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Amnesty International (commonly known as Amnesty and AI) is an international secular non-governmental organisation which defines its mission as "to conduct research and generate action to prevent and end grave abuses of human rights and to demand justice for those whose rights have been violated." Founded in London in 1961, AI draws attention to human rights abuses and campaigns for compliance with international standards. It works to mobilise public opinion which exerts pressure on individuals who perpetrate abuses. The organisation was awarded the 1977 Nobel Peace Prize for its "campaign against torture" and the United Nations Prize in the Field of Human Rights in 1978.

In the field of international human rights organizations (of which there were 300 in 1996), Amnesty has the longest history and broadest name recognition, and "is believed by many to set standards for the movement as a whole."



Amnesty International was founded in London in July 1961 by English labour lawyer Peter Benenson. According to his own account, he was travelling in the London Underground on 19 November 1960, when he read of two Portuguese students who had been sentenced to seven years of imprisonment for having drunk a toast to liberty. In his famous newspaper article The Forgotten Prisoners, Benenson later described his reaction as follows: "Open your newspaper any day of the week and you will find a story from somewhere of someone being imprisoned, tortured or executed because his opinions or religion are unacceptable to his government [...] The newspaper reader feels a sickening sense of impotence. Yet if these feelings of disgust could be united into common action, something effective could be done."

Benenson worked with friend Eric Baker. Baker was a member of the Religious Society of Friends who had been involved in funding the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament as well as becoming head of Quaker Peace and Social Witness, and in his memoirs Benenson described him as "a partner in the launching of the project". In consultation with other writers, academics and lawyers and, in particular, Alec Digges, they wrote via Louis Blom-Cooper to David Astor, editor of The Observer newspaper, who, on 28 May 1961, published Benenson’s article The Forgotten Prisoners. The article brought the reader’s attention to those "imprisoned, tortured or executed because his opinions or religion are unacceptable to his government" or, put another way, to violations, by governments, of articles 18 and 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights(UDHR). The article described these violations occurring, on a global scale, in the context of restrictions to press freedom, to political oppositions, to timely public trial before impartial courts, and to asylum. It marked the launch of "Appeal for Amnesty, 1961", the aim of which was to mobilise public opinion, quickly and widely, in defence of these individuals, who Benenson named "Prisoners of Conscience". The "Appeal for Amnesty" was reprinted by a large number of international newspapers. In the same year Benenson had a book published, Persecution 1961, which detailed the cases of several prisoners of conscience investigated and compiled by Benenson and Baker.In July 1961 the leadership had decided that the appeal would form the basis of a permanent organization, which on 30 September 1962 was officially named 'Amnesty International' (Between the 'Appeal for Amnesty, 1961' and September 1962 the organization had been known simply as 'Amnesty'.)

What started as a short appeal soon became a permanent international movement working to protect those imprisoned for non-violent expression of their views and to secure worldwide recognition of Articles 18 and 19 of the UDHR. From the very beginning, research and campaigning were present in Amnesty International’s work. A library was established for information about prisoners of conscience and a network of local groups, called ‘THREES’ groups, was started. Each group worked on behalf of three prisoners, one from each of the then three main ideological regions of the world: communist, capitalist and developing.

By the mid-1960s Amnesty International’s global presence was growingand an International Secretariat and International Executive Committeewas established to manage Amnesty International’s nationalorganizations, called ‘Sections’, which had appeared in severalcountries. The international movement was starting to agree on its core principles and techniques. For example, the issue of whether or not to adopt prisoners who had advocated violence, like Nelson Mandela, brought unanimous agreement that it could not give the name of 'Prisoner of Conscience' to such prisoners. Aside from the work of the library and groups, Amnesty International’s activities were expanding to helping prisoner’s families, sending observers to trials, making representations to governments, and finding asylum or overseas employment for prisoners. Its activity and influence was also increasing within intergovernmental organizations; it would be awarded consultative status by the United Nations, the Council of Europe and UNESCOmarker before the decade ended.


Leading Amnesty International in the 1970s were key figureheads Sean MacBride and Martin Ennals. While continuing to work for prisoners of conscience, Amnesty International’s purview widened to include "fair trial" and opposition to long detention without trial (UDHR Article 9), and especially to the torture of prisoners (UDHR Article 5). Amnesty International believed that the reasons underlying torture of prisoners, by governments, were either to obtain information or to quell opposition by the use of terror, or both. Also of concern was the export of more sophisticated torture methods, equipment and teaching by the superpowers to "client states", for example by the United States through some activities of the CIA.

