Amnesty International at 50

I’m thinking a great deal these days about human rights and about doing more for the field. Today, I gave a presentation on human rights in DC, with a focus on our work with truth commissions. I recently spoke at the Silicon Valley Human Rights Conference, where I talked about technology for human rights defenders. Our human rights team is expanding and taking on new and exciting challenges. It makes me think about one of the giants of our field.

Earlier this year, I spoke at the 50th Anniversary Annual General Meeting of Amnesty International (AI). I stuck around for the main closing meeting, where the history and future of AI was presented. I was amazed to learn about the ways in which AI has transformed itself over the first half century of its existence, as one of the preeminent human rights group of our time.

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.

At times, the changes in AI’s charter and organizational policies involved controversial decisions, arousing both internal and external debates: should people who use or advocate the use of force in opposing oppressive regimes be recognized as Prisoners of Conscience? What about people imprisoned solely due to their sexual orientation? Is it okay to allow AI members to not belong to a local group? Even more broadly: can AI be transformed rapidly enough to meet the many new challenges to human rights? Can it make the changes that are required while remaining true to all it has stood for in the past?

As an organization that monitors the changing conditions of human rights, AI – like other human rights organizations – undoubtedly must also change. And, clearly, the changes are a source not only of debate, but also of innovation.

At the 50th Anniversary Annual General Meeting, AI’s Secretary General, Salil Shetty, linked the expansion of the mandate with AI’s evolution and with its future directions. He pointed to four disturbing paradoxes affecting human rights at present that AI needs to address: massive increase in both wealth and inequality; tremendous reduction of war in tandem with a rise of global insecurity; huge influence of media and new technology contrasted with low accountability and justice; and increase of democracies coupled with distrust of leadership.

Mr. Shetty described AI’s need to explore in greater depth the conditions underlying human rights problems and to implement proactive, “upstream” strategies for their resolution, in addition to the more reactive approaches reflected in the organization’s established methods. In the coming years, he said, AI must therefore enlarge its footprint in developing countries and address its members’ concerns with poverty, international economic injustices and lack of corporate accountability as major sources of human rights violations. I especially heard strong interest in building the Amnesty movement in Latin America and Asia.

In fact, some of these new directions are already being implemented: as part of its 50th anniversary celebrations, AI is running throughout 2011 global actions with a focus on reproductive rights, international justice and stopping corporate abuse. It will be exciting to observe how AI continues to transform itself in the future as the challenges to human rights evolve.

As our human rights team grows and expands its impact, and we launch a new project to help LGBT groups, I have found myself thinking about AI’s evolution and what lessons it has to teach us. How can we remain true to our commitment to the truth, seeing technology and science better defend the defenders of human rights, and advancing global respect for human rights?


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