Amnesty International was founded in London in July 1961 by English labour lawyer Peter Benenson. According to his own account, he was travelling in the London Underground on 19 November 1960 when he read that two Portuguese students from Coimbra had been sentenced to seven years of imprisonment in Portugal for allegedly "having drunk a toast to liberty".[a] Researchers have never traced the alleged newspaper article in question.[a] In 1960, Portugal was ruled by the Estado Novo government of António de Oliveira Salazar. The government was authoritarian in nature and strongly anti-communist, suppressing enemies of the state as anti-Portuguese. In his significant newspaper article "The Forgotten Prisoners", Benenson later described his reaction as follows:
Open your newspaper any day of the week and you will find a story from somewhere of someone being imprisoned, tortured or executed because his opinions or religion are unacceptable to his government... The newspaper reader feels a sickening sense of impotence. Yet if these feelings of disgust could be united into common action, something effective could be done.
Benenson worked with friend Eric Baker. Baker was a member of the Religious Society of Friends who had been involved in funding the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament as well as becoming head of Quaker Peace and Social Witness, and in his memoirs Benenson described him as "a partner in the launching of the project". In consultation with other writers, academics and lawyers and, in particular, Alec Digges, they wrote via Louis Blom-Cooper to David Astor, editor of The Observer newspaper, who, on 28 May 1961, published Benenson's article "The Forgotten Prisoners". The article brought the reader's attention to those "imprisoned, tortured or executed because his opinions or religion are unacceptable to his government" or, put another way, to violations, by governments, of articles 18 and 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The article described these violations occurring, on a global scale, in the context of restrictions to press freedom, to political oppositions, to timely public trial before impartial courts, and to asylum. It marked the launch of "Appeal for Amnesty, 1961", the aim of which was to mobilize public opinion, quickly and widely, in defence of these individuals, whom Benenson named "Prisoners of Conscience". The "Appeal for Amnesty" was reprinted by a large number of international newspapers. In the same year, Benenson had a book published, Persecution 1961, which detailed the cases of nine prisoners of conscience investigated and compiled by Benenson and Baker (Maurice Adin, Ashton Jones, Agostinho Neto, Patrick Duncan, Olga Ivinskaya, Luis Taruc, Constantin Noica, Antonio Amat and Hu Feng). In July 1961 the leadership had decided that the appeal would form the basis of a permanent organization, Amnesty, with the first meeting taking place in London. Benenson ensured that all three major political parties were represented, enlisting members of parliament from the Labour Party, the Conservative Party, and the Liberal Party. On 30 September 1962, it was officially named "Amnesty International". Between the "Appeal for Amnesty, 1961" and September 1962 the organization had been known simply as "Amnesty".
What started as a short appeal soon became a permanent international movement working to protect those imprisoned for non-violent expression of their views and to secure worldwide recognition of Articles 18 and 19 of the UDHR. From the very beginning, research and campaigning were present in Amnesty International's work. A library was established for information about prisoners of conscience and a network of local groups, called "THREES" groups, was started. Each group worked on behalf of three prisoners, one from each of the then three main ideological regions of the world: communist, capitalist, and developing.
By the mid-1960s Amnesty International's global presence was growing and an International Secretariat and International Executive Committee were established to manage Amnesty International's national organizations, called "Sections", which had appeared in several countries. The international movement was starting to agree on its core principles and techniques. For example, the issue of whether or not to adopt prisoners who had advocated violence, like Nelson Mandela, brought unanimous agreement that it could not give the name of "Prisoner of Conscience" to such prisoners. Aside from the work of the library and groups, Amnesty International's activities were expanding to helping prisoners' families, sending observers to trials, making representations to governments, and finding asylum or overseas employment for prisoners. Its activity and influence were also increasing within intergovernmental organizations; it would be awarded consultative status by the United Nations, the Council of Europe and UNESCO before the decade ended.
