AI was founded in 1961 on the inspiration of British lawyer Peter Benenson, whose article “The Forgotten Prisoners” launched the first Prisoners of Conscience campaign, which ignited overwhelming global support and marked the birth of AI. The newly formed organization initially based its demands on select parts of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and on the Prisoners of Conscience campaign. In particular, it focused on freedom of thought, conscience and religion, freedom of opinion and expression, humane treatment of prisoners and the right to a fair trial. This set of principles was incorporated in AI’s mandate: the set of rules establishing the organization's goals and action parameters, or what it and its local groups can and cannot do.
Over the years, AI has altered and expanded its mandate to address new human rights issues and to ease the creative tension between the demands of its grassroots membership and its organizational policy. In fact, the adopted changes are at the heart of the organization’s identity and suggest that every generation reinvents AI. In the 1970s, AI widened its mandate to cover work against torture, extra-judicial killings and disappearances. Many other human rights and social issues were added in the following decades: ending the death penalty, advancing women’s and children’s rights, holding the rights of refugees, migrants and asylum seekers, and protecting LGBT rights. In 2001, its 40th anniversary year, AI expanded its mandate considerably to incorporate economic, social and cultural rights, as well as the body of international law governing armed conflict, thus committing itself to advance all human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.