Amnesty International

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Amnesty International is an international nongovernmental organization with a focus on human rights. Founded in London in 1961, Amnesty is the largest and longest serving human rights organization in the world. They won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977 for their "campaign against torture" and the United Nations Prize in the field of Human Rights in 1978.



In 1961, British lawyer Peter Benenson launched a worldwide campaign, 'Appeal for Amnesty 1961', with the publication of the article, 'The Forgotten Prisoners', in the Observer newspaper. Benenson wrote the article because he was moved by the imprisonment of two Portuguese students, who had raised their wine glasses in a toast to freedom. His article was reprinted across the world which began the genesis of Amnesty International.

The first international meeting had delegates from Belgium, the UK, France, Germany, Ireland, Switzerland and the US. They decided to establish "a permanent international movement in defence of freedom of opinion and religion".

A small office and library, staffed by volunteers, opened in Peter Benenson’s chambers, in Mitre Court, London. The ’Threes Network‘ was established through which each Amnesty International group adopted three prisoners from contrasting geographical and political areas, emphasizing the impartiality of the group's work.

On Human Rights Day, 10 December, the first Amnesty candle was lit in the church of St-Martin-in-the-Fields, London.

The first research trip was taken in January of 1962. This trip to Ghana, was followed by Czechoslovakia in February (on behalf of a prisoner of conscience, Archbishop Josef Beran), and then to Portugal and East Germany.

The Prisoner of Conscience Fund was established to provide relief to prisoners and their families.

AI’s first annual report was published containing details of 210 prisoners who had been adopted by 70 groups in seven countries; in addition, 1,200 cases were documented in the Prisoners of Conscience Library.

At a conference in Belgium, a decision was made to set up a permanent organization that will be known as Amnesty International.

The Beginning

In 1963 Amnesty International was comprised of 350 groups and Amnesty International's headquarters was established in London. Peter Benenson was named the president in 1964. In August of that same year the United Nations gave Amnesty International consultative status.

Amnesty International issued its first reports in 1965 – on prison conditions in Portugal, South Africa and Romania – and sponsored a resolution at the United Nations to suspend and finally abolish the death penalty for peacetime political offences.

By 1966 Eric Baker had taken over running the organization and in 1967 there were 550 groups and 18 countries working to help 2,000 prisoners in 63 countries with 293 released.

The first Prisoner of Conscience Week was observed in November of 1968. In January of 1969, UNESCO granted Amnesty International consultative status as the organization reached another milestone – 2,000 prisoners of conscience released. The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination was adopted

The 1970s

Amnesty International celebrated their 10th anniversary in 1971 - 700 prisoners were released. Amnesty launched its first worldwide campaign for the abolition of torture in 1972. The new regime in Chile agreed to admit a three-person Amnesty International mission for an on-the-spot probe into allegations of massive violations of human rights. The United Nations unanimously approved the Amnesty International-inspired resolution formally denouncing torture.

Amnesty International’s Sean McBride, Chair of the International Executive Committee, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of his lifelong work for human rights in 1974. The United Nations unanimously adopted a Declaration Against Toture in 1975 their was 1,592 groups in 33 countires and more than 70,000 members in 65 countries.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights entered into force in 1976. Together they are known as the International Bill of Rights.

Amnesty was awarded the Nobel Peace Prise in 1977 for "having contributed to securing the ground for freedom, for justice, and thereby also for peace in the world" and in 1978 won the United Nations Human Rights prize for "outstanding contributions in the field of human rights".

In 1979 the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) was adopted by the UN General Assembly.

The 1980s

Thomas Hammarberg of Sweden took over from Martin Ennals as Secretary General in 1981 and on December 10 1982, Human Rights Day, an appeal was launched for a universal amnesty for all prisoners of conscience. More than one million people signed petitions which were presented to the United Nations a year later.

Amnesty International launched a special report on political killings by governments in 1983 and published its first education pack, 'Teaching and Learning about Human Rights', in 1985. The International Council Meeting in Helsinki, Finland, made a decision to broaden the statute to include work for refugees. There were now more than half a million members, supporters and subscribers.

Ian Martin became General Secretary in 1986 and Amnesty International USA launched the Conspiracy of Hope rock concert tour with U2, Sting, Peter Gabriel, Bryan Adams, Lou Reed, the Neville Brothers and others.

AI published a report which said that the death penalty in the USA was racially biased and arbitrary and had violated treaties such as the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and The Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

The Human Rights Now! concert tour, featuring, among others, Sting and Bruce Springsteen, travelled to 19 cities in 15 countries and was viewed by millions when broadcast on Human Rights Day which caused a huge membership surge in 1988.

Amnesty International published a major new study on the death penalty, When the State Kills.

The 1990s

Membership increased to 700,000 members in 150 countries, with more than 6,000 volunteer groups in 70 countries. Amnesty International’s 30th anniversary saw the organization broaden its scope to cover work on abuses by armed opposition groups, hostage taking and people imprisoned due to their sexual orientation. In 1992 membership passed one million and Pierre Sané was appointed Secretary General of Amnesty International.

The UN Declaration on the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance was adopted.