In 1967, Peter Benenson resigned after an independent inquiry did not support his claims that AI had been infiltrated by British agents. Later he claimed that the Central Intelligence Agency had become involved in Amnesty.
Leading Amnesty International in the 1970s were key figures Seán MacBride and Martin Ennals. While continuing to work for prisoners of conscience, Amnesty International's purview widened to include "fair trial" and opposition to long detention without trial (UDHR Article 9), and especially to the torture of prisoners (UDHR Article 5). Amnesty International believed that the reasons underlying torture of prisoners by governments, were either to acquire and obtain information or to quell opposition by the use of terror, or both. Also of concern was the export of more sophisticated torture methods, equipment and teaching by the superpowers to "client states", for example by the United States through some activities of the CIA.
Amnesty International drew together reports from countries where torture allegations seemed most persistent and organized an international conference on torture. It sought to influence public opinion to put pressure on national governments by organizing a campaign for the "Abolition of Torture" which ran for several years.
Amnesty International's membership increased from 15,000 in 1969 to 200,000 by 1979. This growth in resources enabled an expansion of its program, "outside of the prison walls", to include work on "disappearances", the death penalty and the rights of refugees. A new technique, the "Urgent Action", aimed at mobilizing the membership into action rapidly was pioneered. The first was issued on 19 March 1973, on behalf of Luiz Basilio Rossi, a Brazilian academic, arrested for political reasons.
At the intergovernmental level Amnesty International pressed for application of the UN's Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners and of existing humanitarian conventions; to secure ratifications of the two UN Covenants on Human Rights in 1976; and was instrumental in obtaining additional instruments and provisions forbidding the practice of maltreatment. Consultative status was granted at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 1972.
In 1976, Amnesty's British Section started a series of fund-raising events that came to be known as The Secret Policeman's Balls series. They were staged in London initially as comedy galas featuring what the Daily Telegraph called "the crème de la crème of the British comedy world" including members of comedy troupe Monty Python, and later expanded to also include performances by leading rock musicians. The series was created and developed by Monty Python alumnus John Cleese and entertainment industry executive Martin Lewis working closely with Amnesty staff members Peter Luff (Assistant Director of Amnesty 1974–78) and subsequently with Peter Walker (Amnesty Fund-Raising Officer 1978–82). Cleese, Lewis and Luff worked together on the first two shows (1976 and 1977). Cleese, Lewis and Walker worked together on the 1979 and 1981 shows, the first to carry what the Daily Telegraph described as the "rather brilliantly re-christened" Secret Policeman's Ball title.
The organization was awarded the 1977 Nobel Peace Prize for its "defence of human dignity against torture" and the United Nations Prize in the Field of Human Rights in 1978.
By 1980 Amnesty International was drawing more criticism from governments. The USSR alleged that Amnesty International conducted espionage, the Moroccan government denounced it as a defender of lawbreakers, and the Argentinian government banned Amnesty International's 1983 annual report.
Throughout the 1980s, Amnesty International continued to campaign against torture, and on behalf of prisoners of conscience. New issues emerged, including , military, security and police transfers, political killings, and disappearances.
Towards the end of the decade, the growing number of refugees worldwide was a very visible area of Amnesty International's concern. While many of the world's refugees of the time had been displaced by war and famine, in adherence to its mandate, Amnesty International concentrated on those forced to flee because of the human rights violations it was seeking to prevent. It argued that rather than focusing on new restrictions on entry for asylum-seekers, governments were to address the human rights violations which were forcing people into exile.
Apart from a second campaign on torture during the first half of the decade, two major musical events occurred, designed to increase awareness of Amnesty and of human rights (particularly among younger generations) during the mid- to late-1980s. The 1986 Conspiracy of Hope tour, which played five concerts in the US, and culminated in a daylong show, featuring some thirty-odd acts at Giants Stadium, and the 1988 Human Rights Now! world tour. Human Rights Now!, which was timed to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), played a series of concerts on five continents over six weeks. Both tours featured some of the most famous musicians and bands of the day.
