Amnesty International was started by a British lawyer, Peter Benenson. On May 28th, 1961 he published an article, "The Forgotten Prisoners" in The Observer newspaper, London, United Kingdom (UK), about the imprisonment of two Portuguese students who had raised their wine glasses in a toast to freedom. His 'Appeal for Amnesty' was reprinted in other papers across the world.

In July of that same year the first international meeting with delegates from Belgium, UK, France, Germany, Ireland, Switzerland and the United States decided to establish "a permanent international movement in defence of freedom of opinion and religion." In Mitre Court, London, an office and library, staffed by volunteers were opened. A "Threes Network" was established in which each AI group adopted three prisoners from contrasting geographical and political areas. Also in 1961, the first AI groups outside of the UK were established in West Germany, The Netherlands, France, Italy and Switzerland. On 10 December, Human Rights Day, the first Amnesty candle was lit in the church of St-Martins-in-the-Fields, London.

In 1962 AI groups were started in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Belgium, Greece, Australia, Ireland, and the United States. At a conference in Belgium, the groups decided to set up a permanent organization that would become known as "Amnesty International".

On the 40th anniversary, on 28 May 2001, Amnesty had more than 1,000,000 members, subscribers and regular donors in more than 140 countries and territories. The organization's nerve centre is the International Secretariat in London, with more than 320 members of staff and over 100 volunteers from more than 50 countries around the world. The movement consists of more than 7,500 local, youth & student, and professional Amnesty International groups registered at the International Secretariat plus several thousand other youth & student groups, specialist groups, networks and coordinators in nearly 100 countries and territories throughout the world. Amnesty International is a democratic movement self-governed by a nine-member International Executive Committee (IEC). This Committee comprises eight volunteer members, elected every two years by an International Council That consists of representatives of the worldwide movement, and an elected member of the International Secretariat.

Amnesty International has a precise mandate, that is described in detail in an international statute. The main focus of its campaigning is to:

  • free all prisoners of conscience. These are people detained anywhere for their beliefs or because of their ethnic origin, sex, colour, language, national or social origin, economic status, birth or other status -- who have not used or advocated violence.
  • ensure fair and prompt trials for political prisoners.
  • abolish the death penalty, torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of prisoners.
  • end extrajudicial executions and "disappearances".
Apart from this, Amnesty International also opposes abuses by opposition groups (which includes hostage taking, torture and killings of prisoners), assists asylum-seekers who are at risk of being returned to a country where there is a large chance they will face violations of their human rights, organises human rights education and awareness raising programs and cooperates with all kinds of non-governmental organisations to protect human rights.

Amnesty International gathers information by sending delegates, who talk to victims of human rights violations, observe trials, and interview local human rights activists and officials. The facts gathered in this way are used to mobilize public pressure on governments and others that have influence to stop the abuse of human rights. Many different activities are organized to mobilize this public pressure: demonstration, writing of letters, human rights education, approaches to local authorities and lobbying intergovernmental organisations, targeted appeals on behalf of a single individual and global campaigns on specific countries or issues. Examples of specific issues are women's rights, child soldiers or torture.
The Urgent Action network (made up of more than 80,000 volunteers in some 85 countries) organizes rapid action for prisoners and others who are in immediate danger of serious human rights violations, like torture or the death penalty. Each case can generate between 3 and 5,000 appeals.
Amnesty has also developed international networks which work in specialized areas: the Legal Network, the Military Security and Police (MSP) Network, the Company Approaches Network, the Children Network, the Youth/Student Network, the Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Network, the Death Penalty Network, the Medical Network, the Trade Union Networks, the Refugee Network and the Human Rights Education Network. These networks consist of people who are personally interested in a specific area, like police officers who try to educate their colleagues in other countries about the possibilities of handling prisoners without violating their rights. Likewise the LGBT Network specifically campaigns against the mistreatment of gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered people.

Amnesty International is independent from any government, and neither seeks nor accepts funds from governments. Amnesty's funding relies on donations from its members, the public and organizations like trusts, foundations and companies.

The most important thing about Amnesty is that their approach really works. Where human rights are abused because of ignorance (like in the case of those policemen who actually don't know how to behave towards prisoners other than by abusing them), education and information help stop the violations. Where human rights are willfully violated, public awareness can put a stop to that situation. Each issue of the Dutch magazine for members contains a section 'Good News' with stories about people who have been released, torturers who have been punished and death sentences that have been lifted through action by Amnesty's members. Like a released prisoner of conscience from Vietnam said: "We could always tell when international protests were taking place... the food rations increased and the beatings were fewer. Letters from abroad were translated and passed around from cell to cell, but when the letters stopped, the dirty food and repression started again."


Much more information about Amnesty International, its history and activities can be found at www.amnesty.org, which was also the source for this w/u.

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