AI Handbook

Home | Site Map | Internal | Public Resources | Hosted Groups

Table of Content

Chapter 2

Protecting Human Rights

How AI Makes a Difference

AI is a worldwide movement of people who campaign for human rights. Its appeals on behalf of the victims of human rights violations are based on accurate research and on international law. The organization is independent of all governments and political ideologies.

AI demands the release of prisoners of conscience, fair trials for political prisoners, an end to the death penalty, torture, and other cruel treatment, and a stop to extrajudicial executions and “disappearances”.

To work effectively toward achieving these goals, all AI members should understand the principles on which the practical activities of the organization are based.

This chapter sets out the fundamental philosophy and approach of the movement.


How AI Makes a Difference

Human rights and human responsibilities

AI's mission is to contribute to the campaign for human rights.

Human rights means this: every person deserves to be treated with dignity. Every person deserves to be safe and secure, and to have the means to meet basic needs such as decent food and shelter.

When we say that one person has human rights, we are really saying that other persons have human responsibilities. Each person bears the responsibility of behaving toward other people in a certain way _ each of us is obliged to respect the inherent human dignity of others.

In other words, any appeal demanding respect for one person's human rights is really an appeal aimed at the behaviour of others.

Because of the specific rights that AI seeks to protect, the organization's appeals are aimed at the behaviour of governments and of others who wield power. The movement insists that governments live up to their responsibility to safeguard the security and to respect the dignity of human beings. It calls on people everywhere to join with it in making this demand.

The basis for human rights

AI's message amounts to nothing less than a blunt demand that powerful officials change the way they behave. The organization must have a sound basis for making such a bold demand.

When asked to give a moral justification for AI's work, AI members, who come from many cultural traditions, will answer in different ways. Most will agree, however, that the movement's demands are grounded, ultimately, in the conviction that every human being has an intrinsic value.

Over the centuries, this conviction has been given considerable authority from many sources _ the dominant beliefs of many diverse cultures, the major world philosophies, and more recently, international declarations and laws.

When AI says that human rights belong to all human beings, it is affirming a universal human value, now inscribed in international law, that every person is entitled to security and dignity _ to human rights _ simply because he or she is a human being.

This means that just as fundamental rights are not given or “granted” by governments, neither can fundamental rights be taken away by governments. Human rights belong _ inherently _ to all human beings.

Human rights and law

Human rights and dignity have been the subject of thought and action in many different cultures since ancient times. Throughout history, people have struggled to protect their rights against individuals and institutions who would deny them _ who would deny what is inherently human.

To protect their basic rights _ to safeguard their own security and dignity _ people have demanded that governments affirm these rights in law.

By affirming human rights in law, governments accept responsibility for the protection of human rights.

It is this entrenchment of human rights in official codes _ in both national and international codes of law _ that gives AI the legal basis for its demands.

Human rights standards, including those international standards adopted by governments, set out what governments must do for their citizens, and also what they must not do to their citizens.

In practical terms, these standards usually insist that every person should have life, freedom, and a decent existence.

You have a right to adequate food, clothing, housing, education, and medical care, to work and to adequate rest from it, and to privacy.

You have a right to move freely about your country, to leave and re-enter it, to worship, to marry and found a family, and to gather together with other people.

You have a right to be free from slavery, from torture, and from arbitrary detention and from unfair trial.

When a government official says to AI that the government's abuses are “none of your business”, AI can point to the international human rights standards the government has accepted, and can say, “It is not just our movement that is making this demand _ your own government has endorsed these rules of behaviour.”

Today, given the existence of human rights standards recognized by the international community, there is no acceptable excuse for a government to ignore or abuse human rights.

Today, human rights apply to everyone, everywhere _ regardless of the person's race, colour, sex, language, religion, political opinion, wealth, or nationality.

Human rights and international law

National borders are no barrier to helping others.

International human rights law is the code of conduct of governments around the world. AI's demands spring from this body of law. AI can point to international standards adopted by the United Nations and it can say, “Not only has your own government endorsed these rules _ so has the whole world.”

