Amnesty International History
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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. 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.
- 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 Week--Prisoner of Conscience Week--is 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 Mümtaz 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 UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
- Pierre Sané becomes secretary general; membership passes the 1 million mark.
- AI campaigns for a permanent International Criminal Court.
- AI appoints Irene Khan secretary general--the 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 www.StopTorture.org Web site.
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 UN's 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 Benenson's 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 Rabben's 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 Observer's 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 AI's 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 organization's 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 Voltaire's 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 AI's 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 organization's accuracy has been widely recognized and its credibility has helped it remain influential. AI policy established that members would not work on their own country's research or on behalf of prisoners in their own country. Nor would members be responsible in any way for any of AI's 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 country's 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, AI's 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 AI's sections. It is, according to AI's statue, the "ultimate authority for the conduct of the Affairs of Amnesty International." The International Council determines AI's strategic plan, and its "vision, mission, and core values." The Council is also responsible for accountability among AI's 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.
AI's "mandate" is the set of rules that has established the organization's action parameters--what the organization and its individual groups can and cannot do--and 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 women's 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 AI's 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.
In 1966, a far worse crisis erupted that threatened to destroy the organization. It resulted in Peter Benenson's resignation as president, and his severing his ties with AI for a few years. The crisis began with AI's 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 AI's 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 Benenson's 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 Benenson's 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 task--with morale at its lowest and distrust in the London office running high, Baker had to reestablish AI's 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 AI's global communication. In the first two years of his administration, AI doubled its membership.
Ian Martin, Hammarberg's 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.
In 1992, AI saw its first secretary general from outside Europe--Pierre Sané from Senegal. Sané 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 AI's 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.
AI's secretary general, Martin Ennals, remained true to form and elected to keep a prior commitment--AI's first anti-death-penalty conference--instead of going to Oslo to receive the prize. In its place he sent a delegation headed by IEC chair Thomas Hammarberg. Mümtaz Soysal, a former Turkish prisoner of conscience and the IEC's 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, www.StopTorture.org, took AI's 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 fund's 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 there's lots of pressure--like from Amnesty International or some foreign countries--we might pass them on to a judge. But if there's no pressure, then they're 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 Children's Network; The Company Approaches Network; The Lawyers' Network; The Medical Network; The Military Security and Police (MSP) Network; The Women's Network; The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Network.
Principal Competitors:UN Human Rights Commission; Médcins Sans Frontières; Human Rights Watch.
- "Amnesty International Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, December 10, 1977," DISCovering World History, Detroit: Gale Research, 1997, http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/dc.
- "Amnesty International Is Founded, May 28, 1961," DISCovering World History, Detroit: Gale Research, 1997, http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/dc.
- 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. C11.
- "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.
Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 50. St. James Press, 2003.comments powered by Disqus