's Balls 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 is currently running global campaigns to "Control Arms", "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. Today, there are upwards of 7,500 AI groups with almost two million members operating in 162 countries and territories. Since AI was founded, it has worked to defend more than 44,600 prisoners in hundreds of countries.

Goals and strategy

AI aims to maintain every human's basic rights as established under the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. In accordance with this belief, Amnesty works 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).
  • 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.

Their mission statement 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 in the context of our work to promote all human rights, as articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They follow their mission statement by obtaining funding and support from other people."

To fulfil 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, educating the public about the offence, or sometimes all of the above.

Amnesty International works to combat individual offences (e.g. one man imprisoned for distributing banned literature in Saudi Arabia) as well as more general policies (e.g. the recently overturned policy of executing juvenile offenders in certain U.S. states). Amnesty works primarily on the local level but its forty-year history of action and its Nobel Peace Prize give it international recognition.

Most AI members utilize letter-writing to get their message across. When the central Amnesty International organization finds and validates to its satisfaction instances of human rights abuse, they notify each of more than 7,000 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 follows a neutrality policy called the "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.

Recently, 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. Its 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."[4] 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."[5]


Image:Irene Khan 2003.jpg Amnesty International is governed by the 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.

Secretaries General


Amnesty International is a non-partisan organization financed largely by subscriptions and donations from its worldwide membership, and except for a small core of paid directors, 200 or so full-time researchers in the International Secretariat in London, and various coordinators and organisers in national sections, most of Amnesty's members and coordinators of local groups, and many supporters contributing time and energy to the organisation, are volunteers. It does not accept donations from governments or governmental organizations. Amnesty's budget for the 2002 fiscal year included:

  • Membership Support: £2,816,800 (12%)
  • Campaigning Activities: £2,387,100 (10%)
  • Publications and Translation: £2,810,600 (12%)
  • Research and Action: £5,828,800 (26%)
  • Deconcentrated Offices: £1,720,400 (7%)
  • Research and Action Support: £3,481,100 (15%)
  • Administrative Costs: £3,918,400 (18%)
  • Relief Payments: £48,000
  • Total: £23,728,000 (including contingency)

Criticism and rebuttal

Criticism of Amnesty International may be classified into two major categories, accusations of selection bias and ideological bias. In addition, many governments, including those of the Democratic Republic of the Congo [6], China [7], the Taliban [8], Vietnam [9], Russia [10]and the United States of America have attacked it for alleged bias, one-sided reporting, or failure to take security threats as a mitigating factor.

Selection Bias

It is widely accepted 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 in for example Israel, when compared with North Korea or Cambodia. The term "selection bias" is potentially misleading, since it derives from statistics, and AI's intention is not to produce a range of reports which statistically represents the world's human rights abuses. Instead, its aim is (a) to document what it can, in order to (b) 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. The organisation regularly calls on all parties in conflicts to respect human rights, and condemns atrocities no matter who perpetrates them.

A tendency to over-report allegations of human rights abuse in nations that are comparatively lesser violators of human rights has been called "Moynihan's Law," after the late U.S. Senator and former Ambassador to the United Nations Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who is said to have stated that at the United Nations, the number of complaints about a nation's violation of human rights is inversely proportional to their actual violation of human rights.


One example is the allegation of NGO Monitor, a publication of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, which noted that between September 2000 until the beginning of 2003, when AI became active in the crisis in Darfur, AI issued 52 reports on the human rights abuses against Christians and animists in southern Sudan, which has claimed tens of thousands of lives through starvation and ethnic violence, as well as creating 1.2 million refugees (according to the World Health Organization), while AI concurrently issued 192 reports on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.[11] (These numbers refer in fact to the total number of documents including press releases, not to reports alone.) As the NGO Monitor report points out, after the start of the Darfur crisis, AI became much more involved in Sudan. The total number of documents from the beginning of 1996 to March 2005 is 315 for Sudan and 398 for Israel. 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.

Freedom of Expression

Amnesty International's position on freedom of expression is more restrictive than that which is legislated in some countries. The organisation endorses restrictions on hate speech, racial, religious or otherwise. In reference to the Muhammad cartoon controversy, the organisation stated:

"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." [12]

Understandably, this particular stance of AI has supporters as well as critics.

Ideological bias

Conservative commentators have alleged that AI's reporting reflects ideological bias toward a left-wing political viewpoint in opposition to the foreign policy of the United States. To support this they point to AI's treatment of the human rights implications of the U.S.-led war in Iraq. Critics of AI have suggested that AI's concern for the human rights implications of this war disproportionately criticize the effects of U.S. military action while in comparison they were less vociferous about the abuses of the Hussein regime and the human rights implications of the continued rule of this government. Examples of this criticism can be found in the links below. Supporters of AI have pointed out that AI was critical of Hussein's regime while Donald Rumsfeld was shaking the Iraqi leader by the hand, and that when the White House later released reports on the human rights record of Hussein, they depended almost entirely on AI documents that the US had ignored when Iraq was a US ally in the 1980s.

2005: Guantánamo Bay "the gulag of our times."

In a foreword to AI's International Report 2005, the Secretary General, Irene Khan, made a passing reference to the Guantánamo Bay prison as "the gulag of our times," breaking an internal AI policy on not comparing different human rights abuses. The comment implied a comparison of the United States' treatment of "unlawful enemy combatants" held in the camp with the massive prison system covertly run by the Soviet Union under Josef Stalin to "re-educate" over 20 million "political dissidents" through torture, forced labour, and other tactics. Even taking into account Khan's mention of other related aspects of the war on terror, such as extraordinary rendition, this is not a comparison which the AI report itself supports.Template:NamedRef

U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld called the report "reprehensible", Vice President Dick Cheney said he was "offended" by the report, and President Bush called the report "absurd" in a May 31, 2005 press conference. In an editorial, the Washington Post lamented that "lately the organization has tended to save its most vitriolic condemnations not for the world's dictators but for the United States.[13]

External links

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