A toast to freedom and 50 years of tackling the evils of the world

AMNESTY International has been fighting human rights violations across the world for the past 50 years. Chris Bond reports.

half a century ago, a little-known British barrister, called Peter Benenson, read an article about two Portuguese students who had been arrested for raising a “toast to freedom”.

During the 1960s, Portugal was ruled by the authoritarian Estado Novo régime which crushed any opposition through its state police. Even a simple toast was deemed insurgent and a threat to the government, so the pair were sent to prison.

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Moved and troubled by their story, Benenson wrote an article entitled The Forgotten Prisoners, in which he highlighted the plight of those who had been jailed around the world for peacefully expressing their views.

In it, he coined the term “prisoner of conscience”, and called for like-minded people across the world to unite in an appeal for amnesty on behalf of those involved. Support flooded in, and within weeks Amnesty International, a co-ordinated movement of ordinary people standing up for justice, had been born.

From these humble beginnings, the organisation grew rapidly. In 1964, it was granted consultative status by the United Nations and 13 years later, it was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its contributions towards freedom, peace and justice.

Since then, it has campaigned for more than 50,000 individuals, and today, Amnesty has more than three million supporters, members and activists working on human rights issues in more than 150 countries.

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As Amnesty celebrates its 50th anniversary, Burma’s pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who was released last year after spending 15 of the past 20 years under house arrest, sent a personal message of support.

“One man in the UK decided because of what had happened to two young men in Portugal, that there was a need for such an organisation as Amnesty International. From that day, I have harboured great respect for the organisation and after I was placed under house arrest and many of my colleagues were imprisoned for their political beliefs, my appreciation for Amnesty International increased by the day.”

The cornerstone of the charity’s work is supporting prisoners of conscience and highlighting the persecution and discrimination that individuals face. It also campaigns on a raft of issues, including the prevention of torture, introducing more effective controls on the arms trade, and women’s rights.

Amnesty’s influence has been far-reaching. In 1984, the Convention against Torture was adopted by the UN General Assembly, and in 2002, the Rome Treaty paved the way for the creation of the International Criminal Court, both following Amnesty campaigns.

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Kate Allen, UK director of Amnesty International, believes the criminal court is a huge step forward.

“This is massive and over the next decade will prove its worth, in the sense that dictators and those guilty of war crimes who, in the past, could flee to a neighbouring country, will no longer be able to do that.

“We’ve already seen a referral by the UN for Colonel Gaddafi to be brought before the International Criminal Court.”

Amnesty has also led calls to abolish the death penalty. In 1961, when the organisation started, only nine countries had abolished the death penalty, compared with 96 in 2011.

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Belarus is the only country in Europe which still has the death penalty so that is the next challenge.”

Allen says Amnesty has held governments, individuals and big corporations to account over the past six decades, and points out that its work continues, particularly in the wake of the “Arab Spring” uprisings which have put the treatment of pro-democracy protesters in the Middle East and North Africa under the spotlight.

“Amnesty has played an important role in reporting on and documenting the treatment of activists in countries across the Middle East and North Africa recently, and we continue to play a vital role in the volatile situation in that part of the world.

“I have just returned from Egypt where Amnesty is working to ensure that human rights remain at the centre of calls for reform and, in particular, that women’s rights are not marginalised in the wake of the mass protests and during the transition to a democratic state there.”

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For all its successes, there are countries – such as North Korea, China and Saudi Arabia – where Amnesty struggles to shine a light on the human rights picture.

“It is difficult to get into in some parts of the world, but if all else fails you can still stand up in solidarity,” she says.

“In North Korea, we’ve been able to use satellite imagery to show that camps, which the country says don’t exist, do exist, and we think around 200,000 people are being held in these camps and many are starving to death.”

Amnesty’s unflinching stance on human rights has led to accusations of political bias and criticism from some quarters for not reporting the whole story.

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In 2005, Amnesty’s general secretary, Irene Khan, described Guantánamo Bay as “the gulag of our time”, prompting an angry response from George Bush, then US president, who called the comments “absurd”.

However, Allen claims the situation in the US detention camp remains a human rights violation.

“Around 170 men are still in Guantánamo; some have been there for nearly 10 years with no charges and no contact with their family.

“It’s absolutely shocking that people would be treated in that way. Either they should be charged and brought to account through due legal process, or released. It’s an absolute stain on the US human rights record.”

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In the UK, Amnesty has around 250,000 members and supporters. Among them is Barbara Lodge, who works with the Amnesty group in York and has been involved with the organisation for 20 years.

She started out as a voluntary English teacher in Algeria during the 1970s before joining Amnesty.

Her work has meant visiting countries such as Russia, Poland, Morocco and South Africa.

“I’ve travelled to many different places and it gives you a different perspective on life. We’re fortunate in the UK because we aren’t in danger of being imprisoned for just for what we say or do,” she says.

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“A lot of human rights defenders receive death threats or face prison, and Amnesty can help prevent that.

“I was involved in a case of a Turkish man living in Germany who returned to Turkey to visit his family for a funeral five years ago. He was arrested on trumped-up charges and spent the next three years in prison.

“When he was released, he had no money and was ill and had no one to help him. But Amnesty paid for his flight back to Germany. He had lost his job and his flat and Amnesty helped pay for his legal fees and the hospital treatment he needed; they helped get his life started again.”

She says that ordinary people can make a difference with Amnesty.

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“You can work at any level you want. People can help in different ways; you don’t have to be wealthy – you can give with your time.

“With Amnesty, you work directly with people who are affected, and although you do see and hear some terrible things, you also see some wonderful things as well and you work with people trying to make the world a better place.

“As the old Chinese proverb says, ‘it’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness.’”

Human rights champion

* 1961: Amnesty International is founded by British lawyer Peter Benenson.

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* 1964: UN grants Amnesty International consultative status.

* 1977: Amnesty wins the Nobel Peace Prize.

* 1984: UN General Assembly adopts Convention against Torture following Amnesty campaign.

* 2002: creation of the International Criminal Court for which Amnesty had campaigned.

* 2006: Amnesty’s International Control Arms campaign achieves a victory when the UN votes to start work on a treaty.

* 2011: Amnesty now has more than three million members, supporters and subscribers in more than 150 countries.