8 minute read

Amnesty International

Amnesty International (AI) is a nonprofit, independent international organization that works zealously to protect HUMAN RIGHTS around the world. Since its inception in 1961, Amnesty International has coordinated research, information, and education campaigns in order to focus world attention on such issues as freedom of conscience and expression, freedom from discrimination, and the cessation of physical and mental abuse and torture suffered by the victims of human rights violations.

With a membership of more than one million people and supporters and donors in more than 140 countries and territories, Amnesty International is the world's largest grassroots human rights organization. The organization was started by a British lawyer, Peter Benenson, who in an article he wrote in 1961 in The Observer posited that the pressure of public opinion could be brought to bear on those who were imprisoning, torturing, and killing people based on their political opinions. Benenson wrote in support of several political prisoners whom he termed "prisoners of conscience" because they had been imprisoned for expressing their beliefs in a peaceful manner. The term came to encompass all men, women, and children who have been imprisoned because of their political or religious beliefs.

Amnesty International carries out its struggle for human dignity for all human rights victims by mobilizing public opinion throughout the world to pressure government officials and other influential persons to stop human rights abuses. Violations of human rights include the following: torture of a person and/or his or her family members by mental or physical means, the "disappearance" of persons considered to be enemies of the state, the imposition by governments of the death penalty, the death of those held in custody or being detained, and the forcible return of persons to countries where they face torture or death. Amnesty International describes "disappeared persons" as persons who are taken into custody, kept hidden and unable to communicate with others, and whose whereabouts are denied by the government agents who arrested them. The prisoners are often tortured. If they are not murdered, they can be held incommunicado for years while the government agents responsible routinely deny that they have custody of these prisoners or knowledge of their fates and often suggest that the prisoners have "disappeared" of their own volition.

Amnesty International's primary goals include the following: (1)freeing all prisoners of conscience; (2)ensuring prompt and fair trials for all political prisoners; (3)abolition of the death penalty, torture, and other degrading punishment; (4)ending extra judicial executions and "disappearances"; and (5) working to ensure that the perpetrators of human rights abuses are brought to justice in accordance with international standards. Over time Amnesty International has expanded its scope to cover human rights abuses committed by non-governmental bodies and private individuals, including armed political groups. The organization has also begun to focus on human rights abuses in homes or communities where governments have permitted such abuses or failed to take action to stop them.

Amnesty International does not accept government funding and remains independent of governmental, economic, or political interests. It has no religious affiliations. Members include people of various religious, political, and societal points of view who share the common goals mentioned above. Financial support for the organization comes from individual members and groups as well as trusts, foundations, and companies that are committed to support the cause of human rights worldwide.

The central body of Amnesty International is the International Secretariat, which is located in London. The organization has more than 350 staff members and over 100 volunteers from more than 50 countries around the world. Amnesty International is a democratic, self-governing body that is led by a nine-member International Executive Committee (EIC). The International Council that represents the sections elects committee members every two years. The organization consists of more than 7,800 groups representing local activists, youths, specialists, and professionals in more than 100 countries and territories. The organization has nationally organized sections in 56 countries; as of 2003, another 24 countries and territories had developmental organizations that were working on creating sections.

Amnesty International members and supporters "wage peace" in numerous ways ranging from writing individual letters of support to participating in public demonstrations. The organization raises public awareness through educational information for school children and other groups, training programs for teachers, the encouragement of training programs for government officials and security personnel, INTERNET communications, and fund-raising concerts. In addition to reporting on human rights issues and LOBBYING members of government both privately and publicly, the organization works with other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) as well as community organizations and human rights activists to secure its goals. Advocacy efforts range from targeted appeals for support of a single individual to worldwide campaigns concerning specific countries or issues. Each year the organization highlights a particular country or human rights issue and mobilizes its members and supporters to focus global opinion to achieve change.

In over 40 years of work, Amnesty International delegates have visited numerous countries and territories and met with human rights victims, observed trials, and interviewed local activists and officials.