Throughout the 1990s, Amnesty continued to grow, to a membership of over seven million in over 150 countries and territories, led by Senegalese Secretary General Pierre Sané. Amnesty continued to work on a wide range of issues and world events. For example, South African groups joined in 1992 and hosted a visit by Pierre Sané to meet with the apartheid government to press for an investigation into allegations of police abuse, an end to arms sales to the African Great Lakes region and the abolition of the death penalty. In particular, Amnesty International brought attention to violations committed on specific groups, including refugees, racial/ethnic/religious minorities, women and those executed or on Death Row. The death penalty report When the State Kills and the "Human Rights are Women's Rights" campaign were key actions for the latter two issues.
During the 1990s, Amnesty International was forced to react to human rights violations occurring in the context of a proliferation of armed conflict in Angola, East Timor, the Persian Gulf, Rwanda, and the former Yugoslavia. Amnesty International took no position on whether to support or oppose external military interventions in these armed conflicts. It did not reject the use of force, even lethal force, or ask those engaged to lay down their arms. Instead, it questioned the motives behind external intervention and selectivity of international action in relation to the strategic interests of those who sent troops. It argued that action should be taken to prevent human-rights problems from becoming human-rights catastrophes, and that both intervention and inaction represented a failure of the .
In 1990, when the United States government was deciding whether or not to invade Iraq, a Kuwaiti woman, known to Congress by her first name only, Nayirah, told the congress that when Iraq invaded Kuwait, she stayed behind after some of her family left the country. She said she was volunteering in a local hospital when Iraqi soldiers stole the incubators with children in them and left them to freeze to death. Amnesty International, who had human rights investigators in Kuwait, confirmed the story and helped spread it. The organization also inflated the number of children who were killed by the robbery to over 300, more than the number of incubators available in the city hospitals of the country. It was often cited by people, including the Congresspeople who voted to approve the Gulf War, as one of the reasons to fight. After the war, it was found that the woman was lying, the story was made up, and her last name was not given, because her father was a delegate for Kuwait's government at the same congressional hearing.
In 1995, when AI wanted to promote how Shell Oil Company was involved with the execution of an environmental and human-rights activist Ken Saro-Wiwa in Nigeria, it was stopped. Newspapers and advertising companies refused to run AI's ads because Shell Oil was a customer of theirs as well. Shell's main argument was that it was drilling oil in a country that already violated human rights and had no way to enforce human-rights policies. To combat the buzz that AI was trying to create, it immediately publicized how Shell was helping to improve overall life in Nigeria. Salil Shetty, the director of Amnesty, said, "Social media re-energises the idea of the global citizen". James M. Russell notes how the drive for profit from private media sources conflicts with the stories that AI wants to be heard.
Amnesty International was proactive in pushing for recognition of the universality of human rights. The campaign 'Get Up, Sign Up' marked 50 years of the UDHR. Thirteen million pledges were collected in support, and the Decl music concert was held in Paris on 10 December 1998 (Human Rights Day). At the intergovernmental level, Amnesty International argued in favour of creating a United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (established 1993) and an International Criminal Court (established 2002).
After his arrest in London in 1998 by the Metropolitan Police, Amnesty International became involved in the legal battle of Senator Augusto Pinochet, former Chilean dictator, who sought to avoid extradition to Spain to face charges. Lord Hoffman had an indirect connection with Amnesty International, and this led to an important test for the appearance of bias in legal proceedings in UK law. There was a suit against the decision to release Senator Pinochet, taken by the then British Home Secretary Mr Jack Straw, before that decision had actually been taken, in an attempt to prevent the release of Senator Pinochet. The English High Court refused the application, and Senator Pinochet was released and returned to Chile.
