A Brief History and Description
The "Appeal for Amnesty" called for the release of all people imprisoned because of peaceful expression of their beliefs, politics, race, religion, color, or national origin. Benenson called these people, "prisoners of conscience." His plan was to encourage people to write letters to government officials in countries which had prisoners of conscience, calling for their release.
The campaign grew enormously, spread to other countries, and by the end of 1961 the organization, Amnesty International (AI), had been formed.
Amnesty was founded on the principle that people have fundamental rights that transcend national, cultural, religious, and ideological boundaries. It worked to obtain prompt and fair trials for all prisoners, to end torture and executions, and to secure the release of prisoners of conscience. (Prisoners of conscience, as Amnesty defines them, are people imprisoned solely because of their political or religious beliefs, gender, or their racial or ethnic origin, who have neither used nor advocated violence.) Amnesty International's Mandate was based on the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights .
Amnesty's earliest activity was individual letter-writing on behalf of prisoners of conscience. After the organization had investigated a prisoner's case and determined that he or she was indeed a prisoner of conscience, it would "adopt" this prisoner. People in the group would write many letters to officials in that prisoner's country asking for his or her release. They would also, if it was safe to do so, contact the prisoner's family and offer help.
This worked extremely well, probably because people involved with Amnesty felt a bond with individual prisoners, whose names, cases, and families they grew to know, far more than they could have with a set of statistics on a country's human rights record. It also established Amnesty's early focus on individuals, not countries or political systems. Amnesty members work on behalf of individuals, not to change political systems.
During the late 1960s, members who want to be more active at the local level began to form what were then called Adoption Groups, and in the 1980s were renamed Local Groups, to focus additional efforts on an adopted prisoner and specific country or issue campaigns. They also helped increasingly with publicity, education, and fundraising at the grassroots level, and reached out to churches, schools, businesses, professional organizations, and labor unions. This activity brought in new members and resources, spurring the organization's growth.
After some mistakes and consequent bad publicity, in the late 1960s Amnesty adopted the rule that people in the organization were to work on cases only outside of their countries. This was for a couple of reasons. First and most important, experience had indicated that some people were not sufficiently impartial about cases in their own countries. They would either believe a story about a human rights abuse without checking it out, or refuse to believe it without verifying that it was actually false. Since the impartiality and accuracy of Amnesty (or any human rights organization) is the source of its reputation and ability to influence events, this was a serious problem.
Second, relatively few countries tolerated human rights activism sufficiently to allow an internal activist to work without interference or threats to his freedom and safety.
Most of these early principles and types of work remain unchanged, although the organization has grown to over 1 million members in over 150 countries as of 1993.
Despite early mistakes and setbacks, and despite growing international opposition by human rights abusers, the crazy quilt of methods, tools, and activities that formed Amnesty International worked. In 1977 Amnesty International was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its work.
Many early members of Amnesty were professors or others involved in higher education, but during the early 1980s the number of college campus groups, most of whose members were students, grew tremendously. Because their membership changed rapidly, these groups did not adopt prisoners, but instead worked on country campaigns, organized publicity, and wrote letters on behalf of adopted prisoners for other groups. In many cases a campus group would team up with a local adoption group to organize human rights events and get out letters for their adopted prisoner.
In the mid-1980s a number of musicians and artists, some quite prominent, adopted Amnesty International as a special cause. Several gave concerts or even entire tours and donated the profits to the group. This brought about tremendous growth and new visibility for the organization. It also increased Amnesty's budget tremendously. New staff was hired and new regional offices opened all over the world.
Amnesty International is effective because of its accuracy and impartiality. Research departments at the London headquarters, the International Secretariat (IS), devote substantial resources to obtaining accurate information about prisoners of conscience. AI has established a reputation as a credible source of information. This credibility is tied to its independence from all governments, political or religious factions, and economic interests.
Volunteers still carry out most of AI's work. They write letters to governments that are abusing the human rights of those who hold opposing viewpoints, whether through imprisonment, harrassment, threats, physical mistreatment, torture, "disappearances", or politically-motivated murder. They staff tables at public events, passing out information to the public on prisoners of conscience and human rights issues. They organize demonstrations, write press releases, found letter-writing groups at their churches or synagogues, and exercise their intelligence and imagination in almost unlimited ways.
AI never claims credit for the release of prisoners. Releases are the result of many factors, not the least of which are the actions (often taken at considerable risk) of families and friends. However, many released prisoners have said that Amnesty's publicity and letters were very important. In fact, releases are the most easily observable, but not the only, consequence of AI's work. Conditions with the prison may be improved, torture may be stopped or prevented, and the prisoners may be given real hope by the knowledge that they have not been forgotten.