Amnesty International or AI is an international non-governmental organization (NGO) that works 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 opposition groups.
Many of Amnesty's positions are quite controversial, such as its call for the right of return of all Palestininan refugees (and their families).
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 his newspaper and, in a May 28 article entitled The Forgotten Prisoners, 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.
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 such as the United Nations who also seek to put an end to human rights abuses.
- Raise awareness about human rights abuses around the world.
Amnesty works to combat individual offenses (one man imprisoned for distributing banned literature in Saudi Arabia) as well as more general policies (the policy of executing juvenile offenders in certain US states). Amnesty works primarily on the local level, but after more than forty years and a Nobel Peace Prize, the respect it has earned is enough to give it a powerful voice on the larger scale.
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 the local groups (more than 7,000, all told) as well as all independent members (300,000 in the US alone; over a million worldwide). 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 International is 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.
Amnesty is a non-partisan organization and does not accept money donations from governments or governmental organizations. All of Amnesty's capital comes from the pockets of its members and donations from other non-partisan organizations. Amnesty's budget for the 2000 fiscal year was as follows:
- Membership Support - GBP £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
On a world-wide level, Amnesty 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 comprised of delegates from each country's Board of Directors. The IEC then hires a Secretary General and an International Secretariat.
Amnesty follows a policy that, to maintain neutrality, members should not be active in issues in their own nation. This also helps to protect them from being mistreated by their own government, if it is itself abusive.