(I am an AI member, but wrote this article as an individual, with no payment or coercion to do so.)
This piece is written in response to an escalating war against perceived spooks; Bush's "axis of evil" and that being used as an excuse for massive human rights abuses after what happened on September 11th 2001. Like it or not, the fallout from this is going to be with us for decades.
Amnesty International (AI) operates worldwide with a central theme of justice against such abuse, and AI has been one of the more sane recent voices in standing up against gung-hoism.
AI(UK) were formed in 1961 following a newspaper article by Peter Benenson; a lawyer, highlighting human rights abuses and calling for action.
· Release of those imprisoned SOLELY due to religion, politics, colour, gender, sexual orientation or race.
· Acceleration of judicial procedure for political prisoners (many detained for political reasons spend years without trial).
· Opposition to physical punishment/torture. Absolute opposition to capital punishment.
· To end the use of hostages etc.
You may note that all of these apply to the Afghan prisoners being held by the US Government on Cuba.
AI has several methods (all non-violent) mainly orchestrated publicity. Dissemination of information to members and global media puts human rights offenders under the spotlight of world attention. Some governments don't seem to care about global opinion. Others are hypersensitive. The watchwords of AI are 'persistence works'. Co-ordinated letter-writing campaigns can be surprisingly effective; often mail deliveries to embassies (or prisons themselves) have been so prolonged, time-consuming and unmanageable that prisoners have been released simply to allow admin systems to return to normal working; as this letter from a freed prisoner shows:
"The first 200 letters came: I was given back my clothes. 200 more came; the governor visited me. 300 more letters; the President was informed. More letters came. The President said to let me go"
AI is non-religious and apolitical; accepting no financial help from any political party. Members hold whichever beliefs they wish, provided their AI work is entirely impartial. AI has formal relations with multi-national groups (United Nations, Council Of Europe, Organisation of American States and Organisation of African Unity) These work as diplomatic relations do between countries, but don't imply bias towards any nation. Individual members can personally investigate abuses in their own country; but the AI group for that country doesn't publicly comment or intervene: ie for abuses in Turkey, AI (France) protests. This ensures detached impartial objectivity (where AI is unpopular with those in power it may also prevent members from arrest themselves).
Income is from subscriptions, donations and special events, e.g. fundraising concerts. All work is voluntary; allowing total impartiality. Membership is open to anyone, and they range from young people to pensioners, there are over 1.1 million members in 150 countries.
Anyone with professional ability can also help in AI specialist groups, including legal teams, healthcare, social work, ex-police/military personnel, multi-lingual journalists etc. AI does support work such as attending trials, translating legal documents, medically examining victims of torture and compiling reports for circulation to the media. If you have access to a PC you can join in their email campaigns.
Amnesty's campaigns WORK. In over 40 cases the abuses have stopped. This is over 40, individuals being abused; many cases concern entire ethnic or religious sub-groups. AI doesn't claim all the credit; citing accumulating social change, economic pressure and other campaigning groups as alternative reasons. Whether pressure would ever have been brought to bear to the same extent without AI is unlikely. They are perhaps too modest. In 1977 AI won the Nobel Peace Prize and in 1978 the UN Human Rights Prize.
AI's great strength is a global sense of justice, transcending language and culture, with an impartial stance viewing all humanity as equal.
Several criticisms of AI stem from misunderstandings; e.g. the complaint that AI wants "criminals" released! They do, where such "crimes" include religious practice declared illegal by an invading army (such as Chinese martial law in Tibet).
Laws create criminals.
Despots make new laws to their own ends.
AI decries crime and does NOT campaign for anyone justly convicted of a crime outside the remit of AI. They do insist laws comply with recognised human rights.
Criticism from the UK, is that as HM Govt. claims it does a lot to counter injustice in the Third World; "we" don't need AI. Despite the stereotypical image of be-medalled Banana Republic tyrants having their opponents "silenced", it's a whole world problem. Amnesty has successfully campaigned against abuses in America, France, Germany and the UK. The illegal British interrogation of suspected Sinn Fein members was scrutinised by AI; those arrested often had connection with neither Sinn Fein (a legal political party) nor the IRA.
Our Govt doesn't do as much as they'd like us to believe. There's a big world market for "interrogation" equipment, and the UK exports armaments, all under Government licence. Any human rights sanctions against weapons customers may lose orders. When questioned about the Govt's attitude to Chinese abuses in Tibet, my local MP at the time said
"There are many cases of oppression and attacks on human rights in the world. We cannot try to deal with them all."
SO we don't try to deal with any of them, in effect. British Aerospace's £ multi-million deal with China at the time may have hindered our altruism. Some think that human rights are a luxury in "primitive" countries; when these countries "catch up" with the civilised West they can have rights. Such a hypocritical, racist perspective built on double standards seems extremely sad. Often undeveloped countries were bequeathed their "primitive" state by hasty withdrawal of European imperialists no longer able to rule them. Westerners often TEACH human rights abuse, not 'civilisation'. In 1989 there was furore over military assault on peacefully demonstrating students in Beijing. Bullets were also the preferred method of "crowd dispersal" for the British in India around 40 years before.
One weakness of AI is their idealistic world view. The abuses of human rights since 1961 have become more widespread, degrading and more entrenched in habit, but AI aren't deluded idealists. The enormity of the task is daunting, but every great achievement starts with individual vision.
AI is doing (unpaid) the work of the 50-year old UN Standing Commission On Human Rights; which compiled a set of universal human rights but was politically hamstrung by their membership; who are among the worst human rights offenders in the world.
Amnesty Internationals' own statement of intent is simple; once (if ever?) accomplished, they cease to exist:
"Amnesty International will only be satisfied when it is redundant.
Only when the use of torture and the death penalty becomes unthinkable, only when political imprisonment, "disappearances", political killings and other human rights abuses are recognised as a degrading answer to the challenge of ideas will the work of Amnesty International become unnecessary.
The world is a long way from that point."
AI deserve our admiration, in that they sometimes achieve the virtually impossible in waking the world's conscience. It's a symbol of hope that some see humans as evolving beings with temporary, solveable problems; not the common cynical (or realistic?) view of man as a murderous destroying ogre with no future.
I can't personally do much for those unjustly treated, especially when they are hundreds of miles away. AI allows me to become involved in demonstration by mail to the abusers; and the news AI sends me puts my little day-to-day gripes into perspective. Anything that makes us thus less parochial and more humane should be applauded.
I'm still clapping. And you?
Amnesty International Publicity material and bi-monthly Journals.
I did some agitation on China and Tibet years ago, and got some very non-committal and sickening letters from Personal letters from (1) Ray Whitney MP, 20/9/95 and (2) Correspondence Secretary to Mr John Major MP, 25/9/95.
UN information from Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Amnesty International UK can be contacted at 99-119 Roseberry Ave, London, EC1R 4RE or www.amnesty.org.uk