Furthermore, international human rights law has an international application. It sets out that governments have promised to uphold certain rights not just for their own citizens, but also for people in other countries as well.

Under the Charter of the United Nations, member states pledge to cooperate _ internationally _ to promote and encourage respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms for everyone.

United Nations member states have endorsed an international responsibility for the universal protection of human rights. All people, in other words, have an obligation to work to protect the human rights of everyone else, regardless of race, nationality, or ideology, regardless of local legal codes, custom, or practice.

AI affirms fully the commitment of the United Nations to the shared protection of human rights. This is why AI does not accept the argument, used by some governments when they find it convenient, that questions of human rights are the business of the nation concerned, or that AI is “interfering in the internal affairs of states”.

The protection of human rights is everybody's business.

The international responsibility for the protection of human rights is a basic assumption grounding the work of AI.

In its letters and appeals, AI points to international human rights standards and reminds governments of their obligation to uphold them.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the most widely accepted statement of human rights in the world.

Its core message is the inherent value of human beings.

The Universal Declaration was drafted to give ordinary people a basic measure of protection from the abuse of power by the state.

It is the most important instrument supporting the work of AI, and all members should be familiar with the promises it makes.

The declaration was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 10 December 1948. Every year, this date is observed around the world as Human Rights Day.

The 30 articles of the Universal Declaration establish the civil and political rights, and the economic, social, and cultural rights of all people.

The Universal Declaration proclaims the right to:

  • life, liberty, and security
  • equality before the law
  • a fair and public trial and the presumption of innocence
  • freedom of movement
  • freedom of thought, conscience, and religion
  • freedom of opinion and expression
  • and freedom of assembly and association
  • It also insists that no one shall:
  • be held in slavery
  • be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment
  • or be arbitrarily arrested, detained, or exiled

Furthermore, it establishes that everyone has the right:

  • to a nationality
  • to marry
  • to own property
  • to take part in the government of his or her country
  • to work, and to receive equal pay for equal work
  • to enjoy rest and leisure
  • and to have an adequate standard of living and education

Finally, the Universal Declaration states that everyone has the right to form and join trade unions and the right to seek asylum from persecution.

The full text of the declaration is provided in the Appendix.

Enforcement of human rights standards

Even though it is the inspiration for most international human rights law, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is itself not legally binding, but a statement of principle. Nevertheless, the ideals it expresses have become so firmly entrenched in international law that its provisions have acquired real force. This has happened in several ways:

  • most countries, simply by virtue of being members of the United Nations, are considered to have accepted the principles of the declaration. Under the Charter of the United Nations, member states pledge to promote observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the declaration is an authoritative statement of those rights and freedoms
  • in their resolutions, the General Assembly and the human rights bodies of the United Nations repeatedly call for full implementation of and respect for the declaration
  • the principles of the declaration are given a more specific expression in the two covenants that spring from it. These are the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
  • The latter covenant forms the legal basis for much of the work of AI. It is equipped with formal enforcement mechanisms that make it possible for those governments that accept the authority of these mechanisms to be called to account for their human rights performance.
  • the United Nations has implemented the principles of the declaration in dozens of other standards, many of which have enforcement mechanisms. Among these are the Convention against Torture, and conventions on the elimination of racial discrimination and of discrimination against women
  • In parallel with the international system, regional human rights instruments, and institutions for ensuring compliance with them, have been developed by the Organization of African Unity, the Organization of American States, and the Council of Europe.

  • finally, many nations are weaving these rights, which found their legal expression initially in covenants between states, into the fabric of their own constitutions and domestic laws. The process will take a long time, but it is fair to say that international human rights law is slowly becoming world human rights law

For a summary of international human rights law, see the Appendix.

The need for AI

Even though states are making laws to protect human rights, governments often do not have the interest or the will to enforce these laws. Governments find excuses to ignore their responsibilities. They fail to protect their own citizens, and they fail to stand up for the citizens of other countries.

