Amnesty International (or AI) is an international non-governmental organization whose stated purpose is to promote all the human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international standards. In particular, Amnesty International campaigns to free all prisoners of conscience; ensure fair and prompt trials for political prisoners; abolish the death penalty, torture, and other cruel treatment of prisoners; end political killings and forced disappearances; and oppose all human rights abuses, whether by governments or by other groups.
Amnesty International was founded in 1961 by a British lawyer named Peter Benenson. Benenson was reading his newspaper and was shocked and angered to come across the story of two Portuguese students sentenced to seven years in prison – for the crime of raising their glasses in a toast to freedom. Benenson wrote to David Astor, editor of The Observer newspaper, who, on May 28, published Benenson's article entitled The Forgotten Prisoners  that asked readers to write letters showing support for the students. The response was so overwhelming that within a year groups of letter writers had formed in more than a dozen countries, writing to defend victims of injustice wherever they might be. By mid-1962, Amnesty had groups working or forming in West Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Ireland, Canada, Ceylon, Greece, Australia, the United States, New Zealand, Ghana, Israel, Mexico, Argentina, Jamaica, Malaya, Congo (Brazzaville), Ethiopia, Nigeria, Burma, and India. Later in that year, a member of one of these groups, Diana Redhouse, designed Amnesty's Candle and Barbed-Wire logo.
In its early years, Amnesty focused only on articles 18 and 19 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights – those dealing with political prisoners. Over time, however, the organisation has expanded its mission to work for victims of some other categories of human rights violations, not just prisoners of conscience. In 2000 alone, AI worked on behalf of 3,685 named individuals – and in over a third of those cases, an improvement in the prisoner's condition occurred. Today, there are upwards of 7,500 AI groups with around a million members operating in 162 countries and territories. Since AI was founded, it has worked to defend more than 44,600 prisoners in hundreds of countries.
In 1977 Amnesty won the Nobel Peace Prize for its work defending human rights around the world.
Goals and strategy
AI aims to maintain every human's basic rights as established under the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. In accordance with this belief, Amnesty works to:
- Free all Prisoners of Conscience (a "POC" is a person imprisoned for the peaceful exercise of their beliefs, which differs somewhat from the typical use of the term political prisoner).
- Ensure fair and prompt trials.
- Abolish all forms of torture and ill-treatment of prisoners, including the use of the death penalty.
- End state-sanctioned terrorism, killings, and disappearances.
- Assist political asylum-seekers.
- Co-operate with organizations that seek to put an end to human rights abuses.
- Raise awareness about human rights abuses around the world.
To fulfill these goals, Amnesty operates as a vast lobby. Amnesty sends teams of researchers to investigate claims of human rights abuses and then publicizes its findings and mobilizes its members to act out against the abuse — by letter-writing (to various government officials), protesting, demonstrating, organizing fund-raisers, educating the public about the offense, or sometimes all of the above.
Amnesty works to combat individual offenses (e.g. one man imprisoned for distributing banned literature in Saudi Arabia) as well as more general policies (e.g. the recently overturned policy of executing juvenile offenders in certain U.S. states. Amnesty works primarily on the local level but its forty-year history of action and its Nobel Peace Prize give it international recognition.
Most AI members utilize letter-writing to get their message across. When the central Amnesty organization finds and validates instances of human rights abuse, they notify each of more than 7,000 local groups as well as over one million independent members, including 300,000 in the United States alone. Groups and members then respond by writing letters of protest and concern to a government official closely involved in the case, generally without mentioning Amnesty directly.
Amnesty follows a neutrality policy called the "country rule" stating that members should not be active in issues in their own nation, which also protects them from potential mistreatment by their own government. This principle is also applied to researchers and campaigners working for the International Secretariat to prevent domestic political loyalties influencing coverage.
