Amnesty at 50: Facing tough choices for the future

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Amnesty International marks its 50th anniversary this weekend. It all started back in 1961 with one person’s protest on behalf of six prisoners of conscience. Over the past half century, the organisation has put human rights on the map worldwide. But there’s criticism too: Amnesty is unwieldy, focuses only on states and is chiefly made up of well-meaning, well-off white people.

Dutch sociologist Bert Breij wrote The story behind Amnesty International: 50 years of fighting for human rights. He sees an organisation searching for answers to the questions posed by a rapidly changing world. Where once it was enough for Amnesty to stand up for the rights of the individual and freedom of political expression, in recent years this has broadened to include socioeconomic rights and women’s rights, says Mr Breij.

The process has been a source of discord among the organisation’s three million members.

Amnesty in South Asia
Through the years, Amnesty has been very active in the South Asian region, although it currently does not have local bureaus in India, Sri Lanka, Nepal or Pakistan. In its latest annual report, Amnesty said that most countries in the region still make a habit of intimidation, imprisonment and ill-treatment of critics and political opponents. It also says that civilians in various South Asian countries suffer from significant restrictions on their free speech. Amnesty International's Secretary General is Salil Shetty from India.

"You have a large tendency that says concentrate on your strengths, which means anything to do with political expression," says Mr Breij.  "Fact finding. Don’t do things you know less about and other organisations are stronger in. But there are others who say concentrate on social and economic rights. Because that’s often at the root of injustice.”

Mr Breij agrees with the conservative tendency. He thinks the widening of Amnesty’s mandate hasn't brought more success.

But that’s also because Amnesty is a cumbersome organisation which, unlike lobby groups like Human Rights Watch, is slower in its decision making.

This is one of the reasons behind its success, but it may now become one of its biggest problems.

At the same time, the Amnesty’s supporters are mainly wealthy, white Westerners. Non-Western countries sometimes find it hard to identify with the organisation. “They don’t trust it," as Mr Breij puts it.

As the power of countries like China grows, they too want to make their mark ideas about human rights. “Amnesty International is aware of this development, but like the entire West, it isn’t able to provide an answer,” according to Mr Breij.

Perhaps organisations like Amnesty have simply become old-fashioned in their way of operating.

Menno Kamminga, a professor of international law, agrees. He was Amnesty’s legal advisor at the United Nations. He also thinks the organisation should stop focusing only on states but also look at multinational companies.

Their power has greatly increased and they aren’t always so particular about human rights, Mr Kamminga thinks. So setting standards for companies is crucial.

“Don’t use forced labour, don’t accept child labour, don’t discriminate, don’t cause pollution, don’t cut down forests. There are no international standards for this. There are local standards, but they’re often very weak.”

Amnesty’s thoroughness and tenacity makes it the ideal organisation to take on the multinationals, says Professor Kamminga.

“I see Amnesty as a counterbalance to the evil in the world. That’s where you should keep directing your campaigns at. Try to fill the gap in the international rule of law. And that’s a big gap, as far as I can see.”

It’s an approach that could revitalise the organisation and win it renewed respect, he believes.