In AI's experience, most of the member states of the United Nations _ countries that affirm the Universal Declaration of Human Rights _ regularly violate some of those rights.

Furthermore, governments frequently make laws that themselves ignore human rights standards _ this is why AI sometimes works on behalf of people who have broken their own country's laws.

If the protection of the forgotten victims was left entirely to the state, in many cases the victims would have no protection at all.

Organizations like AI are necessary because often there is no one else to speak up against human rights violations.

Often, it is only mass international pressure _ the pressure of large numbers of ordinary people _ that can rescue those who suffer at the hands of state power.

The Universal Declaration and AI

While it supports the struggle for all human rights, AI works actively only on behalf of specific rights.

AI holds that all human rights are equally important. It endorses all 30 articles of the Universal Declaration. AI's formal campaigning activities, however, focus upon certain civil and political rights.

The articles of the declaration that support AI's work proclaim the right to life, liberty, security of person, equality before the law, fair trial, the right to be presumed innocent unless proved guilty, to freedom of movement, expression, conscience and religion, and association, and the right not to be tortured, arbitrarily arrested or detained, or exiled.

“.Through its activity for the defence of human worth against degrading treatment, violence and torture, Amnesty International has contributed

to securing the ground for freedom, for justice, and thereby also for peace in the world.”

_ Nobel Committee, on awarding AI the Nobel Peace Prize, 1977

AI gives its attention to certain grave violations of these rights _ to abuses such as arbitrary detention, torture, and state killing.

AI is faced with an enormous scale of such abuses. Although it has grown to become the largest and most active human rights monitor in the world, its resources are adequate to research, document, and campaign against only a fraction of the civil and political violations that concern it. The strength of AI's pressure depends on its accuracy and credibility, and were AI to expand the scope of its work into other areas its overall effectiveness may be damaged.

AI cannot combat all the injustice in the world.

While AI works on behalf of specific human rights, it believes that all human rights are interdependent. Improvements in fundamental civil and political rights _ such as the right to freedom of speech and the right to be free from arbitrary detention _ make it easier for people to improve their social and economic rights.

The core message of the Universal Declaration is the inherent value of the human being.

The core activity of AI is direct, personal work by human beings for human beings.

Often, AI works indirectly for social and economic rights by defending those who work directly for them. When people are free to meet, to organize, to demonstrate, to publish, and to speak without fear of imprisonment or torture or execution, they are in a stronger position to campaign on behalf of whatever social and economic issues may need attention in their own countries.

The mandate

Within its work to promote universal human rights, AI focuses on very specific and clearly defined rights.

The task that AI has set for itself is called its mandate. The core of the mandate can be summarized in the following way:

AI's work centres on particular grave violations of fundamental human rights.

AI opposes imprisonment that violates every person's rights:

  • freely to hold and to express his or her convictions, without resort to the use or advocacy of violence
  • to be free from discrimination by reason of his or her ethnic origin, sex, colour, or language

AI also opposes violations of every person's right to physical and mental integrity, specifically, the right not to be tortured, ill-treated, or executed.

AI demands of governments everywhere that they:

  • release all prisoners of conscience _ people confined because of their beliefs or because of their ethnic origin, sex, colour, or language, who have not used or called for violence
  • give all prisoners whose cases have a political aspect a fair trial within a reasonable time
  • abolish the death penalty, torture, and other cruel treatment of prisoners
  • end all extrajudicial executions and “disappearances”

AI's mandate is limited and focused precisely so the work can be effective.

AI does not comment or take action on issues outside this mandate. It leaves other human rights problems to other organizations that are better equipped to deal with them.

Over the years, AI has been asked to expand its role and to take a stand on a variety of issues, including such civil and political rights as the right to vote and the right to be free from censorship.

To these appeals AI's answer has been sympathetic, but firm. The movement accepts the importance of these issues and the gravity of these violations. It believes that all human rights are indispensable, and it recognizes that they are interdependent.