Amnesty International is a non-partisan organization financed largely by subscriptions and donations from its worldwide membership, and except for a small core of paid directors, all of Amnesty's members, coordinators, organizers, and workers are volunteers. It does not accept donations from governments or governmental organizations. Amnesty's budget for the 2000 fiscal year included:
- Membership Support: £2,486,700 (13%)
- Campaigning Activities: £1,811,200 (10%)
- Publications and Translation: £2,487,200 (13%)
- Research and Action: £5,065,100 (26%)
- Deconcentrated Offices: £1,246,300 (7%)
- Research and Action Support: £2,615,900 (14%)
- Administrative Costs: £3,247,200 (17%)
- Relief Payments: £125,000
- Total: £19,510,000
Amnesty International is governed by the International Executive Council (IEC) – a board of eight members elected for two-year terms by the International Council Meeting, which is itself composed of delegates from each country's Board of Directors. The IEC hires a Secretary General and an International Secretariat, located in London.
National and local organizational structures vary. In the United States, individual members, regardless of age, and each individual organization votes to elect members to the 18-seat national Board of Directors for a three-year term. The Board of Directors hires an Executive Director and a staff.
Criticism and rebuttal
Criticism of Amnesty International may be classified into two major categories, accusations of selection bias and ideological bias.
Some critics have noted that in nations that have relatively open and free societies, in which political opposition and freedom of speech are comparatively protected, AI has greater opportunity to compile and report on allegations of human rights abuse. In nations where international human rights monitors are completely banned, for example, or in which the press and individual speech critical of the government are nonexistent or heavily censored, it is relatively difficult for AI to report on the same. This potential tendency to over-report allegations of human rights abuse in nations that are comparatively lessor violators of human rights has been called "Moynihan's Law," after the late American Senator and former Ambassador to the United Nations Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who is said to have stated that at the United Nations, the number of complaints about a nation's violation of human rights is inversely proportional to their actual violation of human rights.
Critics who allege AI suffers from this problem point out what they describe as a disproportionate focus on allegations of human rights violations in for example Israel, when compared with North Korea or Cambodia. One such example is the allegation of NGO Monitor, a publication of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, which noted that between September 2000 until the beginning of 2003, when AI became active in the crisis in Darfur, AI issued 52 reports on the human rights abuses against Christians and animists in southern Sudan, which has claimed tens of thousands of lives through starvation and ethnic violence, as well as creating 1.2 million refugees (according to the World Health Organization), while AI concurrently issued 192 reports on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (These numbers refer in fact to the total number of documents including press releases, not to reports alone.) As the NGO Monitor report points out, after the start of the Darfur crisis, AI became much more involved in Sudan. The total number of documents from the beginning of 1996 to March 2005 is 315 for Sudan and 398 for Israel. AI defenders respond by asserting that all nations should aspire to absolute respect for human rights, and that the difficulties associated with monitoring 'closed' countries should not mean that 'open' countries should receive less scrutiny.
Many governments, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, China, the Taliban, Vietnam, and Russia have attacked it for alleged bias, one-sided reporting, or failure to take security threats as a mitigating factor.
Ideological bias criticism and responses
Amnesty International has been criticised for having an ideological bias both from the right wing and from the left.
Criticism from the left often includes the view that the Human Rights are based on individualism, capitalism, colonialism, and classical liberalism (as meant by John Locke, J.S. Mill, et al.), and takes the view that cultural relativism means that the Human Rights are not in fact universal.
Conservative commentators have alleged that AI's reporting reflects ideological bias toward a left-wing political viewpoint in opposition to the foreign policy of the United States. To support this they point to AI's treatment of the human rights implications of the U.S.-led war in Iraq. Critics of AI have suggested that AI's concern for the human rights implications of this war disproportionately criticize the effects of U.S. military action while in comparison they were less vociferous about the abuses of the Hussein regime and the human rights implications of the continued rule of this government. Examples of this criticism can be found in the links below. Supporters of AI have pointed out that AI was critical of Hussein's regime while Donald Rumsfeld was shaking the dictator by the hand, and that when the White House released reports on the human rights record of Hussein, they depended almost entirely on AI documents that the US had ignored when Iraq was a US ally in the 1980s.
Critics have also claimed that Amnesty International has failed to give proper weight to, or take a strong enough stance against:
- Alleged Israeli abuses of Palestinian human rights.