Amnesty International drew together reports from countries where torture allegations seemed most persistent and organized an international conference on torture. It sought to influence public opinion in order to put pressure on national governments by organizing a campaign for the 'Abolition of Torture' which ran for several years.

Amnesty International’s membership increased from 15,000 in 1969 to 200,000 by 1979. This growth in resources enabled an expansion of its program, ‘outside of the prison walls’, to include work on “disappearances”, the death penalty and the rights of refugees. A new technique, the 'Urgent Action’, aimed at mobilizing the membership into action rapidly was pioneered. The first was issued on 19 March 1973, on behalf of Luiz Basilio Rossi, a Brazilian academic, arrested for political reasons.

At the intergovernmental level Amnesty International pressed for application of the UN’s Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners and of existing humanitarian conventions; to secure ratifications of the two UN Covenants on Human Rights (which came into force in 1976); and was instrumental in obtaining United Nations General Assembly resolution 3059 which formally denounced torture and called on governments to adhere to existing international instruments and provisions forbidding its practice. Consultative status was granted at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 1972.

In 1976 AI started a series of fund raising events informally known as The Secret Policeman's Balls. Initially they were staged in London primarily as comedy galas featuring popular British comedic performers such as members of Monty Python, later expanding to include leading musical performers. The series was created and developed by Monty Python alumnus John Cleese and entertainment industry executive Martin Lewis working closely with Amnesty staff members Peter Luff (Assistant Director of Amnesty 1976-1977) and subsequently with Peter Walker (Fund-Raising Officer from 1978). Cleese, Lewis and Luff worked together on the first two shows (1976 and 1977).

The organization was awarded the 1977 Nobel Peace Prize for its "campaign against torture" and the United Nations Prize in the Field of Human Rights in 1978.


By 1980 Amnesty International was drawing more criticism from governments. The USSRmarker alleged that Amnesty International conducted espionage, the Moroccan government denounced it as a defender of lawbreakers, and the Argentine government banned Amnesty International’s 1983 annual report.

Throughout the 1980s, Amnesty International continued to campaign for prisoners of conscience and torture. New issues emerged, including extrajudicial killings, military, security and police transfers, political killings; and disappearances.

Towards the end of the decade, the growing numbers worldwide of refugees was a very visible area of Amnesty International’s concern. While many of the world’s refugees of the time had been displaced by war and famine, in adherence to its mandate, Amnesty International concentrated on those forced to flee, because of the human rights violations it was seeking to prevent. It argued that rather than focusing on new restrictions on entry for asylum-seekers, governments were to address the human rights violations which were forcing people into exile.

Apart from a second campaign on torture during the first half of the decade, the major AI event of the 1980s was the 1988 Human Rights Now! tour. Designed to increase awareness of Amnesty and of human rights on the 40th anniversary of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), it featured some of the most famous musicians and bands of the day playing a series of concerts on five continents over six weeks.


Throughout the 1990s, Amnesty International continued to grow, to a membership of over 2.2 million in over 150 countries and territories, led by Senegalese Secretary General Pierre Sané. AI continued to work on a wide range of issues and world events. For example, South African groups joined in 1992 and hosted a visit by Pierre Sané to meet with the apartheid government to press for an investigation into allegations of police abuse, an end to arms sales to the African Great Lakesmarker region and abolition of the death penalty. In particular, Amnesty International brought attention to violations committed on specific groups including: refugees, racial/ethnic/religious minorities, women and those executed or on Death Row. The death penalty report When the state kills (ISBN 0691102619) and the ‘Human Rights are Women's Rights’ campaign were key actions for the latter two issues and demonstrate that Amnesty International was still very much a reporting and campaigning organization.

During the 1990s Amnesty International was forced to react to human rights violations occurring in the context of a proliferation of armed conflict in: Angolamarker, East Timormarker, the Persian Gulfmarker, Rwandamarker, Somaliamarker and the former Yugoslavia. Amnesty International took no position on whether to support or oppose external military interventions in these armed conflicts. It did not (and does not) reject the use of force, even lethal force, or ask those engaged to lay down their arms. Instead, it questioned the motives behind external intervention and selectivity of international action in relation to the strategic interests of those sending troops. It argued that action should be taken in time to prevent human rights problems becoming human rights catastrophes and that both intervention and inaction represented a failure of the international community.