In order to get results, however, the movement has chosen to concentrate on specific human rights.

When AI began in 1961, its focus was on prisoners of conscience. Later, it gave its attention to a wider spectrum of human rights relating to prisoners. Today, in its continuing campaign against certain grave violations of fundamental human rights, it works not only on behalf of prisoners, but on behalf of victims of particular human rights violations who may not be prisoners.

Periodically, new areas are brought into AI's mandate by the decisions of the movement's governing body, the International Council Meeting. These changes are agreed only after careful consideration to ensure that AI's focus remains clear and its action remains practical.

Chapter 3 explains AI's mandate in detail.

Membership:making mass public pressure

AI is a membership organization, open to anyone who supports its goals.

People who want to join the struggle for human rights do not need to have special knowledge or skills. All they need is a basic human concern for others.

Like most human rights monitors, AI employs many professionals, experts, and specialists. AI is a research institute, a documentation centre, a publicist, a legal office, a fund-raiser, and a high-level lobbyist.

This professional core exists, however, to back up a very much larger movement of unpaid activists. AI's mass membership is one of the things that make it different from many other human rights organizations.

AI embraces over a million activists and many millions of supporters around the world. These people come from all cultures and walks of life, and they reflect a range of viewpoints. They are encouraged to take part as fully as possible in AI's many actions and projects. They also join in AI's democratic decision-making and they elect the movement's governing bodies.

“Greetings Amnesty International.

I have come home from prison and am very, very grateful. Mainly I owe my early release to you and to your work on my case. Thank you for all your support.”

_ Anto Kovacevic, a released prisoner of conscience from Yugoslavia

Although most of these volunteers are not professional activists, they play a central role in the movement's ongoing campaigning _ they build awareness and concern about human rights in their communities.

Frequently, outraged public opinion is the first line of defence for those who are threatened with political imprisonment, torture, and execution. Often, mass public pressure is the only way that human rights can be improved.

The efforts of volunteers will make a greater impact when these activists work together. By sharing information and taking joint actions, they can create far more pressure _ mass, global pressure _ than they would be able to create as individuals working alone.

Campaigning: AI takes action

AI is a campaigning organization.

AI is well known for researching, documenting, and reporting human rights violations, but its work does not end there. AI members create mass pressure worldwide and take practical, effective action to stop these violations.

AI is organized to make it possible for ordinary people to speak up _ to protest on behalf of other human beings who are in danger. In line with the movement's focus on individual victims, the membership takes action through a global web of small, community-based working groups.

The goals of AI campaigning are protection, prevention, and promotion.

AI campaigns to protect the individual victims who are threatened now. AI says to powerful officials: “You are being watched. We can see your crimes and we plan to tell the world about them. You will be called to account.”

It works to prevent further human rights abuses by urging changes in legislation and policy.

And it works to promote long-term awareness of human rights issues by encouraging educational programs about human rights.

AI volunteer campaigners _ even though they may be “ordinary people” with little political influence in their own countries _ can take several practical steps to put pressure on powerful governments abroad.

AI members:

  • n     create publicity in the local news media _ publicity that they can bring to the notice of the target government
  • n     send masses of letters, telegrams, and postcards appealing directly to the target government's senior officials
  • n     approach the home government and encourage their own political representatives to take up the cause
  • n     reach out to influential groups and individuals in the community and invite them to lend their powerful voices to the campaigning
  • n     hold dramatic, symbolic events that will get people's attention and mobilize them to support these efforts
  • ask people to donate money and materials that not only will help keep the campaigning going, but will strengthen the independence and credibility of its message

These different realms of activity complement and reinforce one another. Since the ultimate goal is to create pressure to help victims of human rights abuses, every one of these is a real human rights task.

These campaigning techniques are described in detail in Chapters 4 and 5.

The face of AI

AI is independent and impartial, and aims to be truly universal.

These principles are closely related and they are woven into all AI's practical work. They are vital to the organization's credibility and effectiveness.

