AI Handbook

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

Table of Content

Chapter 4


How AI Works

People are jailed because of their beliefs or their identity. Political prisoners are held for years without trial. Prisoners are tortured or executed. Individuals are threatened by “death squads”, or are murdered by state agents, or simply “disappear”. Frightened women, men, and children flee these horrors and go into exile.

AI's task is to help these people. The movement tries to protect those who are in immediate danger. It takes steps to prevent such situations arising again. And it aims to promote long-term respect for human rights.

To accomplish these goals, AI has become a permanent campaigning movement. It carries out an ongoing array of actions designed to arouse global public opinion that will put pressure on people in power to respect human rights.

This chapter explains how AI works. It shows how the movement gathers, assesses, and distributes information so that AI delivers “one message”. It demonstrates how AI's members and supporters use this information to mobilize the world, and how they raise their “many voices” to create global pressure.

This chapter is a broad description of AI's approach. Chapter 5 will present detailed advice, guidelines, and practical ideas for carrying out human rights campaigning in the local community.

Creating pressure

Pressure is a persistent demand. It is a weekly appeal to the Minister of Justice.

Pressure is a growing demand. It is an appeal to the Minister of Justice from not just one person, but from ten people, then a hundred people, then a thousand people.

Pressure is a strong demand. It is backed by evidence of abuses and by calls for specific measures the Minister of Justice should take to stop them.

Pressure is a public demand. It is a report of a state abuse that appears in newspapers, radio, and television.

Pressure is an impartial demand. It is ensured by the simple donation of money to AI that gives independence, credibility, and strength to the organization's letters and statements and publicity.

Pressure is letting people in power know that they are being watched. It is bringing human rights violations out from the darkness of official secrecy and into the light.

The human rights movement

The real movement for human rights is made up of thousands of organizations and institutions. These may be trade unions, newspapers, community organizations _ and governments. In the course of their “normal” activities, they work to put pressure on governments that violate human rights.

The movement for human rights is also made up of countless individuals. Each person, in his or her own way, helps to shift the balance in favour of human rights.

Some of these people create pressure by force of numbers: they sign petitions, join demonstrations, or donate money to a human rights organization. Others _ famous artists, business managers, religious leaders, government ministers, heads of state _ make pressure by using their positions of influence or power.

These institutions and people are alerted to the facts about human rights violations and are motivated to do something about them by many different human rights organizations. One of those organizations is AI.

AI activists: working together

AI is a broad-based movement of activists. It is more than a million dedicated people who share a vision of human rights, who are determined to put pressure on governments to stop abuses wherever they happen, and who are ready to work to help achieve this.

These activists represent a global presence _ a campaigning potential _ that is in position to act swiftly and effectively as soon as AI receives a report about the abuses of human rights that concern it.

These individuals do not necessarily bring special skills or expertise to the movement. They do bring some of their time and personal resources, but particularly, they bring their commitment, energy, and creativity.

“We have a voice only if we use it. If anyone says to me, 'It's so overwhelming, what can I do?' I answer, 'Take your pen and write a letter on behalf of one of Amnesty's prisoners.' ”

_ writes an AI member from Prince Rupert, Canada

These people fight for human rights in different ways. Registered members of the organization subscribe to its publications, join its groups, and take part in its campaigning. Donors sustain this work with their financial contributions. Staff persons provide professional support. Many people who are neither members nor donors nor staff assist the movement by a range of means, from simply signing an AI petition at an information table to making a parliamentary speech about human rights.

AI activists come from all walks of life and they can be found in almost every country. Many contribute to AI's campaigning by working alone, as individuals. They write letters of appeal, particularly in urgent cases where speedy response is crucial. They donate money and materials to AI. They carry AI's human rights message to their own political representatives and to the local news media.

A large part of AI's pressure, however, is created by members who join with fellow activists in groups or in other networks.


AI is an international system of action networks.

The movement can respond rapidly and effectively to reports of human rights abuses because its activists _ regardless of where they may live _ are receiving information promptly from the movement's research centre.

