Amnesty International: facing choices at 50

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One person’s protest on behalf of six prisoners of conscience in 1961 was the start of Amnesty International. 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.

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.

Writing letters for Amnesty

Wim Obbink (84) has been an active member of Amnesty International for 40 years. He went into hiding during the Second World War because he refused to work for the German occupies. It’s an experience that underlies his support for Amnesty.

He and his wife Jante (83) write to prisoners all over the world. During his intensive correspondence with the Kurdish prisoner Ibrahim Carboga, Mr Obbink began a chess game by post. It meant a lot to Mr Carboga, because in the time he spent thinking about the next move, for a brief moment he felt liberated. On Mr Carboga’s release in 1992, the two finished their game. It ended in a draw.

Mr Obbink also corresponded with the Cuban doctor Omar del Poso, who spent years in jail for his criticism of the regime. Their eventual meeting was an emotional one. “He embraced us and was so positive about the future. I wanted to point out that he still faced a difficult time. But he said, ‘Now I can see trees and the sun,’ and looked at me reproachfully. That immediately tells you the meaning of freedom.”

“You have a large tendency that says concentrate on your strengths, which means anything to do with political expression. 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,” the sociologist said.

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

Professor of international law Menno Kamminga 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. So setting standards for companies is crucial, he says.

“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. 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.