They might be called “external” working principles because they relate to the way AI should be seen as it goes about its tasks.


AI is a democratic, self-governing movement. It is free from outside control.

AI is not subject to the control of any government or of any other body. It answers only to its own worldwide membership.

The movement is funded by its members throughout the world and by donations. It accepts no money from governments for its operating budget. It draws its resources from local, broad-based fund-raising.

AI in quotes

“Amnesty International. has blackmailed over 100 nations of the world.”

_ President, Uganda, 1975

“. an arm of communist propaganda.”

_ State Premier, Queensland, Australia, 1981

“. completely maintained by imperialist security services.”

_ Izvestiya, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, 1980

“. it does not even try to hide its true Soviet character.”

_ Government of Guatemala, 1981

“. Amnesty what's-its-name International.”

_ Prime Minister, Turkey, 1973

“. frustrated old women and young people.”

_ Attorney General, Kenya, 1977


AI does not take sides in political conflicts.

To be credible, AI must be free from any kind of bias. It must refuse to show any political, religious, or racial favour. Its work must be seen to be balanced among the different world ideologies and political groupings in which particular human rights violations are reported.

AI neither supports nor opposes any government or political system. It does not necessarily support or oppose the views of the people whose rights it tries to protect.

What it opposes are violations of the specific human rights it has undertaken to defend. What it supports are the acts of governments or political bodies that protect and promote those human rights.

The organization is concerned solely with the protection of the human rights that are being violated in each case.


Borders are no barrier to helping others.

AI believes that each one of us can play a role in protecting the rights of everyone else, regardless of who we are, what we believe, or where we live. The defence of human rights is the concern of the entire world, and it transcends differences of nationality, race, or belief.

“Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.”

_ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 2

Ideologies, national boundaries, and local legal codes are no obstacle to speaking out on behalf of others. As far as AI is concerned, it is entirely appropriate for human rights activists to try to influence the “internal affairs” of other countries. It is appropriate because these “internal affairs” are really fundamental and universal human affairs.

AI is not a union of local civil liberties bodies, whose national affiliates and members focus on human rights problems in their own states. It is, instead, an international movement of mutual support.

AI's universality means that the organization takes action _ internationally _ wherever and whenever it receives information about violations of the human rights that fall within its mandate.

Working methods

AI's effectiveness depends on its credibility.

The organization has an international presence, and any statement or activity by members in one country can affect the way the movement is seen by the public in other countries.

AI members take care to speak and act in a way that safeguards the movement's independence, impartiality, and universality. The organization has developed practical working methods that are vital to protecting the credibility of its statements and strengthening the impact of its activities.

AI action is grounded in accurate research, not in hearsay, rumour, or biased or slanted reports.

The movement's information must conform to the highest standards of accuracy. Whenever AI hears a report of political arrests or of people threatened with torture or execution, it concentrates first on examining the allegations.

The researchers employed by its International Secretariat in London gather information from relatives of the victims of human rights violations, and from lawyers, journalists, and other human rights organizations _ from every reliable source. Each piece of information is carefully checked. Only when the researchers are sure they have a solid basis for concern do they send the information to AI members and to the public.

In redistributing any AI information, sections, groups, and members should take care to do nothing that might jeopardize its accuracy and reliability, and thereby damage the movement's credibility and effectiveness.

The organization refuses to express a partisan opinion or take part in political speculation, and it avoids commenting on a government's motives or on the underlying reasons for human rights abuses.

AI is not a political support group and does not endorse any other cause.

AI's information is always presented in a way that makes it clear that the movement does not support or oppose any government or political system, take sides in political conflicts, or endorse the views of the people whose rights it seeks to protect.

AI members do not _ and must not _ make partisan statements such as referring to governments as “regimes” or “dictatorships”, or describing their leaders as “reactionary”, “fanatical”, or “despotic”.

AI does not rank or compare violations of human rights.

Countries are not graded as the “best” or the “worst” in terms of their human rights records. AI does not maintain a “blacklist”. It concentrates on trying to end the specific violations of human rights in each case.