AI is a global web of interwoven and overlapping channels of communication. Its members, subscribers, supporters, staff, local groups, and sections are linked with the International Secretariat. They keep in touch by using the postal service, telephone, telex, FAX, electronic mail, and by visits.

Every AI activist is a strand in this worldwide web. Each person plays a vital role in receiving and sending its life-saving information.

The system of networks makes it possible for AI to distribute information readily and to bring global pressure swiftly to bear on offending governments. The system makes it easy for the organization to monitor this information and to ensure that it remains accurate and credible, and that the pressure it creates is effective.

These networks differ in complexity, depending on the stage of the organization's development in different parts of the world. It is impossible to draw a single picture that shows how all AI's networks fit together. This diagram gives a general sense of how action information is channelled through the movement:

AI groups: campaigning in local communities

The basic unit of AI's local structure and campaigning is the group.

The AI group is a number of committed activists who join together regularly to carry out AI's human rights campaigning _ to appeal on behalf of the victims of human rights violations, to encourage others in the community also to send appeals, and to raise money and long-term support that will strengthen AI's work.

AI members have formed thousands of groups around the world. They vary widely in size, resources, style, and focus.

AI groups can number from five to more than 100 people. The active core of any group may not be static. It can change as its members come and go, or raise and lower their level of involvement.

Some groups can draw upon the wealth of prosperous communities. Others may count among their members people with many specialized skills. Yet others possess only a few resources or may have limited access to AI materials in their own language.

Typically, groups meet once a month, but many convene more or less frequently than that. The format of some meetings is casual, while other groups choose to observe formal rules of procedure.

Some groups _ while ensuring overall balance in their work _ concentrate on specific aspects of AI's concerns. Others decide to take up a broad range of issues. The most successful groups keep adjusting their activities to take advantage of changing resources and levels of membership involvement.

AI groups hold their meetings indoors or outdoors, at private homes, schools, religious institutions, business offices, factories, restaurants and places of entertainment, community centres, sports facilities, or public parks.

Groups take a variety of forms that emerge naturally out of their “community”, whatever that may be. Here are examples of the AI groups that have been campaigning dynamically and effectively:

  • twenty-five men, women, and children from all walks of life, with a variety of skills and interests, who happen to live in the same town, village, or neighbourhood and share a commitment to AI's goals
  • a circle of five or six friends who focus on letter-writing
  • a gathering of dozens of people who break into sub-groups, each team taking responsibility for a particular aspect of AI's work
  • a core of members of a faith community whose main goal is to try to involve their co-religionists in AI's campaigning
  • a student group that works with teachers to educate their classmates and colleagues about international human rights
  • medical or legal experts who take part in special actions drawing upon their professional training and their contacts
  • local members of a trade union who concentrate on building human rights awareness in the workplace and on mobilizing the many contacts and resources of their union
  • an artists' collective that creates fund-raising projects or holds dramatic publicity events
  • a committee of members of a national parliament who set aside their political differences in order to make appeals to counterparts in target countries

AI encourages its activists to form groups because people who work together usually can create more pressure than can the same people acting alone. They stimulate each other's creativity, boost each other's confidence, and undertake a wider range of projects.

Depending on their resources, groups take up a range of campaigning activities. They make publicity in the community news media, lobby local politicians, reach out to involve professionals, send letters and other direct appeals, hold demonstrations, and organize fund-raising drives.

By extending AI's campaigning network into the community, groups multiply the pressure they can create.

For example, a group of ten activists receives from the International Secretariat (perhaps via a section office) a request to send appeals to a target government: AI is calling for an investigation into the “disappearance” of a lawyer. On its own, the group easily writes ten letters of concern. But that same group then generates hundreds _ if not thousands _ of additional messages by extending its campaigning network. Here is how it might do so:

The group asks a politician to raise the alarm about the missing lawyer in a speech to the regional bar association. The group encourages the local newspaper to report the speech and also to announce a street march dramatizing the “disappearance”. During the event, the group asks for donations to cover the cost of urgent telegrams to the target government. At every stage, people are invited to send appeals.

