The evolution of AI (1)

From The Thin Blue Line: How humanitarianism went to war, by Conor Foley (Verso, 2010), pp. 23-24.

The key to the success of the advocacy organization created by Benenson and MacBride was political neutrality. Amnesty would adopt ‘prisoners of conscience’ and encourage its members to write polite letters to the government concerned requesting their release. A prisoner of conscience was defined as someone imprisoned solely for expressing his or her peaceful political views. The legal background of both Benenson and MacBride was much in evidence in the construction of this formulation, which became known as the organization’s mandate.

The formulation excluded the imprisoned Nelson Mandela and those leaders of anti-colonial movements who advocated or involved themselves in violent resistance. It would also have excluded MacBride himself in his revolutionary days. Indeed, it was probably because he knew how his Irish republican background was viewed in some quarters that MacBride was so aware of the need to ensure that Amnesty positioned itself as politically neutral. The organization tried to adopt equal numbers of dissidents in the Soviet bloc and those facing persecution by Spain and Portugal’s right-wing dictatorships. Its national sections were forbidden from campaigning in their own countries, and when the organization hired specialist researchers it stipulated that they could not come from the country they were investigating. It also refused to accept government funding and held itself consciously aloof not only from political parties but from other pressure groups as well. The organization still prides itself on how scrupulously it cross-checks its facts – though some new staff members are told the perhaps apocryphal story of the time it ‘adopted’ a former railway station in Cambodia because someone confused the Khmer word for ‘detained’ with the one for ‘closed down’.

Amnesty’s mandate gradually expanded, adding campaigns against torture and the death penalty. If it is wrong to imprison someone solely for their political views then it must, by logical extension, be wrong to imprison them for their race, gender or sexual orientation. Thus Amnesty also embraced the cause of those persecuted for these reasons. It also spoke up on behalf of refugees fleeing such persecution and, by the time I joined its staff, against the sale of weapons to countries where they might be used to carry out human rights violations. In 2004, it expanded its mandate to campaigning on economic, social and cultural rights alongside the more traditional civil and political ones. As it  moved further and further from its original focus, Amnesty increasingly began to look to international human rights and humanitarian law to provide a framework for its campaigns.


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