AI takes no money from governments. It is financially self-sufficient on the basis of broad-based fund-raising.

AI neither seeks nor accepts money from governments for its operating budget. Rules about accepting donations are strict. They ensure that funds received by any part of the organization do not affect its integrity, make it dependent on any donor, or limit its freedom of activity.

No member who holds a high post with any government or political party can take a leading position in AI.

To safeguard the movement's political independence, members of AI's national governing bodies or senior staff persons may not hold top-level positions in the government or public administration of any country, or in the top ruling bodies of any political party.

In its overall program, each local AI group is expected to work on human rights concerns across the geopolitical spectrum.

Each group is expected to take action as far as possible on different regions of the world and on contrasting ideological contexts.

In practice, this may mean, for example, that a group based in France might adopt a prisoner of conscience held in an African prison, take part in a country campaign aimed at a concern in the Americas, and work to abolish the death penalty in an Asian country.

Human rights violations in members' own countries

When AI receives a report of a human rights violation, the report is centrally evaluated and then it is taken up by members throughout the world _ but not by members working on behalf of AI in the country where the abuse has taken place.

This practice is known as the “work-on-own-country” rule:

AI members, in their AI capacities, do not gather, assess, or act upon information about human rights cases in their own country.

The purpose of this rule is to maintain the movement's independence and impartiality. It establishes _ and it demonstrates _ an objective “distance” between the activist and the human rights concern.

This practice is particularly important when AI deals with allegations of torture, unfair trial or imprisonment, political killings, or “disappearances”, which are often surrounded by controversy and official denials.

The rule:

  • ensures that AI retains its essential character as an international movement of mutual support rather than becoming a federation of national human rights organizations
  • helps protect AI's campaigning presence in countries where human rights have been grossly violated
  • maintains a clear distinction between AI and domestic civil liberties bodies
  • ensures that local pressures and loyalties do not damage AI's impartiality

This rule applies at every level of the movement, to volunteer members as well as to staff. It can be explained in two parts:

AI members do not, in AI's name, gather information about human rights violations that take place in their own country.

Despite the fact that AI national bodies and local groups and members may be in the best position to do so, the organization does not involve them in gathering information on their own countries.

Information about human rights violations is collected and evaluated at the organization's central research office, the International Secretariat. Even there, individual researchers are not permitted to work on their own countries.

This research is backed up by fact-finding missions to countries. When an AI research mission is visiting their country, section offices and groups do not take part.

AI members who have information about human rights abuses in any country _ including their own _ may send it for evaluation to the International Secretariat. But they must do this in their private capacities or as members of other organizations. It must be made clear that they are not acting as AI members.

AI members do not, in AI's name, campaign against human rights violations that take place in their own country.

Perhaps the best-known application of this practice is that prisoners of conscience are always assigned for adoption to AI groups based in other countries. Even though there may be AI members and groups in that prisoner's country, they will not be expected to take action aimed at helping to free the detainee.

In the spirit of the rule, expatriates of a country that is a target of an AI campaign should avoid taking a leading or visible position in the action. Expatriates should not, for example, sign appeals that will be sent to their former home government.

Again, AI members who wish to protest human rights abuses that fall within AI's mandate and that are taking place in their own country may do so. But they must do this in their private capacities or as members of other organizations. It must be made clear that they are not acting as AI members.

What members can do

Over the years, AI members have identified a number of areas where they can contribute positively to the human rights situation in their own country in ways that still preserve the fundamental principles of the movement.

