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Amnesty International

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Amnesty International (often abbreviated to 'AI'1) is a worldwide human rights organisation which utilises 'people power' to help people suffering from abuses of human rights. Amnesty is not affiliated to any government, religion or political ideology and is therefore totally independent, relying on donations and fundraising to keep it going. 'The Secret Policeman's Balls' shows were probably the most famous example and featured many extremely well-known comics.

The aim of Amnesty International is to work towards a world where every person on the planet is fully protected by the rights given in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They work to end the death penalty, torture, extra-judicial executions, 'disappearances', and the imprisonment of prisoners of conscience - defined by Amnesty as people who:

... have not used, or encouraged the use of, violence; have not openly supported or recommended hatred for racial, religious or similar reasons to provoke people to discriminate, or to be hostile or violent; are detained or imprisoned because of their political, religious or other beliefs, or their ethnic origin, sex, colour or similar reasons
- and political prisoners - again, defined by Amnesty as including:
... people who are detained or imprisoned just because, for example, they have tried to form political parties in a country where this is banned.
Amnesty also attempts to ensure fair trials and lawful punishment of people who commit human rights abuses. The organisation has over 1.8 million members, subscribers and other supporters from more than 150 countries. It has offices in more than 50 countries, and more than 7,500 groups in nearly 100 countries.

Founding of Amnesty International

Peter Benenson2, a British lawyer, was so appalled when he heard that two Portuguese students had been imprisoned for seven years simply for raising a toast to freedom that he wrote an article called 'The Forgotten Prisoners' for The Observer newspaper, requesting a campaign to protest about such forgotten prisoners as the students, and giving details of six other cases. The article was reprinted in other papers around the world.

The paper responded by launching a campaign called 'Appeal for Amnesty 1961'. The public supported the campaign by writing letters of support, by sending information of further cases and with offers of help. Within six months the organisation was being established, by delegates from the UK, Belgium, the US, France, Germany, Ireland and Switzerland. Within a year it had 210 cases, and sections in seven countries.

Amnesty International Today

Amnesty sends observers and experts to view situations for themselves and carries out detailed research which is published in reports and passed on to the media. Members carry out protests and demonstrations, as well as writing to governments and organisations to express their concerns. Amnesty also tries to educate people about human rights.

The organisation is easily recognised by its famous symbol, a flaming candle wrapped in barbed wire. One example of a real-life Amnesty International candle is at Salisbury Cathedral in England, underneath a stained glass 'Prisoners of Conscience' window in the Cathedral's Trinity Chapel. The window was designed in 1980 by a stained-glass artist called Gabriel Loire from Chartres, and is accompanied by details of various prisoners of conscience.


The organisation alerts its members to human rights abuses by publicising them in its magazine and on its website, and occasionally by writing to the members or to groups (which include local and student groups at many universities) about specific cases. Members are ordinary citizens who take the time to help someone they don't know and have probably never heard of. Amnesty International's prestige and the level of pressure it is able to bring to bear often result in positive outcomes in its cases - a former torturer from El Salvador said that:

If there's a lot of pressure, like from Amnesty International, we might pass the political prisoners on to a judge. But if there's no pressure, then they're dead.

In some cases, time is at a premium, so an 'Urgent Action' appeal is launched to special volunteers who respond very quickly with letters, faxes and so on. Examples of campaigns include trying to end the death penalty, imprisonment at Guantanamo Bay, and stopping violence against women. Amnesty is also part of the Control Arms coalition. Furthermore, every year at Christmas, Amnesty has a 'Greetings Card Campaign' where members are encouraged to write Christmas cards to people under threat. This is to show support, and that they are not forgotten.


In 1977 Amnesty International was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for having 'contributed to securing the ground for freedom, for justice, and thereby also for peace in the world'. The following year Amnesty also received the United Nations Human Rights Award. Many people who have been freed or otherwise helped by Amnesty International's work have also testified to its effectiveness.

1Note that this does not refer to Artificial Intelligence or Artificial Insemination!2Who died in 2005 at the age of 83.

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