The group integrates its campaigning activities. It looks for opportunities to combine contacts, approaches, and techniques, and to maximize the impact of its efforts.

Not only are many additional appeals sent to the target government, but the local community is made aware _ about “disappearances”, about human rights in general, and about AI's mandate and work.

The group responds to the immediate call for action, and at the same time it builds long-term, broad-based support for its humanitarian work.

AI sections:campaigning within a country

A section is a national organizational structure, usually supported by an office, that coordinates and develops the campaigning of AI groups and members within a country.

Sections are key contact points in AI's system of linked networks. Sections help the International Secretariat to communicate with local groups and members around the world.

By the early 1990s, AI sections had been formed in almost 50 countries. Just as groups do, these sections vary in size, circumstances, structure, and resources:

  • some sections have registered tens of thousands of members, while others consist of a small number of groups
  • some are growing rapidly in members and resources, while others grow at a slower pace
  • some function with subdivisions that work within the nation's borders on a regional basis
  • some operate in countries where all members can easily gather together, while others are based in countries where the distances are so great or the travel conditions are so demanding that visits and meetings are difficult to organize
  • some have established large central offices staffed by paid professionals, while others maintain small offices with the aid of volunteer activists
  • some collect large revenues from centrally coordinated fund-raising drives, while others rely mainly on the funds raised by their own groups
  • some have installed electronic systems of telecommunication _ telephone, telex, FAX, electronic mail _ while others rely on a single manual typewriter and the postal system
  • some sections find it relatively easy to approach the home government and the community, while others work in an atmosphere of indifference, mistrust, or hostility

All sections receive a Weekly Mailing of general information from the International Secretariat. This package contains requests for action, reports and other background documents, country and theme campaign materials, and papers concerning internal administrative matters.

In addition to this general mailing, each section is routinely updated, by mail, with information on the specific Action File cases or tasks that have been allocated to it and to its local groups.

As well, sections often receive from the International Secretariat urgent telephone calls, telexes, or FAX messages asking it to organize immediate appeals on an emergency concern.

Each section, in consultation with the International Secretariat, selects from among the array of campaigning possibilities those where it feels it has the resources to make the strongest impact. Often, the section adapts the International Secretariat's information in order to meet the special needs of its own groups and members.

A section may translate reports into local languages. It may re-format requests for appeals to make them accessible to a special audience, such as young people. It may edit and illustrate selected news releases for publication in its newsletter.

Once it has chosen its campaigning tasks and prepared the material, each section sends the information to the network of groups and activists that, in its judgment, will create the most effective pressure.

Sections assign to specific groups particular long-term tasks for which these groups are uniquely equipped _ such as pressing for the release of a prisoner of conscience. They also enlist temporary networks of groups and members to campaign on a cluster of issues in one target country.

As sections become more experienced and have more resources, they often appoint “country coordinators” (or country coordination groups, known as “co-groups”). These coordinators are important contacts for community groups. They specialize in human rights questions in particular target countries or regions, and advise groups and the section office on any campaigning that is aimed at those parts of the world.

Because country coordinators are in close touch with groups, section offices, and the International Secretariat's Research Department, they are key links in AI's system of networks.

In addition to managing current actions, sections work to improve the resources available for long-term campaigning.

They create pamphlets, videos, and other publicity resources designed to attract new members. They establish education programs to train these members in campaigning techniques. They raise money to pay for communications equipment, such as typewriters, photocopiers, and computer systems.

Sections are also responsible for all AI campaigning at the national level. Section-level officials handle contacts with national news media, with senior authorities in the home government, and with the central offices of national organizations such as trade unions, religious communities, and professional associations. Sections also coordinate all national public events and fund-raising drives.

International Secretariat: campaigning worldwide

The International Secretariat is the movement's research and campaigning headquarters.

This London office sets the broad campaigning framework for AI's global networks of sections, local groups, and individual activists. It gathers information about human rights abuses, checks the facts, chooses the most effective forms of campaigning, and distributes this material to the membership for action.

It sends the information to section offices, or where there is not yet a section, direct to groups, or where there is not yet a group, direct to individual “international members”.