Amnesty International was proactive in pushing for recognition of the universality of human rights. The campaign ‘Get Up, Sign Up’ marked 50 years of the UDHR. Thirteen million pledges were collected in support of the Declaration and a music concert was held in Paris on 10 December 1998 (Human Rights Day). At the intergovernmental level, Amnesty International argued in favor of creating a United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (established 1993) and an International Criminal Court (established 2002).

After Senator Augusto Pinochet of Chilemarker was arrested in London in 1998 by the Metropolitan Police, Amnesty International became involved in the legal battle of Senator Pinochet, a former Chilean President, who sought to avoid extradition to Spain to face charges relating to his rule of Chile in the 1970s and 80s. It emerged during this legal process that one of the judges in the English House of Lordsmarker, Lord Hoffman, had an indirect connection with Amnesty International and this led to an important test for the appearance of bias in legal proceedings in UK law. Amnesty then sought a judicial review of the decision to release Senator Pinochet, taken by the then British Home Secretary Mr Jack Straw, before that decision had actually been taken, in an attempt to prevent the release of Senator Pinochet. The English High Courtmarker refused the application and Senator Pinochet was released and returned to Chile. This legal challenge was a novel attempt to use legal process to challenge a decision before it was taken and could be seen as hard to reconcile with the rule of law, as it was predicated on a presumption that the Home Secretary had erred in law whatever the reasons were for the decision.


After 2000, Amnesty International’s agenda turned to the challenges arising from globalization and the reaction to the 11 September 2001 attacks in the United States. The issue of globalization provoked a major shift in Amnesty International policy, as the scope of its work was widened to include economic, social and cultural rights, an area that it had declined to work on in the past. Amnesty International felt this shift was important, not just to give credence to its principle of the indivisibility of rights, but because of what it saw as the growing power of companies and the undermining of many nation states as a result of globalization.

In the aftermath of the 11 September attacks, the new Amnesty International Secretary General, Irene Khan, reported that a senior government official had said to Amnesty International delegates: "Your role collapsed with the collapse of the Twin Towers in New York". In the years following the attacks, some of the gains made by human rights organizations over previous decades were eroded. Amnesty International argued that human rights were the basis for the security of all, not a barrier to it. Criticism came directly from the Bush administration and The Washington Post, when Khan, in 2005, likened the US government’s detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cubamarker, to a Soviet Gulag.

During the first half of the new decade, Amnesty International turned its attention to violence against women, controls on the world arms trade and concerns surrounding the effectiveness of the UN. With its membership close to two million by 2005, AI continued to work for prisoners of conscience.

In 2007, the organization appeared to endorse pro-choice for abortion. However, the organization responded by saying that it had only done this for limited situtations.

Amnesty International reported, concerning the Iraq war, on 17 March 2008, that despite claims the security situation in Iraq has improved in recent months, the human rights situation is disastrous, after the start of the war five years ago in 2003.

In 2008 Amnesty International launched a mobile donating campaign in the United States, which allows supporters to make $5 micro-donations by sending a text message to the short code 90999 with the keyword RIGHTS. Amnesty International’s mobile fund raising campaign was created in partnership with Mgive and the Mobile Giving Foundation.

In 2009 Amnesty International accused Israel and the Palestinian Hamas movement of committing war crimes during Israel's January offensive in Gaza, called Operation Cast Lead, that resulted in the deaths of more than 1400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis. The 117-page Amnesty report charged Israeli forces with killing hundreds of unarmed Palestinian civilians and wanton destruction of thousands of homes. Amnesty found no evidence of Palestinian militants using human shields to stop Israeli attacks, but accused the Israel Defence Forces of launching attacks from buildings in which Palestinian civilians were sheltering. A subsequent United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict was carried out; Amnesty stated that its findings were consistent with those of Amnesty’s own field investigation, and called on the UN to act promptly to implement the mission's recommendations.


 Amnesty International primarily targets governments, but also reports on non-governmental bodies and private individuals ("non-state actors").

There are seven key areas which Amnesty deals with:

Some specific aims are to abolish the death penalty, end extra judicial executions and "disappearances", ensure prison conditions meet international human rights standards, ensure prompt and fair trial for all political prisoners, ensure free education to all children worldwide, decriminalize abortion, fight impunity from systems of justice, end the recruitment and use of child soldiers, free all prisoners of conscience, promote economic, social and cultural rights for marginalized communities, protect human rights defenders, promote religious tolerance, stop torture and ill-treatment, stop unlawful killings in armed conflict, to uphold the rights of refugees, migrants and asylum seekers, and to protect Human dignity.

