Yesterday, Amnesty International (AI) announced its concerns about the widespread impunity of perpetrators of domestic violence in Georgia. They also announced a rally in Dublin next week to pressure the international community into protecting the civilians caught up in the deadly conflict in Darfur, Western Sudan. Two days ago they claimed Libyan police opened fire on political prisoners, killing one and wounding at least nine others. AI has a strong worldwide presence and is not afraid to use it.
Founded in 1961, Amnesty International (AI) is probably the most famous human rights organisation in the world. In 1948 the UN General Assembly, fresh from the horrors of World War II, agreed on a Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). However with the power of the state paramount, the UN had no means of enforcing these rights. Many people continue to suffer as a result of brutish government treatment across the world. Two such people were Portuguese students who were sentenced to seven years imprisonment in 1960 for remarks that were critical of the Salazar Portuguese dictatorship. The students had raised their wine glasses in a toast to freedom. British lawyer Peter Benenson read about the plight of the students and got together with other authors, academics and lawyers to write an article in Britain’s Observer newspaper. Called “The Forgotten Prisoners”, the article hailed those globally who were “imprisoned, tortured or executed because of opinions or religion unacceptable” to their governments thus violating the principles of articles 18 and 19 of the UDHR. The article launched 'Appeal for Amnesty, 1961', the aim of which was to mobilize public opinion in defence of those who Benenson described as "Prisoners of Conscience". The article was reprinted in newspapers throughout the world. In July that year, the first international meeting was held. It had delegates from Belgium, UK, France, Germany, Ireland, Switzerland and the United States who decided to establish "a permanent international movement in defence of freedom of opinion and religion." The first AI groups were founded in the UK, West Germany, Netherlands, France, Italy and Switzerland. Within a year they had 1,200 cases documented in their Prisoners of Conscience Library.
In 1963, the great Irish jurist Sean MacBride was elected Chairman of the newly established International Executive Committee (IEC) and Benenson himself became president of the organisation a year later. It also received a boost when the UN gave AI consultative status in 1964. MacBride won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1974 in recognition of his lifelong work for human rights. Three years later AI achieved its pinnacle by also winning the Peace Prize. The committee cited them for “"having contributed to securing the ground for freedom, for justice, and thereby also for peace in the world". Its membership rose 15,000 in 1969 to 200,000 ten years later.
By the 1980s its successes were creating a number of enemies despite its ontribution to peace in the world. The USSR alleged that AI spied on it, Morocco denounced it as a defender of criminals, and Argentina banned AIs annual report. By the 1990s, the growing humanitarian crisis of the world’s refugees was taking centre stage in AI’s thinking. AI concentrated on those forced to flee because of human rights violations. It was instrumental in the creation of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (1993) and the International Criminal Court (2002). The new century has posed new problems for the organisation as it approaches its 50th birthday. In the 9/11 aftermath, new AI Secretary General, Irene Khan reported that a senior US government official had said to Amnesty International delegates: "Your role collapsed with the collapse of the Twin Towers in New York". It has been heavily criticised by many in the US media for its “vitriolic condemnations” of the US especially in relation to the Guantanamo detainees.
AI now has more than 1.8 million members, supporters and subscribers in over 150 countries and territories in every region of the world. Major policy decisions are taken by an International Council made up of representatives from all national sections. It works best in the areas of least hope. Its latest report on Sudan, tells us “The people of Darfur are crying out for security. Thousands of civilians have been killed, tortured and raped, and hundreds of thousands have been forcibly displaced since 2003”. AI continues to play a crucial NGO role in reminding us of our most chronic human rights issues. Now more than ever, Peter Benenson's freedom of opinion needs its doughty defenders.