After 2000, Amnesty International's agenda turned to the challenges arising from globalization and the reaction to the 11 September 2001 attacks in the United States. The issue of globalization provoked a major shift in Amnesty International policy, as the scope of its work was widened to include economic, social and cultural rights, an area that it had declined to work on in the past. Amnesty International felt this shift was important, not just to give credence to its principle of the indivisibility of rights, but because of what it saw as the growing power of companies and the undermining of many nation states as a result of globalization.
In the aftermath of 11 September attacks, the new Amnesty International Secretary General, Irene Khan, reported that a senior government official had said to Amnesty International delegates: "Your role collapsed with the collapse of the Twin Towers in New York." In the years following the attacks, some believe that the gains made by human rights organizations over previous decades had possibly been eroded. Amnesty International argued that human rights were the basis for the security of all, not a barrier to it. Criticism came directly from the Bush administration and The Washington Post, when Khan, in 2005, likened the US government's detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to a Soviet Gulag.
During the first half of the new decade, Amnesty International turned its attention to violence against women, controls on the world arms trade, concerns surrounding the effectiveness of the UN, and ending torture. With its membership close to two million by 2005, Amnesty continued to work for prisoners of conscience.
In 2007, AI's executive committee decided to support access to abortion "within reasonable gestational limits...for women in cases of rape, incest or violence, or where the pregnancy jeopardizes a mother's life or health".
Amnesty International reported, concerning the Iraq War, on 17 March 2008, that despite claims the security situation in Iraq has improved in recent months, the human rights situation is disastrous, after the start of the war five years earlier in 2003.
In 2009, Amnesty International accused Israel and the Palestinian Hamas movement of committing war crimes during Israel's January offensive in Gaza, called Operation Cast Lead, that resulted in the deaths of more than 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis. The 117-page Amnesty report charged Israeli forces with killing hundreds of civilians and wanton destruction of thousands of homes. Amnesty found evidence of Israeli soldiers using Palestinian civilians as human shields. A subsequent United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict was carried out; Amnesty stated that its findings were consistent with those of Amnesty's own field investigation, and called on the UN to act promptly to implement the mission's recommendations.
Amnesty International, 19 March 2011.
Japanese branch of Amnesty International, 23 May 2014.
In February 2010, Amnesty suspended Gita Sahgal, its gender unit head, after she criticized Amnesty for its links with Moazzam Begg, director of Cageprisoners. She said it was "a gross error of judgment" to work with "Britain's most famous supporter of the Taliban". Amnesty responded that Sahgal was not suspended "for raising these issues internally... [Begg] speaks about his own views ..., not Amnesty International's". Among those who spoke up for Saghal were Salman Rushdie, Member of Parliament Denis MacShane, Joan Smith, Christopher Hitchens, Martin Bright, Melanie Phillips, and Nick Cohen.
In February 2011, Amnesty requested that Swiss authorities start a criminal investigation of former US President George W. Bush and arrest him.
In July 2011, Amnesty International celebrated its 50 years with an animated short film directed by Carlos Lascano, produced by Eallin Motion Art and Dreamlife Studio, with music by Academy Award-winner Hans Zimmer and nominee Lorne Balfe. The film shows that the fight for humanity is not yet over.
In August 2012, Amnesty International's chief executive in India sought an impartial investigation, led by the United Nations, to render justice to those affected by war crimes in Sri Lanka.
On 18 August 2014, in the wake of demonstrations sparked by people protesting the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old man, and subsequent acquittal of Darren Wilson, the officer who shot him, Amnesty International sent a 13-person contingent of human rights activists to seek meetings with officials as well as to train local activists in non-violent protest methods. This was the first time that the organization has deployed such a team to the United States. In a press release, AI USA director Steven W. Hawkins said, "The U.S. cannot continue to allow those obligated and duty-bound to protect to become those who their community fears most."