To further these aims, Amnesty International has developed several techniques to publicize information and mobilize public opinion. The organization considers as one of its strengths the publication of impartial and accurate reports. Reports are researched by interviewing victims and officials, observing trials, working with local human rights activists and by monitoring the media. It aims to issue timely press releases and publishes information in newsletters and on web sites. It also sends official missions to countries to make courteous but insistent inquiries.

Campaigns to mobilize public opinion can take the form of individual, country or thematic campaigns. Many techniques are deployed such as direct appeals (for example, letter writing), media and publicity work and public demonstrations. Often fund-raising is integrated with campaigning.

In situations which require immediate attention, Amnesty International calls on existing urgent action networks or crisis response networks; for all other matters, it calls on its membership. It considers the large size of its human resources to be another one of its key strengths.

Country focus

Rank Country #Press Releases % Total
1 USA 136 4.24
2 Israel (including the West Bank) 128 3.99
3 Indonesia and E. Timor 119 3.71
3 Turkey 119 3.71
4 China (People's Republic of) 115 3.58
5 Serbia and Montenegro (FRY) 104 3.24
6 U.K. 103 3.21
7 India 85 2.65
8 U.S.S.R. and Russia 80 2.49
9 Rwanda 64 2.00
10 Sri Lanka 59 1.84
Source: Ronand et al. (2005:568) Data for 1986-2000
Rank Country #Reports % Total
1 Turkey 394 3.91
2 USSR and Russia 374 3.71
3 China (People's Republic of) 357 3.54
4 U.S.A. 349 3.46
5 Israel (including the West Bank) 323 3.21
6 S. Korea 305 3.03
7 Indonesia and E. Timor 253 2.51
8 Colombia 197 1.96
9 Peru 192 1.91
10 India 178 1.77
Source: Ronand et al. (2005:568) Data for 1986-2000

AI reports disproportionately on relatively more democratic and open countries, arguing that its intention is not to produce a range of reports which statistically represents the world’s human rights abuses, but rather to apply the pressure of public opinion to encourage improvements. The demonstration effect of the behavior of both key Western government and major non-Western states is an important factor: as one former AI Secretary-General pointed out, "...for many countries and a large number of people, the United States is a model," and according to one AI manager, "large countries influence small countries." In addition, with the end of the Cold War, AI felt that a greater emphasis on human rights in the North was needed to improve its credibility with its Southern critics by demonstrating its willingness to report on human rights issues in a truly global manner.

According to one academic study, as a result of these considerations the frequency of AI's reports is influenced by a number of factors, besides the frequency and severity of human rights abuses. For example, AI reports significantly more (than predicted by human rights abuses) on more economically powerful states; and on countries which receive US military aid, on the basis that this Western complicity in abuses increases the likelihood of public pressure being able to make a difference. In addition, around 1993/4, AI consciously developed its media relations, producing fewer background reports and more press releases, to increase the impact of its reports. Press releases are partly driven by news coverage, to use existing news coverage as leverage to discuss AI's human rights concerns. This increases AI's focus on the countries the media is more interested in.

AI's country focus is similar to that of some other comparable NGOs, notably Human Rights Watch: between 1991 and 2000, AI and HRW shared eight of ten countries in their "top ten" (by AI press releases; 7 for AI reports). In addition, six of the 10 countries most reported on by Human Rights Watch in the 1990s also made The Economist's and Newsweek's "most covered" lists during that time.


Amnesty International Sections, 2005
Amnesty International is largely made up of voluntary members but retains a small number of paid professionals. In countries where Amnesty International has a strong presence, members are organised as 'sections'. Sections coordinate basic Amnesty International activities normally with a significant volume of members, some of whom will form into 'groups', and a professional staff. Each have a board of directors. In 2005 there were 52 sections worldwide. 'Structures' are aspiring sections. They also coordinate basic activities but have a smaller membership and a limited staff. In countries where no section or structure exists, people can become 'international members'. Two other organisational models exist: 'international networks', which promote specific themes or have a specific identity, and 'affiliated groups', which do the same work as section groups, but in isolation.

The organizations outlined above are represented by the International Council (IC) which is led by the IC Chairperson. Members of sections and structures have the right to appoint one or more representatives to the Council according to the size of their membership. The IC may invite representatives from International Networks and other individuals to meetings, but only representatives from sections and structures have voting rights. The function of the IC is to appoint and hold accountable internal governing bodies and to determine the direction of the movement. The IC convenes every two years.

