Founded in 1961, Amnesty International (AI) is the world’s largest human rights organization as reflected by membership figures, geographic presence, and annual budget. In many ways AI is an archetype of the transnational social movements that flourished in the late twentieth century. More than two million individuals linked to internationally chartered local units work collaboratively across national borders to promote and protect human rights as elaborated in a commonly agreed set of objectives. AI’s centralized research and campaigning activities are developed in its International Secretariat in London. Around the world the organization’s advocacy work is carried out by AI entities organized at the local and national levels. For example, the United Kingdom section of AI has its main office in London, and like other national sections it works in collaboration with AI’s International Secretariat, a few city blocks away.
Three principal features distinguish AI from other international human rights organizations. First, from its earliest days Amnesty has focused its worldwide advocacy work on individuals suffering human rights abuses. As a general working rule, AI members have taken up individual cases in countries other than their own. Other organizations typically use individual cases to illustrate human rights concerns, but Amnesty’s original approach was to make such appeals the centerpiece of its efforts. The strategy was successful and immediately attracted attention. In 1977 AI was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in explicit recognition of its work to secure the release of individuals imprisoned for their opinions.
As a second distinctive feature, the organization has established a local presence worldwide, with members and supporters in some 150 countries. Amnesty began in the United Kingdom and quickly spread across Europe. It continues to have preponderant representation in Europe, North America, and Oceania, but its presence in other parts of the world is not merely symbolic. With more than 40 registered entities in the global South, it is literally on the ground and active around the world. Local representatives of AI gear their work to the organization’s international agenda, but they are able to tailor materials for appeal to local constituents and local media and they can effectively lobby on both national and international issues.
Finally, Amnesty has a unique governance structure. Whereas most other international human rights organizations rely on an executive staff and an advisory council or governing board for crucial policy decisions, AI engages its worldwide membership in internal policy debates and decisions. The International Secretariat is tasked with day-to-day management of the organization’s affairs, and an International Executive Committee functions as a governing board. That Committee, however, has limited powers to set new directions for the organization. Since the mid 1960s, AI has relied on a parliamentary assembly of credentialed national delegates known as the International Council Meeting (ICM) to approve new policies and programs and, more recently, an international strategic plan. The international budget is set by the Council, as membership fees and other funds raised by national sections from private donors constitute the organization’s main revenues. AI’s ICM resembles the United Nations General Assembly, with working parties, formal resolutions, and voting by majority rule. Historically, the impetus for organizational change has often originated in a national section. After initial debate in the ICM, proposals are typically referred to the governing board for further study and returned to the council for decision. Although the organization’s position on human rights situations is developed by professional staff in the International Secretariat, national sections retain latitude to make key decisions about local priorities and campaign strategies. Attachment to democratic values and procedures is an important element of AI’s institutional culture.
Each of these three features – the historic focus on individuals, a multinational presence, and a democratic governance structure – has provided form and flavor to the organization. AI’s shape as a membership organization and social movement can, for example, be traced to the nature of its initial campaign. In May 1961, British lawyer Peter Benenson read a news article about Portuguese students summarily arrested for toasting freedom in a Lisbon café, and soon thereafter he persuaded a small number of friends and associates to join him in launching “An Appeal for Amnesty.” Benenson and his colleagues placed stories in major European newspapers and invited ordinary people to join them in a one-year letter-writing campaign calling on governments worldwide to grant amnesty to political prisoners. The campaign caught on immediately, and just two months later, participants in the UK, Europe, and the United States decided to transform the campaign into a permanent organization. AI was born. Supporters were invited to form local groups and adopt three political prisoners from among the dossiers developed by volunteers working out of Benenson’s law chambers in London: one from Western Europe, one from the Soviet Bloc, and one from a Third World country.
Over its first two decades, AI concentrated its efforts on appeals for the unconditional release of individuals it designated “prisoners of conscience” – individuals imprisoned for the nonviolent expression of their beliefs and opinions. The prisoner-focused advocacy work required careful documentation, and casework sensitized Secretariat staff to the need for detailed, credible, and non-partisan research. Amnesty recruited professional staff for its research department, and political impartiality was ingrained as part of the organization’s creed.
Through their advocacy efforts on behalf of adopted prisoners, AI members in turn learned about broader human rights concerns and rooted themselves in organizational culture. In 1968 the mostly European membership approved a formal mandate that set parameters on the work that could be done in Amnesty’s name. Initially that work was limited to appeals on behalf of prisoners of conscience, a term passionately debated and scrupulously defined, but as members became more informed about the range of human rights abuses, they used the organization’s democratic procedures to expand the mandate. In 1974, for example, opposition to torture and the death penalty were added, a move that led AI to undertake broad thematic campaigning as well as advocacy work for specific individuals or situations. Subsequent additions to the mandate led Amnesty to call for fair trials for all political prisoners, to oppose enforced disappearances and political killings, and to take up cases of individuals persecuted for their sexual identity.
