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Nikolaus Klein SJ

Fifty Years Amnesty International


From: Stimmen der Zeit, 5/2011, P. 291-300
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    In May 1961 "Amnesty International" was founded. Nikolaus Klein, longtime editor of the Swiss Jesuits' magazine "Orientierung", which was closed down at the end of December 2009, provides an overview of the history of the organization and examines the current areas of conflict and the main topics of discussion.


The international human rights organization Amnesty International is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary. The 28 May 1961 is commonly seen as its founding date. At this Sunday in the London Sunday newspaper 'The Observer' a full-page article titled "The Forgotten Prisoners" was published, where the author, the London lawyer Peter Benenson (1921-2005) by his first sentence directly adressed the readers.

"Open your newspaper any day of the week and you will find areport from somewhere in the world of someone being imprisoned, tortured or executed because his opinions or religion are unacceptable to his government. There are several million such people in prison — by no means all of them behind the Iron and Bamboo Curtains — and their numbers are growing. The news paper reader feels a sickening sense of impotence. Yet if these feelings of disgust all oer the world could be united into common action, something effective could be done." {1}


It Began with a Letter Campaign

Eight political prisoners were then presented by short portraits in the contribution. It was suggested to the readers to write letters and to demand from the responsible governments amnesty and release to the eight mentioned people. Coinciding with the publication in the 'Observer', Peter Benenson's appeal was released in the 'New York Herald Tribune', in 'Die Welt', in the 'Journal de Geneve', in the Danish 'Politiken' and in the Swedish "Dagbladet". In the following days, the text was worldwide reprinted by 30 newspapers.

The lawyer Peter Archer, who had supported Peter Benenson's appeal of 28 May 1961 and is one of the founders of Amnesty International later described how the initiators were surprised by the response of the readers.

"We had underestimated the intellectual capacity and the conscience of the public. The appeal in the Observer brought us a flood of offers from people in offices, schools, parishes and factories. And here Amnesty found its strongest moral support. Since our goal was to work for people and not for ideologies and theories, a means to this end was to organize this support. We set up a network of local groups." {2}



The reasonable expectation of being able to achieve an effect by their commitment motivated many people to participate in the letter campaign. In addition, some felt obliged to inform the initiators about cases of human rights violations and "forgotten prisoners" only known to them and to ask for their support.

But not only the hope to be successful with their commitment was for many the reason to participate in this action of 28 May 1961. By the selection and presentation of the eight "forgotten prisoners" the initiators of the appeal succeeded in describing credibly and clearly the motivation for their action. The above prisoners should be helped regardless of the political, cultural and religious differences, because the initiators were convinced that human rights are universal and indivisible. That's why the human rights are not negotiable with the governments involved and must be claimed in full.


Commitment via "Adoption"

The initiators saw the with it given obligation of neutrality guaranteed, due to the principle of "The Three" practiced by them. Three prisoners should simultaneously benefit from each letter campaign: namely a prisoner of the Soviet bloc, a second in from the Western and finally a third from non-aligned countries. This "neutrality maxim" was supported by two additional rules: In every action the letter writers should refer to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the internationally binding human rights conventions. Moreover, if a group wanted to support prisoners, the latter should not come from the land of the activists but from third countries. Besides making representations to the respective governments about the detention of "prisoners of conscience", it was one of the tasks of each group to seek by letter direct contact with the prisoners. In the jargon of the local groups of Amnesty International this up to this day usual commitment is called "adoption".

The first section of Amnesty outside of Great Britain was still in the summer 1961 in Cologne founded by Carola Stern, Gerd Ruge and Felix Rexhausen {3}. They "adopted" a poet from the Soviet Union, a Jehovah's Witness from Spain, and a communist writer from South Africa. Other groups emerged shortly thereafter in Hamburg and Munich.

But in the summer of 1961 not only in Germany action groups emerged. In this situation, there quickly arose the necessity of a supra-national coordination of this work in the field of human rights. As a result, in July 1961 in Luxembourg dedicated people from Britain, France, Belgium, Ireland, Switzerland and the United States of America met to discuss on further action.



They decided that the letter campaigns planned for one year should be transformed into a "permanent international movement in defense of freedom of expression and belief". This commitment should be based on a "mandate" that was divided into four points: firstly, advocating - without respect of persons - the release of those prisoners who are in custody because of their (political, social or religious) convictions; secondly, demanding fair and public trials for them; thirdly, being committed to an extended right of asylum for political prisoners; and fourthly, campaigning for forming international organizations for the protection of freedom of expression {4}.


