AT 60, AMNESTY INT’L STILL BOTHERED BY ITS NEUTRALITY PRINCIPLE
For the past 60 years, Amnesty International has put its finger in the wound of human rights abuses in all shapes and forms around the world. But it's also faced widespread criticism for some of its more opaque actions, Rob Mudge reported for Deutsche Welle.
"It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness." Little did Peter Benenson know at the time that an article he wrote in 1961 would come to shape Amnesty International's code, encapsulated in the words above.
On May 28, 1961, the London Observer published an article entitled "The Forgotten Prisoners," penned by the British lawyer. Perusing the morning papers, he had come across an article about two Portuguese students who were jailed after raising their glasses in a toast to freedom in a restaurant.
At the time, Portugal was ruled by the dictator Antonio de Oliveira Salazar. Outraged by their detention, Benenson in his piece called for their release and urged readers to write letters to the Portuguese government.
But Benenson didn't stop there. His article also listed other human rights violations around the world. He used the term "prisoners of conscience" to highlight the plight of "any person who is physically restrained (by imprisonment or otherwise) from expressing … any opinion which he honestly holds and does not advocate or condone personal violence."
His campaign, Appeal for Amnesty 1961, was effectively the precursor to what would become Amnesty International. The organization's initial focus of work — forgotten prisoners — gradually expanded as part of its development "from mandate — to mission." In the 1970s, it focused on the treatment of prisoners in several Latin American dictatorships, launching campaigns against torture and the death penalty.
For its work against torture, Amnesty was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977. It hasn't all been smooth sailing for Amnesty over the last 60 years. It claims that it doesn't pursue political ideology or "support or oppose any government or system." However, its detractors say that is precisely what it is doing. There have been allegations of one-sided reporting, or a failure to treat threats to security as a mitigating factor.
Part of the problem is that the organization is stuck in the past, says Stephen Hopgood, professor of international relations at School for Oriental and African Studies of the University of London, who specializes in the international politics of humanitarianism and human rights and is author of the book "Keepers of the Flame: Understanding Amnesty International."
He says "Amnesty is a Cold War-era organization, and the way it was set up and the way in which it functioned, it's a miracle it survived for 60 years in many ways. And it doesn't necessarily represent a failing on Amnesty's part, more a sort of inevitable complexity in a world that's a lot different than the world of the 1960s and the 1970s."
Some of the strongest criticism pertains to its alleged foreign policy bias against either non-Western countries or Western-supported countries. However, Hopgood says that kind of assessment needs to be put into the perspective of the time.