Along with their growing understanding of human rights issues, AI members also recognized the political limitations of a largely European/Western organization working on cases that increasingly were focused in the non-Western world. (In AI’s early days, strongman regimes in Greece, Spain, and Portugal held numerous prisoners of conscience, but by the mid 1970s all those governments were in transition.) Arguing that AI’s appeals would be more effective if the organization had a strong presence outside Europe and the West, ICM delegates approved expenditures for international field staff to build membership outside of its established regions, beginning with Latin America. Since 1980 AI has spread its reach, establishing local organizations in Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, the Middle East, and Africa, and developing a complex in-house translation service to supply members with campaigning materials in accessible languages.
As its worldwide membership expanded, so did the organization’s concerns. In 1987, AI held its International Council in Brazil, meeting outside Europe and North America for the first time. Determined to expand AI’s base worldwide, Council delegates over the next several years committed substantial resources to recruiting members and developing organizational structures in the global South, and they finetuned the mandate to include active promotion of human rights in addition to AI’s conventional opposition to human rights violations. The organization developed a program of human rights education and explicitly began to promote the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), substantially broader than AI’s own mandate at the time. Following the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights convened by the United Nations (UN) in 1993, Amnesty members increasingly questioned the restriction of the organization’s work to a subset of rights as prescribed by its mandate. In 2001, after several years of debate among its worldwide membership, the organization decided to abandon its narrow mandate in favor of a new mission statement embracing the full spectrum of human rights, as reflected in the UDHR.
Over its 50-year history, the advocacy work undertaken by AI has had considerable impact on individual lives and the practices of particular countries, but also on the development of international norms and the growth and character of the international human rights movement. Through national lobbying efforts and work at the UN and other intergovernmental organizations, AI has strongly influenced the development of international human rights law and related standards. Its campaigning efforts in the 1970s and 1980s helped to shape and secure passage of the United Nations Convention Against Torture, and it has lobbied inter alia for instruments designed to protect human rights defenders, promote the rights of women, and protect individuals against enforced disappearance. It has argued that corporations and international financial institutions are accountable to international human rights standards, and it has defended the rights of refugees. AI has long held that government authorities committing human rights violations must be held accountable for their misdeeds, and in the 1990s it lent its weight to the worldwide campaign to establish an International Criminal Court.
Indirectly, AI has also helped shape the international human rights movement and the UN human rights infrastructure, even as its own priorities have been shaped by interactions with representatives of the broader human rights movement. Amnesty’s techniques have been adapted by other international human rights organizations – notably Human Rights Watch, Human Rights First (formerly the Lawyers’ Committee for International Human Rights), and the Federation International des Droits de l’Homme. Along with numerous other nongovernmental organizations, AI has consultative status at the UN, and it regularly provides information to the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights as well as to the UN’s Human Rights Council and its subsidiary bodies. Through its own grassroots efforts, Amnesty has spread the concept of human rights as a compelling frame for social movements, and in recent years it has recognized the human rights dimension of a number of issues that for its first 40 years lay well beyond its narrow mandate. Such issues include, for example, forced evictions and maternal mortality; the unregulated flow of small arms; abuses by private military contractors; and domestic violence.
Amnesty’s successes have been many, but challenges for the organization are not in short supply. Many within the organization are concerned that having expanded its work agenda, Amnesty has spread itself too thin and will either have to abandon its legacy work on behalf of individuals imprisoned for their beliefs, or risk the quality of its research. Amnesty has recently committed itself to campaign on the myriad rights concerns associated with poverty, without diminishing its capacity to respond to human rights crises and sustain its ongoing appeals. The organization also remains concerned about its presence and growth in the global South, where issues related to social and economic rights are often a matter of life and death and where human rights issues at hand eclipse those in some distant land. Despite AI’s efforts over several decades, it continues to be perceived as a Western organization. The fact that it does not have strong membership units in most of today’s rising economic and political powers is a recognized challenge, particularly inasmuch as many of the issues that stretch it are those most salient to non-Western supporters.
In addition to (and arguably greater than) these internal challenges are the shifting political winds that accompanied the events of 11 September 2001. The international landscape was indelibly altered when the US government, and the American public, began to question the normative prohibition against torture and due process. Although human rights groups have never relied on any state as a standard-bearer for human rights, political dynamics since 2001 have taken them aback, requiring rights advocates to defend existing norms even as they seek to expand and deepen the international human rights regime. These are very real challenges for AI and the human rights movement. On the positive side, by comparison to circumstances at the moment of AI’s creation, the concept of human rights is today recognized around the world, and no other organization has comparable reach.
SEE ALSO: Cultural Relativism; Human Rights; International Human Rights Law; International Relations; Nongovernmental Organizations; Social Movements; Transnationalism; Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
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