A Forum for Fundamental Debates

The first half of the 60s brought the extension and consolidation of the work of Amnesty International. This led also to a formalized structure of the organization, which applies up to this day. The individual national-local Amnesty groups, which are combined in national sections, remain the most important element. Priority objective of the supranational institutions, i.e. the International Council, the International Executive Committee and the London-based International Secretariat, is the support and promotion of local groups in their commitment to the political prisoners "adopted" by them. At least every two years, delegates of national sections meet in the "International Council" in order to discuss questions of principle and to elect the International Executive Committee; the latter is responsible for the implementation of the resolutions of the International Council and for the work of the International Secretariat.

In the course of history of Amnesty International the institution of the "International Council" turned out to be the forum for debates on basic principles and fundamental decisions. Already in 1964, at the meeting of the International Council in Canterbury, there was a discussion as to whether Amnesty International is allowed to stand up for political prisoners who have supported the use of force or resorted to violence in their political struggle. This discussion was triggered by the fact that a local group of Amnesty International had "adopted" the South African anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela as a prisoner of conscience. The criterion of "prisoner of conscience" did no longer apply to him, after a South African court had convicted him of preparing a violent overthrow. At the meeting of the International Council in 1968 in Stockholm this discussion was ended by a diversification of the mandate.



In addition to the (current) commitment to non-violent political prisoners, now Amnesty International mentions as additional mandates the fight against torture and death penalty and the fight for fair trials for political prisoners.

In the course of its history, this extension of the original mandate is one of the many changes and enhancements of Amnesty International's commitment. The way in which one struggled for these changes and eventually decided in favour of an addition gave the standard for the subsequent development of the work of the human rights organization. The "neutrality maxime" not only required the unbiased examination of each case, but it forced the activists of Amnesty International to localize the specific case to the human rights discourse. This approach at the same time entailed the opportunity to examine the prevailing opinion about the scope and applicability of human rights by means of a specific case.


On the Example of Nelson Mandela - "Prisoners of Conscience"

This dialectics of individual case and universal rule became already visible in the way how in the case of Nelson Mandela the human rights issue was brought into play. After it was no longer possible to demand the unconditional release of the leading opponent of apartheid in South Africa, because due to the facts that had come to light in the legal proceedings he was no longer seen as a "prisoners of conscience", the only remaining possibility was to call for a fair trial for him. This meant the prohibition of torture, the publicity of the proceedings and access to legitimate appeals. In addition, this option enabled the accused to explain publicly the reasons for his decision to call for the use of violence, or why he resorted to violence. Based on this extension of the mandate, Amnesty International was able to recognize Nelson Mandela as a bearer of essential human rights and "adopt" him without having to approve of his actions and decisions in detail.

The debate about the extension of the mandate had still another consequence. The newly introduced criteria according to which Amnesty International could "adopt" a prisoner did not only apply to the actual individual case. Rather, by complementing the statute one introduced a universal regulation that should also apply to future cases. The prohibition of torture and the call for fair trials as an essential human right were thus brought anew to the attention of the public.



Campaign against Torture - in Cooperation with the International Red Cross

The thus achieved new state of human rights discussion meant for Amnesty International the final sanctioning to a fairly long practice in individual cases of torture and missing justice in judicial proceedings. The "Universal Declaration of Human Rights" (1948) in Article 5 admittedly mentions a ban on torture, but at the same time it refrained from laying down regulations of how the ban can be enforced. The Geneva Convention of 1949 admittedly authorized the "International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to examine the complaints of prisoners of war about cruel behavior. As a result, the ICRC tried to clarify the fact of the tortures, and - on the level of "quiet diplomacy" - to persuade the accused governments to adopt measures against the use of torture and to implement them.

Since for their part, activists of Amnesty International came across cases of torture while they cared for "adopted" prisoners, there were regular consultations with the ICRC in such cases. At the International Council Meeting of 1966 this cooperation was officially sanctioned. After the military coup in Greece in May 1967, Amnesty International was able - due to its research on the spot - to persuade European governments to hold hearings on the human rights situation and to condemn the behavior of the Greek government. As a result, the political pressure on Greece became so strong that it could forestall the imminent exclusion from the Council of Europe only by a voluntary resignation.

By the successes of Amnesty International at the European level in fighting torture, the Executive Committee under Sean MacBride was in 1972 motivated to start a worldwide Campaign Against Torture. With it, one wanted firstly to draw the public's attention to the serious violation of human rights and secondly impart the awareness that the fight against torture can only be won if international agreements and international law are tightened up. These efforts were successful. The United Nations General Assembly's Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment" of 9 December 1975 was on 10 December 1984 followed by the UN Convention Against Torture. On 18 December 2002, this was supplemented by a Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture. After the compulsory ratification, both conventions are internationally binding regulations {5}.

The campaign against torture meant for the way of working of Amnesty International an innovation. Local and national lobbying was coordinated with an international campaign, in order to draw the world's attention to a special problem.