Within the International Secretariat are several departments that guide membership campaigning:

The Research Department collects, verifies, and analyzes information. Its researchers and legal officers monitor human rights law, prepare the background information on which AI's initiatives are based, and plan and take part in missions. Through close contact with country coordinators in sections and with the Campaigning Unit, researchers advise the membership about campaigning strategies in specific target countries.

The Campaigning and Membership Department comprises two divisions, the Campaigning Unit and the Membership Unit.

The Campaigning Unit joins with the Research Department in creating country strategies, but it focuses also on developing overall thematic strategies, often in consultation with sections. It supervises action planning, scheduling, and allocation in general. On the basis of Research Department materials, this unit coordinates urgent appeals, all large-scale campaigns, and the assignment of long-term tasks. It takes special interest in outreach to medical professionals, trade unionists, and other sectors, and it coordinates sensitive approaches such as those to companies and the military.

The Membership Unit oversees development programs in those parts of the world where the movement is seeking a new presence. It coordinates the distribution of AI information to likely supporters. It recruits and trains members, and supervises the formation of groups and sections.

The Press and Publications Department handles all relations with the international news media. It provides sections with regular news releases and with advice about press work. This department is responsible for AI's public information program, including its international newsletter, leaflets, reports and publications, and audio-visual materials. Because AI is a multicultural organization reporting to a multilingual world, the department also includes a Language Programs Unit that coordinates the work of the movement in dozens of languages.

The Secretary General's Office, which takes overall responsibility for the management of the International Secretariat, also authorizes all AI's official statements and publications, missions, and official relations with target governments.

Horizontal links

AI's effectiveness depends on the efficient flow of action information. Ideally, information travels in a straight course, with accuracy and speed, direct from the International Secretariat to sections, groups, and members around the globe.

The organization's effectiveness depends also on its horizontal lines of communication. These links help the movement share its practical campaigning expertise:

  • groups in several different countries join forces to work for the release of a prisoner of conscience
  • groups in the same section work together: an experienced group trains a new group, or groups cooperate in holding a demonstration, or they exchange resources during a country campaign
  • sections share ideas and materials, either on a bilateral basis or during the movement's international gatherings

Horizontal contacts serve to circulate throughout the movement the rich store of experience that the creativity and imagination of the broad-based membership, working energetically in many different cultural contexts, has built up over the years.

Campaigning techniques

Techniques are ways of putting public pressure on governments that abuse human rights.

Forms of action, on the other hand, are ways of organizing AI's work within the movement's internal networks. Later, this chapter describes such forms as Urgent Actions, Action Files, Regional Action Networks, and country campaigns.

The campaigning techniques that AI's networks have developed fall into six broad categories:

  • media and publicity
  • direct appeals
  • home government approaches
  • outreach
  • symbolic events
  • fund-raising

Media and publicity

AI creates pressure by using newspapers, billboards, radio, and television to alert the public and stir it to action.

AI owes its foundation to a newspaper article, and publicity remains one of the organization's most powerful tools for raising awareness about human rights issues. In the 1990s, the movement is working to deliver its message in the “many voices” of its global, multicultural membership.

An informed and angry public can pressure officials to review their policies and to take steps to protect human rights. In many countries, publicity abroad has been followed by the granting of amnesties, improved prison conditions, open trials, the commutation of death sentences, and investigations of “death squad” killings.

Practically every day, the International Secretariat issues statements or news releases to international news agencies. Frequently, it publishes comprehensive reports on specific countries, or on global patterns of abuse such as torture or political killings by governments. It distributes on subscription a monthly newsletter. Annually it produces the widely-read and influential Amnesty International Report, a country-by-country survey of the movement's concerns during the previous year. And, it creates an array of leaflets, posters, films, tapes, and slides.

Sections distribute the press and publicity information issued by the International Secretariat to the national-level media in their own countries. They market the reports and other materials nationally, often with help from local groups. Many sections translate or adapt particular items, such as the Amnesty International Newsletter, for use in their domestic publications.