Amnesty International launched major international campaigns on women's rights, disappearances and political killings and campaigned to Stop the Torture Trade and for a permanent International Criminal Court. The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court was adopted in July 1998. Amnesty International launched the Get Up, Sign Up! campaign to mark the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – 13 million pledges of support were collected.

The United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders was adopted in March 1999.

Our International Council Meeting agreed to expand Amnesty International’s remit to include the impact of economic relations on human rights, empowering human rights defenders, campaigning against impunity, enhancing work to protect refugees and strengthening grassroots activism.

The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women was adopted, meaning the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women can receive and consider complaints from individuals or groups.

Present Day

Amnesty International launched the third Campaign against Torture and Irene Khan was appointed Secretary General of Amnesty International.

In its 40th anniversary year, Amnesty International changed its Statute to incorporate, into its mission, work for economic, social and cutlural rights thus committing itself to advance both the universality and indivisibility of all human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration.

Amnesty International’s Stop Torture website won a Revolution Award, which recognised the best in digital marketing.


The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict was adopted (the Convention on the Rights of the Child itself having been adopted in 1959).

The 60th ratification of the Rome Statute took place, paving the way for the International Criminal Court to come into force on 1 July 2002.

Amnesty International launched a campaign in the Russian Federation against the widespread human rights abuses committed in a climate of impunity.

Amnesty International, Oxfam and the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA) launched the global Control Arms campaign and launched the Stop Violence Against Women campaign.


Amnesty International launched the Make Some Noise campaign – music, celebration and action in support of Amnesty International’s work. Yoko Ono made a gift to Amnesty International of the recording rights to Imagine and John Lennon's entire solo songbook.

Amnesty International's report, Cruel. Inhuman. Degrades us all – Stop torture and ill-treatment in the ‘war on terror’, challenged the claim that, in the face of terrorist threats, states need not be bound by previously agreed human rights standards.


Amnesty International’s report, Partners in crime: Europe’s role in US renditions, detailed the involvement of European states in US flights used to secretly seize and imprison terrorist suspects without due process.

The millionth person to post a picture of himself on the Control Arms Million Faces web petition calling for an Arms Trade Treaty presented the petition to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. A further quarter of a million people signed the petition before the year was out.

Amnesty International and its partners in the Control Arms campaign achieved a major victory when the UN voted overwhelmingly to start work on a treaty.

The UN adopted the International Convention For The Protection Of All Persons From Enforced Disappearance.


Amnesty International launched a global petition calling on Sudan’s government to protect civilians in Darfur and launched a CD featuring 30 world-class musicians to mobilize support, called Make Some Noise: The Campaign to Save Darfur.

The United Nations General Assembly (GA) adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Following intense campaigning by Amnesty International and its partners in the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, the UN General Assembly (UNGA) Third Committee's 62nd session adopted resolution L29 calling for a global moratorium on executions.

Amnesty International has more than 2.2 million members, supporters and subscribers in over 150 countries and territories in every region of the world.

Current objectives and activities

Amnesty International primarily targets governments, but also reports on non-governmental bodies and private individuals.

There are seven key areas which Amnesty deals with:

  • Women's Rights
  • Children's Rights
  • Ending Torture
  • Abolition of the death penalty
  • Rights of Refugees
  • Rights of Prisoners of Conscience
  • Protection of Human dignity

Some specific aims are to abolish the death penalty, end extra judicial executions and "disappearances", ensure prison conditions meet international human rights standards, ensure prompt and fair trial for all political prisoners, ensure free education to all children worldwide, decriminalize abortion, fight impunity from systems of justice, end the recruitment and use of child soldiers, free all prisoners of conscience, promote economic, social and cultural rights for marginalized communities, protect human rights defenders, promote religious tolerance, stop torture and ill-treatment, stop unlawful killings in armed conflict, to uphold the rights of refugees, migrants and asylum seekers, and to protect Human dignity.

Organizational structure

Amnesty International is largely made up of voluntary members with a couple of paid professionals. Where Amnesty has a strong presence, members are organized in 'sections' which always contains a board of directors. In 2005 there were 52 sections worldwide. 'Structures' are aspiring sections. They also coordinate basic activities but have a smaller membership and a limited staff. In countries where no section or structure exists, people can become 'international members'. Two other organisational models exist: 'international networks', which promote specific themes or have a specific identity, and 'affiliated groups', which do the same work as section groups, but in isolation.

The International Executive Committee is made up of eight members and the IEC Treasurer. The IEC is responsible for taking decision and implementing the strategy made out by the IC and make sure they follow all of the organizations rules and structure.

The International Secretariat is responsible for the conduct and daily affairs of Amnesty International under direction from the IEC and IC. It is run by approximately 500 professional staff members and is headed by a Secretary General.

Amnesty International is financed largely by fees and donations from its worldwide membership. It does not accept donations from governments or governmental organizations.


The organization was awarded the 1977 Nobel Peace Prize for its "campaign against torture" and the United Nations Prize in the Field of Human Rights in 1978. Amnesty feels that most of its greatest achievements are the lives that they have changed, saved, or improved.

Public perception and controversies

Controversy includes foreign policy bias, selection bias, and bias against non-western countries.