Amnesty International Essay

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Amnesty International (AI) is a global, nonprofit, grassroots organization dedicated to the provision of essential human rights for all persons and advocating for individuals whose rights have been violated. AI is known as “the prisoner’s friend”; its members work for the release of nonviolent prisoners of conscience who have been incarcerated for their political beliefs, and promote humane treatment and basic due process for all prisoners.

On May 27, 1961, the creation of Appeal for Amnesty, the precursor of Amnesty International, was announced by an article, “The Forgotten Prisoners,” published by British lawyer Peter Benenson in The Observer. This article addressed the plight of political prisoners incarcerated by various governments for their beliefs. Benenson cited Articles 18 and 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to emphasize the need to preserve individual freedom of religion and expression across the globe. Led by Benenson, a group of lawyers, writers, and publishers opened an office in London to track nonviolent prisoners of conscience and publicize their plight, in an effort to rally public opinion on their behalf.

Benenson’s article was reprinted in newspapers in many different countries and prompted an outpouring of support for these prisoners. A network of individuals was organized to write letters to governments incarcerating and mistreating prisoners in violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which continues to grow to this day. AI subsequently utilized international media and other avenues to communicate its appeals. A library was created to collect information about prisoners of conscience around the world, and local letter writing groups were formed to focus equally on prisoners from communist, capitalist, and developing countries.

AI urges all countries to adopt and adhere to the principles outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, promulgated in 1948 by the General Assembly of the United Nations (UN), as well as other sources of human rights standards. The UN Declaration of Human Rights is a cornerstone of international law, asserting that all individuals, regardless of race, sex, religion, nationality, or political opinion, have certain inherent rights and freedoms. These rights and freedoms include the right to life and liberty, to be recognized as a human being worthy of respect and humane treatment, to be treated equally under the law, and to enjoy freedom of thought, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion.

The universal nature of the Declaration of Human Rights has been challenged by moral relativists, who deny the existence of a universal moral code. Moral relativists assert that moral codes are cultural constructs arising out of specific social and historical contexts and that diverse moral beliefs arising out of different societies should be respected. Imposing a uniform moral code such as the Declaration of Human Rights violates the principle of sovereignty, that is, that each sovereign nation has the right to govern itself without outside interference. A universal moral code also violates the principles of pluralism and multiculturalism, which encourage people to respect others’ beliefs and value systems. In addition, the emphasis of the Declaration of Human Rights on protecting individual rights and freedoms privileges the individual over the group or community, and thus ignores key values of communal societies.

Opponents of the moral relativist position point to the actions of repressive regimes such as Nazi Germany as proof of the existence of basic inherent human rights and the need to protect them. Moreover, the support generated for organizations such as AI around the world and in a wide variety of societies demonstrates that the promotion of such universal rights does not violate the integrity of those societies or their national sovereignty. In addition, proponents of universal human rights have recognized the Western individualistic bias inherent in statements such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the need to be more inclusive of communal values. Finally, AI does not seek to violate national sovereignty, as it does not advocate violence but rather works to persuade repressive governments to alter their policies and their treatment of their citizens through letter writing and media campaigns.

AI utilizes three key strategies in promoting universal human rights: (1) conducting objective research about human rights violations around the world, (2) promoting international media coverage and urging government and corporate action on behalf of individuals whose human rights have been violated, and (3) engaging in advocacy for legislation and policies protecting human rights and providing remedies for individuals subjected to human rights violations. AI operates independently of any government, political or religious organization; its work is supported by over 3 million individuals in more than 150 countries. A key aspect of AI’s work is its grassroots advocacy campaigns, in which members engage in writing letters, demonstrating, and lobbying on behalf of human rights issues.

AI’s universally recognized logo consists of a burning candle wrapped in barbed wire, symbolizing the Chinese proverb “It is better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness.” AI was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977 for its antitorture campaign and for advocating an individual’s right to freedom of conscience. In 1978, AI was awarded the United Nations Prize in the Field of Human Rights, which celebrates individuals and organizations who work to promote the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

AI was instrumental in the creation of the International Criminal Court, which was established in 2002. In recent years, AI has broadened its work to address economic, social, and cultural rights in response to globalization. Current AI campaigns include urging the application of international law to U.S. drone strikes, securing women’s rights to abortion, mobilizing support for Egyptian women fighting against gender violence, and arguing for the charging and fair trial or release of the prisoners in the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base.

As an international organization, AI is responding to a shift in global power, as countries such as Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa become more influential in the international arena. To address this global shift, AI is expanding its influence by opening regional research and communication centers, maintaining offices in more than 80 different countries, and working to better incorporate social media, such as Facebook and Pinterest, into its campaigns. AI’s founder Peter Benenson described the organization’s vision as follows: “Only when the last prisoner of conscience has been freed, when the last torture chamber has been closed, when the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a reality for the world’s people, will our work be done.”


  1. Amnesty International. (Accessed August 2012).
  2. Benenson, Peter. “The Forgotten Prisoners.” The Guardian. (May 27, 1961). guardian (Accessed February 2013).
  3. Dworkin, Ronald. Taking Rights Seriously. London: Duckworth, 1978.
  4. Nickel, James. Making Sense of Human Rights: Philosophical Reflections on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.
  5. Staunton, Marie, Sally Fenn, and Amnesty International U.S.A. The Amnesty International Handbook. Claremont, CA: Hunter House, 1991.

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