There was at the same time a growing awareness of the fact that in many individual cases the fight against torture necessitates a faster response of Amnesty International local groups. The idea of Urgent Action emerged, where a network of participants was asked to start letter campaigns for individual victims. An Urgent Action should offer a preventive protection of those who were endangered by torture. For Amnesty International it remained up to this day an important instrument in its commitment to human rights.

The fight against torture showed that Amnesty International was able to respond to new challenges. At the same time, it became clear how difficult and conflictual the distance travelled was.

An important factor in this development was certainly the fact that since the 70's the worldwide situation of human rights became more and more confusing. The practice of many governments - following the example of Chile (after the military coup of General Augusto Pinochet in 1973) - to put prisoners away and to execute political opponents without trial, meant new challenges in the field of human rights work as regards its commitment and way of working. It was not only necessary to continue supporting the individual prisoner's cause. Rather, at the beginning of the action for missing prisoners (Desaparecidos or Disappearances) or the investigation of extrajudicial executions one had to provide the difficult proof that the respective governments were responsible for the preparation, execution and cover-up of the crimes of which they were accused. The respective governments did everything they could to conceal their involvement, because these were cases where they had not only denied people their legal rights but where they acted directly as perpetrators.


Fight against "Impunity"

These problems got worse at the beginning of the 90s. When dictatorships were transformed into democratic states, the question arose how the governmentally committed crimes can be prosecuted. Often during the democratization processes amnesty laws have been passed, which protected the perpetrators against any future prosecution.

In the 90s the fight against "impunity" (or Impunidad) became a central topic for many human rights organizations. At issue was the question of whether internationally binding human rights conventions can abrogate nationally valid amnesty laws.



Amnesty International did not only in many individual cases stand up for "disappeared prisoners" and campaigned against "extrajudicial executions" and "impunity" of state crimes. It purposefully deepened its commitment by a series of international campaigns, which culminated in an international debate on the above issues. It resulted in intergovernmental negotiations and reached its provisional conclusion in the "Rome Statute of the International Court of Justice" of 17 June 1998. After the Statute was ratified by 60 states, it came into force on 1 July 2002. With this convention a legally binding instrument has been created. It obliges the ratification partners to prosecute serious human rights abuses - regardless of where and by whom they were committed {6}.

Amnesty International's responses to the changes in the situation of human rights and the development of international law were reflected in the relevant amendments and redrafting of the statute. For 30 years the term "political prisoner" had been fundamental for the task description in the mandate text. At the international council meeting in 1991 in Yokohama (Japan), it was replaced by the concept "serious human rights violation." With this reformulation, the previous practice of the direct commitment to individual prisoners, as it was paraphrased by the "The Three" rule, was not abandoned. Rather, the reformulation allowed to extend the task of Amnesty International beyond the care for prisoners.

With this use of language Amnesty International subsequently recorded how the way of working and the task had developed since the 70's and 80's. But the formula also formulated a claim, which then intensified the internal debates and for outsiders often obscured the commitment of Amnesty International. For on the one hand, one adhered without reservation to the principle of the indivisibility of human rights, on the other hand one had in accordance with the criterion of "serious human rights violation" to decide what one wanted to promote in concrete terms {7}.

In this situation Amnesty International had not only the problem of whether its decisions could be perceived as credible by the public. It exacerbated at the same time the internal discussions on the formulations and contents of the mandate. This can be ascertained by the changes and additions which over the years were regularly made in the formulations of the mandate {8}. In the discussion two problems manifested themselves as particularly difficult and at the same time as basic issues: firstly it was about the question of the legitimacy and the limits of the use of (military) force in humanitarian interventions, and secondly, the question of the tension between women's rights and religious and cultural traditions.



In Opposition to NATO - Kosovo War

In 1999 the NATO waged a war against Serbia in order to protect Kosovo's population against ethnically motivated attacks of the Yugoslav army. In June 2000 Amnesty International published its analysis of the decision of NATO and the acts of war. In it was noted that NATO had violated international laws on armed conflicts by accepting that uninvolved civilians were harmed by bombings. It was also demanded that those responsible should be brought to trial. The core of the argument of Amnesty International is in the statement:

Amnesty International has long refused to take a position on whether or not foreign armed forces should be deployed in human rights crises. We neither support nor oppose such interventions. Instead, we argue that human rights crises can, and should, be prevented. They are never inevitable. If government decisions to intervene are motivated by the quest for justice, why do they allow situations to deteriorate into such unspeakable injustice?" {9}

In the above-mentioned report Amnesty International demands on this basis that governments must call upon also friendly and allied countries to respect human rights. This is a crucial aspect of prevention. This position is up to the present day reflected in the statements of Amnesty International. Thus, the annual report of 2010 pointed out that the noncompliance with the Millennium Development Goals will have serious consequences for the human rights situation in some regions of the world.