AI groups also make effective publicity in their own communities, often by showing that events in faraway places have a local angle _ that human rights are everybody's business. Sometimes, a vigorous community effort by an AI group turns into a national protest that makes a distinct impression on a target government.

Groups send news releases and feature articles to local newspapers, write letters to the editor, give interviews on radio and television, stage dramatic public events, and recruit celebrities and prominent politicians.

Frequently, they ask readers, listeners, and viewers to send direct appeals to target governments or to donate money to AI. Groups also seek out specialized media that may have a unique impact, such as professional journals, trade union newspapers, and youth radio.

Groups and individual members create long-term publicity for AI by distributing its reports, leaflets, photo exhibitions, and other audio-visual materials to book stores, libraries, and schools.

Direct appeals

AI applies direct pressure on the authorities by sending polite but firm messages of concern.

Most of the time, these appeals take the form of letters. AI members have used this straightforward approach from the beginning. In 1961, a temporary letter-writing campaign quickly grew to become a mass human rights movement.

A typical AI letter is brief, courteous, and factual. It points out that AI is a non-partisan organization. It cites relevant human rights law. It raises AI's specific demand. And it asks for a reply.

Letters are directed to an array of officials, including diplomatic representatives posted in the letter-writer's own country, and to prison authorities.

Groups and sections often increase the impact of their direct pressure by adapting the basic letter-writing tactic.

  • they mail large numbers of postcards, each one making a concise appeal
  • they circulate petitions for mass signatures which are then formally presented to an ambassador or delivered to a head of state
  • they urge professional associations and trade unions to send high-level appeals on official stationery, or to circulate petitions for signatures among the general membership, or to pass formal resolutions condemning human rights violations
  • they clip newspaper reports about human rights abuses and mail them, with a short note of concern, to the target government
  • they invite prominent community figures who are likely to have influence with the target government to make direct appeals which are then publicized in the news media
  • they combine public letter-writing drives with fund-raising by asking supporters to make a donation with every postcard they send


AI frequently makes its direct appeals to target governments during face-to-face meetings such as embassy visits and missions.

Normally, visits to the embassies of target countries are conducted by senior section officials, often in consultation with the International Secretariat. AI's delegates present the movement's concerns and ask that the envoys convey these appeals to their home governments.

Missions are organized by the International Secretariat with the permission of AI's International Executive Committee _ and with the permission of the country's government. Section officials and group members never take part in AI missions to their own country, because such involvement would violate the work-on-own-country rule. Frequently, missions are designed to gather information or to observe trials, but often a delegation will be able to meet with the authorities and to present the organization's concerns.

Meetings are a rare forum for first-hand dialogue and frank exchange with government authorities. They also provide AI with direct, official reactions to its protests, responses that often help in planning the movement's follow-up activities.

Home government approaches

AI sections, groups, and members mobilize the support of their own political leaders.

Politicians and senior government officials can bring their special influence to bear both on target governments abroad, and _ in the case of issues that do not violate AI's work-on-own-country rule _ also on the home government of which they are members.

In carefully coordinated approaches, sections and local groups ask domestic political representatives to take a stand for human rights:

  • by sending to target governments direct appeals on behalf of a local group's long-term concern, such as the case of a political prisoner held without trial
  • by raising with foreign counterparts questions about patterns of human rights violations, such as systematic torture
  • by urging the home government not to forcibly return people to countries where they risk imprisonment as prisoners of conscience, torture, “disappearance”, or execution
  • by encouraging the home government to sign international human rights treaties
  • by supporting domestic legislation in line with AI's mandate, such as laws concerning the death penalty, refugees, and transfers of security equipment or expertise
  • by taking advantage of the high public profile they enjoy to build human rights awareness into all their official activities
  • by lending their presence and support to AI's public events

AI's working principles do not allow senior political figures to take leading positions in the movement. Sometimes, however, a number of political officials will set aside their partisan differences and will form multi-party AI groups. These groups, like all AI groups, meet regularly and pursue a balanced program of active campaigning.


AI magnifies the pressure it creates by taking advantage of its links with the existing networks of other institutions.