Under the auspices of Amnesty International, research teams focus on particular countries in which they investigate reports of human rights abuses. The organization strives to be rigorous in its investigations, checking and cross-checking information and trying to get corroboration from as many sources as possible. Information comes from interviews and meetings with prisoners and their families, lawyers and journalists, as well as persons working for other human rights organizations, humanitarian agencies, and local community groups. Investigators also monitor the information contained in newspapers, journals, and Web sites. In addition, whenever possible, investigators observe trial proceedings and meet with government officials. Where reports of abuses arise in countries that deny access to Amnesty International, the organization relies on outside sources such as reports from news media and interviews with REFUGEES, diplomats, and other sources.

To ensure accuracy and impartiality, the organization's International Secretariat approves the text of all organization statements or reports. If information is alleged rather than based on observable facts, the organization notes that the statements are based on allegations. If a statement or report contains errors, Amnesty International is quick to acknowledge its mistakes. As a result, the organization has a worldwide reputation for accuracy and reliability. In 1977, Amnesty International was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and in 1978 the organization received a UNITED NATIONS Human Rights Award.

The organization's specialist networks include the following: Lawyers' Network, which helped with ratification of legislation to establish the INTERNATIONAL CRIMINAL COURT; the Military Security and Police Network, which continues to campaign for the control of electro-shock weapons and other arms used to commit human rights abuses; the Company Approaches Network, which works with companies to help them develop policies that are compatible with human rights standards; the Children's Network, which lobbies states to help prohibit the involvement of "children soldiers" in armed conflicts; the Women's Network and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Network, which have campaigned on numerous issues concerning torture and ill-treatment based on gender and/or sexual orientation; and the Medical Network, which consists of doctors, nurses, psychologists, and other health professionals who have provided aid to victims of torture and other types of abuse.

The organization developed its first global campaign against torture in 1973, and in 1984 the United Nations (UN) passed the Convention Against Torture, which called for governments to punish those who committed torture within their jurisdictions and which took effect in June of 1987. As of February 2001, 123 of the 192 UN member nations have ratified the Convention.

In 2001, Amnesty International continued its focus on the torture and abuse of women, children, ethnic minorities, and persons discriminated against based on sexual orientation including homosexual, bisexual, and transgendered persons. At year's end, more than 35,000 persons from 188 countries had signed up at AI's Web site, <www.stoptorture.org>, indicating their willingness to send E-MAIL appeals regarding urgent cases. In the same year, Amnesty International supporters took action on behalf of more than 2,813 persons who were identified as being the victims of human rights abuses.

The Internet has been extremely useful to Amnesty International in reaching members to quickly organize campaigns and to mobilize for other purposes. Via its Web site, E-mail, and other methods of communication, the organization issues "Urgent Actions," Rapid Response Actions, and special campaign appeals. Over time, Amnesty International has proven that a steady stream of letters, faxes, e-mails, and other communications sent to government officials and others regarding the fate of a particular person or group of persons, has a tangible effect. Torture and mistreatment has been stopped and, in a number of cases, the subjects of the letter campaigns have been released. AI members and supporters are also encouraged to send positive letters and other communications to governments that have released prisoners or taken other steps to alleviate human rights abuses in order to reinforce the importance to the global community of these cases.

Amnesty International has been a major factor in a number of victories including an international agreement to ban torture, an increasing number of countries that reject CAPITAL PUNISHMENT, and, in 2003, the inauguration of the International Criminal Court in the Hague, Netherlands.

Yet the organization continues to face many obstacles. Although torture has been banned by international agreement, it continues secretly in many countries. Moreover, the governments and political organizations of numerous countries still permit or participate in the wrongful imprisonment and the disappearance of political prisoners as well as other human rights abuses.


Amnesty International Website. Available online at <www.amnesty.org> (accessed May 30, 2003).

Clark, Anne Marie. 2001. Diplomacy of Conscience: Amnesty International and Changing Human Rights Norms. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press.

Schulz, William. 2002. In Our Own Best Interests: How Defending Human Rights Benefits Us All. Boston: Beacon.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: Air weapon to Approximation of laws