- Alleged abuses against human rights in Puerto Rico.
- Apartheid South Africa.
Perhaps the main critic of AI is Francis Boyle, a professor of international law at Univ. Illinois, Champaign and a former member of Amnesty International USA's board of directors – he left AI because of his disagreements about the coverage of human rights in certain countries, especially Israel/Palestine. In fact, he threatened to sue AI over its biased coverage, but at the last minute the lawsuit was settled out of court. Diana Johnstone , in her book Fool's Crusade, alleged that AI played an uncritical role during the various Balkan wars, and discusses the case of a woman who was taken on a 25 US-city tour with a film about her ordeal as an alleged rape camp victim. According to Johnstone, the alleged rape camp victim, Jadranka Cigelj , was actually a senior propagandist in the Croatian government, and a confidante of President Franjo Tudjman.
Gulf War, 1991
Critics have also claimed that AI had a role propagating "disinformation" in a press release before the 1991 Gulf War, in which it charged that Iraqi soldiers were responsible for the deaths of "scores of civilians, including newborn babies, who died as a direct result of their forced removal from life-support machines." It later transpired that this claim was a propaganda hoax, and AI's press release was used in the opening salvo of this propaganda campaign. In an April 1991 statement, AI said that although its team was shown alleged mass graves of babies, it was not established how they had died and the team found no reliable evidence that Iraqi forces had caused the deaths of babies by removing them or ordering their removal from incubators. Critics have also claimed that AI censored a film about Venezuela due to appear in its film festival, and did so without explanation.
- Prof. Michael Mandel , a professor of international law at York Univ., Toronto.
- Prof. Nabeel Abraham , professor anthropology at Henry Ford Univ., Michigan. He has written a comparative study of ten human rights organizations.
- Prof. Clare Brandabur , professor of Comparative English Literature at Dogus Univ. Turkey.
- Prof. Agustin Velloso , UNED, Dept. Comparative Educational Systems, Madrid Spain.
- Paul de Rooij (three articles discussing various aspects of AI's alleged bias).
Articles critical of AI
- Jonathan V. Last, Calling It Like They See It, FrontPageMagazine, April 3, 2003. Alleges AI has anti-American/Israel bias.
- Christopher Archangelli, Amnesty for Iraq, FrontPageMagazine, April 24, 2003. Allages AI has anti-American bias regarding Iraq.
NGO Monitor Criticisms of Amnesty International – Points to a running list of criticism of various NGOs, AI in particular.
- Nabeel Abraham, et al.; International Human Rights Organizations and the Palestine Question, Middle East Report (MERIP), Vol. 18, No. 1, Jan.-Feb. 1988, pp. 12 – 20. Argues that several organizations, including AI, are biased against Palestinians.
- Nabeel Abraham, Torture, Anyone?, Lies of Our Times, May 1992, pp. 2 – 4. Claims AI and other groups are reticent in describing alleged torture on the part of Israel.
- Dennis Bernstein's interview with Prof. Francis Boyle, CAQ, Summer 2002. Boyle, a former AI-USA board member, threatened to sue AI-USA over its alleged biased coverage.
- Alexander Cockburn, How the US State Dept. Recruited Human Rights Groups to Cheer On the Bombing Raids: Those Incubator Babies, Once More?, CounterPunch newsletter, April 1-15, 1999. Alleges several human rights organizations "fell into line" regarding the bombing of Serbia.
- Michael Mandel, How America Gets Away With Murder: Illegal Wars, Collateral Damage and Crimes Against Humanity, Pluto Press 2004. Alleges AI is selective in defending "human rights", in particular, regarding the US-Iraq war 2003, and the War in the Balkans.
- Paul de Rooij, AI: Say It Isn't So, CounterPunch, Oct. 31, 2002.
- Paul de Rooij, AI: The Case of a Rape Foretold, CounterPunch, Nov. 26, 2003.
- Paul de Rooij, AI: A false beacon?, CounterPunch, Oct. 13, 2004. Contains a reading list.
Last updated: 05-11-2005 08:47:22