The opinion of Amnesty International on the Kosovo War does not only concern an isolated case. In its argument it asks about the scope of human rights, and the ways ín which they can be enforced. Thus, the statement touches on a central problem of the human rights debate. With its decision in favour of prevention, legal and humanitarian assistance and against the use of military force, it opens a discussion that goes beyond the direct commitment of Amnesty International.


Protection of Women against Violence

The since 2005 ongoing discussion on the protection of women against violence as a crime against human rights turned out to be equally difficult and at the same time equally fundamental. It proved to be more urgent than ever before, since in armed conflicts more and more violence was as a means of warfare used against women.



At the International Council of Cocoyoc (Mexico) in the summer of 2007 a declaration was adopted where it says that women should be guaranteed under limited circumstances the possibility of a legal abortion. This applies to situations where the health and the human rights of women are endangered.

Amnesty International's position is not for abortion as a right but for women's human rights to be free of fear, threat and coercion as they manage all consequences of rape and other grave human rights violations." {10}

This decision of the International Council Meeting of Cocoyoc was discussed above all in the Anglo-Saxon countries. The consequence was that a number of individuals and entire local groups of Amnesty International terminated their membership. In a statement to the criticism of the Vatican Secretariat of State and of the president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has been explicitly stated that Amnesty International does not endorse a general right to abortion, nor wanted the organization to comment on the question of whether abortions are ethically justifiable or not.

The statement then lists a number of cases where the human rights of women are ignored; these would therefore suggest a 'new policy' to Amnesty International. In addition, in the declaration it says that Amnesty International allows its critics the right to their position, and it does not see this fact as an obstacle to further cooperation in human rights issues about which one agrees. With this statement and the decision of Cocoyoc, Amnesty International has started a discussion process that is in its infancy in the human rights debate, namely the relation between women's rights and religious and cultural traditions {12}.

Fifty years of human rights commitment of Amnesty International has not only brought support to many people and often liberation from situations of great injustice. The organization has at the same time made a fundamental contribution to creating a human rights culture.



{1} A facsimile of the „Observer" article of 28 Mai 1961 is available on the website of the American section of Amnesty International (see.», accessed 19. 2. 2011). About Peter Benenson's biography, its intellectual and political contexts and the immediate background of the "Observer" article, see T. Buchanan, "The Truth Will Set You Free": The Making of Amnesty International, in: Journal of Contemporary History 37 (2002 ) 575-597.

{2} E. Larsen, Amnesty International. Im Namen der Menschenrechte (München 1980) 16.



{3} See C. Leggewie, Amnesty International — die Macht der Ohnmächtigen, in: W. Hofer and others, Der Friedens-Nobelpreis von 1975 bis 1978 (Zug 1992) 144-157, especially 146 f.

{4} See A. M. Clark, Diplomacy of Conscience. Amnesty International and Changing Human Rights Norms (Princeton 2001) 3-20.

{5} See in the same place 37-69.

{6} See in the same place 70-123.

{7} See R. Marx, amnesty international — Die Hervorbringung einer spezifischen Strategie aus dem aktuellen Kontext des menschenrechtlichen Diskurses, in: 40 Jahre für die Menschenrechte, edited by Amnesty International (Neuwied 2001) 14-33.

{8} The latest version of the mandate was adopted during the International Council Meeting of August 2009 in Antalya (Turkey). The texts of the various versions of the mandate, linked to the respective priorities for action, are found in the annual "Reports" (published in Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, Frankfurt).

{9} J. Power, Like Water on Stone. The Story of Amnesty International (Boston 2001) 290; in contrast: M. Ignatieff, The Lesser Evil. Political Ethics in an Age of Terror (Princeton 2004) 54-81; The Responsibility to Protect. International Development Research Centre, edited by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (Ottawa 2001).

{10} The quote from Kate Gilmore, Executive Deputy Secretary General of Amnesty International is from an editorial in the magazine America, 29. 10. 2007, 5.

{11} The statements of President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, William Skylstad (Spokane/Wash.) of 2. 7. and 23. 8. 2007 in: Origins 37 (2007) 193 f., 194 f.; the opinion of Amnesty International in the same place 195 ff. How individuals and Christian groups responded to the declaration of Cocoyoc becomes paradigmatically clear in: J. Odell Korgen, End of a Partnership, in: America, 30. 6. 2008, 26 ff.; On the context of the position of the majority of American bishops see Ch. Curran, US Catholic Bishops and Abortion Legislation. A Critique from Within the Church, in: National Catholic Reporter, 26. 11. 2010, 1a-4a.

{12} See S. Moller Okin, Konflikte zwischen Grundrechten. Frauenrechte u. die Probleme religiöser u. kultureller Unterschiede, in: Philosophie u. Menschenrechte, edited by St. Gosepath u. G. Lohmann (Frankfurt 52010) 310-342.


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