The International Executive Committee (IEC), led by the IEC Chairperson, consists of eight members and the IEC Treasurer. It is elected by, and represents, the IC and meets biannually. The role of the IEC is to take decisions on behalf of Amnesty International, implement the strategy laid out by the IC, and ensure compliance with the organisation’s statutes.

The International Secretariat (IS) is responsible for the conduct and daily affairs of Amnesty International under direction from the IEC and IC. It is run by approximately 500 professional staff members and is headed by a Secretary General. The IS operates several work programmes; International Law and Organisations; Research; Campaigns; Mobilisation; and Communications. Its offices have been located in London since its establishment in the mid-1960s.

Amnesty International is financed largely by fees and donations from its worldwide membership. It does not accept donations from governments or governmental organisations.

  • Amnesty International Sections, 2005

    Algeria; Argentina; Australia; Austria; Belgium (Flemish speaking); Belgium (French speaking); Benin; Bermuda; Canada (English speaking); Canada (French speaking); Chile; Côte d’Ivoire; Denmark; Faroe Islands; Finland; France; Germany; Greece; Guyana; Hong Kong; Iceland; Ireland; Israel; Italy; Japan; Korea (Republic of); Luxembourg; Mauritius; Mexico; Morocco; Nepal; Netherlands; New Zealand; Norway; Peru; Philippines; Poland; Portugal; Puerto Rico; Senegal; Sierra Leone; Slovenia; Spain; Sweden; Switzerland; Taiwan; Togo; Tunisia; United Kingdom; United States of America; Uruguay; Venezuela

  • Amnesty International Structures, 2005

    Belarus; Bolivia; Burkina Faso; Croatia; Curaçao; Czech Republic; Gambia; Hungary; Malaysia; Mali; Moldova; Mongolia; Pakistan; Paraguay; Slovakia; South Africa; Thailand; Turkey; Ukraine; Zambia; Zimbabwe

  • IEC Chairpersons

    Seán MacBride, 1965–1974; Dirk Börner, 1974–1977; Thomas Hammarberg, 1977–1979; José Zalaquett, 1979–1982; Suriya Wickremasinghe, 1982–1985; Wolfgang Heinz, 1985–1996; Franca Sciuto, 1986–1989; Peter Duffy, 1989–1991; Annette Fischer, 1991–1992; Ross Daniels, 1993–1997; Susan Waltz, 1996–1998; Mahmoud Ben Romdhane, 1999–2000; Colm O Cuanachain, 2001–2002; Paul Hoffman, 2003–2004; Jaap Jacobson, 2005; Hanna Roberts, 2005–2006; Lilian Gonçalves-Ho Kang You, 2006–2007; Peter Pack, 2007–present

  • General Secretaries

Year Name
1961-1966 Peter Benenson
1966-1968 Eric Baker
1968-1980 Martin Ennals
1980-1986 Thomas Hammarberg
1986-1992 Ian Martin
1992-2001 Pierre Sané
2001- 2009 Irene Khan


Criticism of Amnesty International (AI) includes claims of selection bias, ideological/foreign policy bias against either non-Western countries or Western-supported countries, criticism of AI's policies relating to abortion, and organisational continuity. Governments who have criticised AI include those of Israelmarker, Iranmarker, Saudi Arabiamarker, the Democratic Republic of the Congomarker, the People's Republic of China, Vietnammarker, Russia and the United States, for what they assert is one-sided reporting or a failure to treat threats to security as a mitigating factor. The actions of these governments—and of other governments critical of Amnesty International—have been the subject of human rights concerns voiced by Amnesty. The Catholic Church, among other institutions, has also criticized Amnesty for its stance on abortion.

See also


a. Anthropologist Linda Rabben refers to the origin of AI as a "creation myth" with a "kernel of truth": "The immediate impetus to form Amnesty did come from Peter Benenson’s righteous indignation while reading a newspaper in the London tube on 19 November 1960." Historian Tom Buchanan traced the origins story to a radio broadcast by Peter Benenson in 1962. The 4 March 1962 BBC news story did not refer to a "toast to liberty", but Benenson said his tube ride was on 19 December 1960. Buchanan was unable to find the newspaper article about the Portuguese students in The Daily Telegraph for either month. Buchanan found many news stories reporting on the repressive Portuguese political arrests in The Times for November 1960.


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