For example:

  • they mount national and local human rights education programs in schools, universities, and the community at large, and they ask their own government to support programs that teach human rights to public officials, police, and military personnel
  • they campaign for general abolition of the death penalty in their own country (normally the principle of international action on individual cases is respected)
  • sections, groups, and members campaign to get their government to ratify international human rights treaties, and (with the approval of AI's International Executive Committee) they campaign to bring domestic laws into line with international human rights standards
  • sections and groups translate, stock, and distribute AI's international reports on every country in the world _ including their own
  • With the aim of preventing their own country from contributing to human rights violations elsewhere, local members:
  • take steps to help prevent asylum-seekers being sent back to countries where they risk becoming prisoners of conscience or being tortured, executed, or “disappeared”
  • take a stand against the transfer of military, police, or security equipment and expertise to countries where they are used to detain prisoners of conscience or inflict torture or carry out executions (agreement between the section and the International Secretariat is needed for such initiatives)

The work-on-own-country rule is important for ensuring the global integrity of AI's work and image. All sections, groups, and members must observe this rule. Exceptions other than those noted must receive the permission of the International Executive Committee. For more information about the application of the rule, contact your section office or, if there is no section, the International Secretariat.

AI's effectiveness

Many people ask: Does AI's work really help?

AI has a record of concrete achievement. The organization believes this is true because the people it has been trying to help say that its pressure has had an impact.

Since it began in 1961, AI has appealed on behalf of thousands of individual victims of human rights violations. Many of these people were fortunate to benefit from an improvement in their situation. Some were released from prison, or were given shorter sentences, or received a fair trial, or were treated more humanely in detention, or had a death sentence commuted, and so on.

AI does not claim that its letters and publicity were the only reasons for every one of these improvements. Often, other factors, such as political change or economic pressure, or the campaigning of other activists working independently, were the reasons for more humane behaviour on the part of governments.

Over the years, however, AI has received many letters and testimonies from prisoners, or former prisoners, or relatives. These people say that AI's support was important in bringing about an improvement in the situation of a detainee, or else in building up morale and helping a detainee to survive awful prison conditions.

Even if governments appear to ignore AI's appeals, this rarely seems to be the case. Regardless of their human rights records, more and more governments are showing sensitivity to international opinion.

Even if a government refuses to acknowledge an appeal, this does not mean it takes no notice. Embassies forward to their home governments articles that appear in local newspapers and magazines. AI fact-finding missions have noted the impression that the thousands of letters have made on government officials.

Letters from former prisoners

“Your efforts and prayers saved my life. ”

_ Lee Shim-bom, South Korea

“You have been present during all these years.”

_ Lilian Celiberti, Uruguay

“Amnesty International ... gave me the chance of a new and truly human existence.”

_ Dr. Jan Mlynarik, Czechoslovakia

Every AI member who sends an appeal can be confident the message will have some impact.

The work of AI and other organizations has also had a more long-lasting effect: it has placed human rights on the public agenda.

In recent decades, the international community has adopted an increasing number of human rights declarations, treaties, and other instruments. International human rights law is growing.

Furthermore, the principles of human rights that were first expressed globally or regionally, in agreements among nations, are finding their way into the domestic laws of many countries.

As a result, many countries are establishing official monitoring and enforcement agencies that are responsible for seeing that human rights principles are upheld. A growing body of human rights cases are being settled by national courts and by international bodies.

New non-governmental organizations are being created, and they are becoming more and more effective. During human rights debates at the United Nations and other intergovernmental bodies, reports from human rights monitors such as AI are often cited.

In many countries, the media are paying more attention to human rights issues. Almost every day, newspapers or radio or television carry stories about human rights concerns.

AI members and others have promoted a widespread awareness of human rights issues by such means as giving talks and teaching human rights in schools.

AI has helped to create a worldwide “culture” of human rights, a broad base from which to carry the struggle into the 21st century.

Commonly asked questions

Are human rights a luxury, especially in societies trying to cope with serious problems like poverty and hunger?

AI believes there should be no double standard on human rights.

Human rights must be respected in every society at all times. The protection of human rights is a universal responsibility. It transcends the boundaries of nation, race, and ideology. It transcends any immediate problems a society may be trying to solve.

In fact, without human rights, progress of any kind is hard to achieve. Unless people can carry out political and social action free from persecution, it is difficult, if not impossible, to build a better world.

In opposing the death penalty, is AI showing bias against certain religious traditions?