In February 2016, Amnesty International launched its annual report of human rights around the world titled "The State of the World's Human Rights". It warns from the consequences of "us vs them" speech which divided human beings into two camps. It states that this speech enhances a global pushback against human rights and makes the world more divided and more dangerous. It also states that in 2016, governments turned a blind eye to war crimes and passed laws that violate free expression. Donald Trump signed an executive order in an attempt to prevent refugees from seeking resettlement in the United States. Elsewhere, China, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Iran, Thailand and Turkey carried out massive crackdowns, while authorities in other countries continued to implement security measures represent an infringement on rights. In June 2016, Amnesty International has called on the United Nations General Assembly to "immediately suspend" Saudi Arabia from the UN Human Rights Council. Richard Bennett, head of Amnesty's UN Office, said: "The credibility of the U.N. Human Rights Council is at stake. Since joining the council, Saudi Arabia's dire human rights record at home has continued to deteriorate and the coalition it leads has unlawfully killed and injured thousands of civilians in the conflict in Yemen."
In December 2016, Amnesty International revealed that Voiceless Victims, a fake non-profit organization which claims to raise awareness for migrant workers who are victims of human rights abuses in Qatar, had been trying to spy on their staff.
Amnesty International published its annual report for the year 2016–2017 on 21 February 2017. Secretary General Salil Shetty's opening statement in the report highlighted many ongoing international abuses as well as emerging threats. Shetty drew attention, among many issues, to the Syrian Civil War, the use of chemical weapons in the War in Darfur, outgoing United States President Barack Obama's expansion of drone warfare, and the successful 2016 presidential election campaign of Obama's successor Donald Trump. Shetty stated that the Trump election campaign was characterized by "poisonous" discourse in which "he frequently made deeply divisive statements marked by misogyny and xenophobia, and pledged to roll back established civil liberties and introduce policies which would be profoundly inimical to human rights." In his opening summary, Shetty stated that "the world in 2016 became a darker and more unstable place."
In July 2017, Turkish police detained 10 human rights activists during a workshop on digital security at a hotel near Istanbul. Eight people, including
Idil Eser, Amnesty International director in Turkey, as well as German Peter Steudtner and Swede Ali Gharavi, were arrested. Two others were detained but released pending trial. They were accused of aiding armed terror organizations in alleged communications with suspects linked to Kurdish and left-wing militants, as well as the movement led by US-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen.
Amnesty International published its 2017/2018 report in February 2018.
In October 2018, an Amnesty International researcher was abducted and beaten while observing demonstrations in Magas, the capital of Ingushetia, Russia.
On October 25, federal officers raided the Bengaluru office for 10 hours on a suspicion that the organization had violated foreign direct investment guidelines on the orders of the Enforcement Directorate. Employees and supporters of Amnesty International say this is an act to intimidate organizations and people who question the authority and capabilities of government leaders. Amnesty International has accused India of human rights violations throughout Kashmir multiple times. Aakar Patel, the Executive Director of the Indian branch claimed, "The Enforcement Directorate’s raid on our office today shows how the authorities are now treating human rights organizations like criminal enterprises, using heavy-handed methods that are commonly found in repressive states." The current prime minister of India, Narendra Modi, has been criticized for harming civil society in India, specifically by targeting advocacy groups. Modi has cancelled the registration of about 15,000 nongovernmental organizations under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA); the U.N. has issued statemenets against the policies that allow these cancellations to occur. Though nothing was found to confirm these accusations, the government plans on continuing the investigation and has frozen the bank accounts of all the offices in India. A spokesperson for the Enforcement Directorate has said the investigation could take three months to complete.
On October 30th 2018 Amnesty called for the arrest and prosecution of Nigerian security forces claiming that they used excessive force against Shi’a protesters during a peaceful religious procession around Abuja, Nigeria. At least 45 were killed and 122 were injured during the event .
On December 5, Amnesty International strongly condemned the execution of Ihar Hershankou and
Siamion Berazhnoy in Belarus. They were shot despite UN Human Rights Committee request for a delay.