AI counts among its members believers from all major faiths. The movement takes no position, however, on any religious system, nor does it present its appeals to governments in terms of the teachings of any religious tradition.

The idea of “human rights” developed from a mixture of sacred and secular beliefs held by many societies for many centuries. Among these universal principles are that people have inherent value, and that we should treat others the way we would like them to treat us.

Such widespread convictions have found their expression in the humanitarian articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

On the one hand, some governments justify their human rights violations _ for example, their use of the death penalty _ by referring to religious teachings.

On the other hand, each of the major faiths includes certain teachings that some people regard as the basis for their opposition to human rights violations _ such as the death penalty.

This means that a good member of any faith can also, on the basis of the teachings of that faith, be a good member of AI.

Because AI does not make religious arguments in its appeals, it does not quote these teachings. It will, however, encourage members of religious communities to use these teachings in trying to convince others of their own faith about AI's mandate.

Is it wrong to concern ourselves only with human rights in other countries, and not with what goes on in our own?

As AI members, we must observe the principle of the international responsibility for human rights.

Even though we cannot work in AI's name against specific abuses in our own country, we should remember that our AI colleagues around the world are fighting to end these abuses, and furthermore, that this rule increases the effectiveness of their work.

We should also remember that the principle of international responsibility for human rights ensures that voices are raised around the world on behalf of victims in those countries where there is no one to speak for them.

Does AI provide special protection for its members?

Sometimes AI is publicly criticized by governments. Sometimes its statements provoke considerable public controversy. Sometimes individual members may feel at risk because of their association with AI _ even though they have not taken part in any of AI's international protests against abuses in their country.

The organization can offer no special protection for its members anywhere. If anyone becomes a victim of a political arrest or faces other abuses that AI opposes, the movement will take up the case in the same way it acts against similar violations in any other case.

AI membership is no guarantee of anyone's safety and carries no privileges.

Can you give some examples of AI's impact on governments?

  • after a 1990 campaign on Brazil that drew worldwide attention, the president pledged that “we cannot and will not again be a country cited as violent in reports by Amnesty International.”
  • AI members in Japan wrote thousands of letters to the South African authorities about a prisoner of conscience who had gone on hunger-strike in 1987. No one in the prison could read Japanese, so the authorities translated thousands of letters _ only to discover that they all said “Release Dean Farisani”. Reverend Tshenuweni Simon Farisani was set free some months later
  • in Turkey, a man with a long history of being detained and tortured was arrested in October 1990 but set free the following day. As they released him, police officials apparently said, “Oh, you're a favourite of Amnesty's, aren't you.”
  • after Norwegian children heard a radio show featuring the case of a nine-year-old Ethiopian boy who was born and had spent his entire life in prison with his mother, they sent drawings, cards, and letters to the AI office in Oslo. A huge parcel was forwarded to the Ethiopian President with a letter asking for the release of the boy and his mother. Five weeks later both were set free
  • in the middle of a meeting with an AI representative, the attorney general of a small Asian country asked his entourage to leave. As soon as the two were alone, the attorney general said, “I have a message for Amnesty International: please keep sending letters. The only thing I can rely on to help me convince the cabinet to spend money on our prisons is the pressure from Amnesty International.” When the others returned to the room, the attorney general resumed his bland speech about other matters



“Do naught unto others which would cause you pain if done to you.”

_ The Mahabharata


“Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.”

_ Udana-Varga: 5,18


“Always treat others as you would like them to treat you.”

_ New Testament. Matthew 7:12


“Do not unto others that you would not have them do unto you.”

_ Analects, XV, 23


“No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself.”

_ Sunnah


“What is hateful to you, do not to your fellowmen.”

_ The Talmud, Shabbat, 31a


“Regard your neighbour's gain as your

own gain, and your neighbour's loss as

your own loss.”

_ T'ai Shang Kan Ying P'ien


“That nature alone is good which refrains from doing unto another whatsoever is not good for itself.”

     Dadistan-i-dinik, 94:5