The movement reaches beyond its own membership and invites influential sectors in the community to cooperate with it in doing human rights work. AI makes approaches to:

  • professionals such as doctors, nurses and other medical workers, scientists, business people, legal specialists, and teachers
  • students and young people, artists, writers and journalists, and members of military and police forces
  • members of religious communities, trade unions in all occupations, and political parties across the full spectrum
  • non-governmental organizations such as agencies concerned with the welfare of children and women, indigenous peoples' groups, aid and development charities, environmental lobbyists, and other human rights bodies

Outreach has been called “target sector work” because AI “targets” specific social sectors and encourages their members to take up the cause of human rights. Not only does outreach enhance campaigning in the short term, it also diversifies AI's membership, and it builds a wider base of human rights awareness in the community.

Outreach strengthens campaigning in many ways. It draws upon the commitment and energy of supporters who have expressed a special interest, stemming perhaps from a link with a victim such as a shared occupation. It engages activists who can contribute a professional expertise, such as legal skills. It involves people with access to influential channels or to resources such as a mass membership that can send appeals or help with fund-raising.

An AI group seeking to reach out to its community might invite:

  • an organization that works for women's rights to publicize in its newsletter the cases of women held as prisoners of conscience
  • legal professionals and trade unionists to send urgent appeals on behalf of human rights lawyers and labour leaders who have “disappeared”
  • lawyers to draft well-informed arguments appealing for a fair trial for a political dissident
  • medical personnel to protest against torture and ill-treatment of detainees
  • children to raise their voices condemning the imposition of the death penalty on young people
  • trade union federations to encourage their members and affiliates to make donations to AI
  • religious leaders to invite their congregations to attend a solemn vigil on Human Rights Day
  • members of political parties to raise human rights concerns with fellow party members abroad during international conferences
  • influential people in different sectors _ religious, legal, medical _ to lobby their own government on behalf of AI's concerns

The international levels of AI frequently approach the international levels of trade union federations, religious communities, and medical and legal associations.

As well, the International Secretariat fosters outreach by sections and groups by distributing actions designed to involve specific sectors, such as legal and medical workers. Whenever possible, it highlights the background of the person whose case is described, such as “trade unionist” or “student”, and also the nature of the appeal that is requested, such as “legal concern” or “health concern”.

Many sections have appointed national coordinators for areas of campaigning outreach. These people make AI's approaches to the senior levels of the institutions for which they are responsible, and at the same time coordinate parallel approaches by local AI activists to the community levels of the same institutions. For example, a labour coordinator who has enlisted a union president to endorse an AI petition may also suggest that AI groups approach the union's local branches with the same appeal.

Some sections have formed specialist groups of medical and legal workers, journalists, and so forth. Like local or community groups, they meet regularly to plan and carry out human rights campaigning that capitalizes on their skills, contacts, and capacities. These groups can also support the campaigning outreach of local groups.

Every community group includes individual members who can draw on their own experience to guide the group's outreach. All AI members are also part of other groups, networks, communities, or organizations that can be mobilized. Any AI member can approach other people and interest them in working for human rights.

In some circumstances, AI may ask domestic military, police, and other security officers to urge their counterparts abroad to respect the rights of detainees. It may invite business people to take advantage of their international contacts to make appeals for human rights.

Because military and company approaches carry special risks for AI's work, special care is taken in coordinating them. Consultation with the section or with the International Secretariat may often be appropriate.

Human rights education: human rights awareness

The immediate goal of outreach is to generate more and stronger appeals that will enhance the impact of an effort on behalf of a current concern.

The long-term goal of outreach is to raise the general level of community awareness about human rights _ to inform every person about the rights that each person possesses.

AI works with trade unions, religious organizations, and with other human rights bodies to publicize the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It encourages home governments to establish human rights training programs for officials and security personnel, and sometimes takes part in these programs.

In particular, AI aims to create a new “human rights generation”. It works with teachers to introduce human rights education programs into the curriculum of schools, colleges, universities, and adult training centres, and in some sections it has fostered the growth of networks of youth and student groups.

Symbolic events

AI stages dramatic events that capture public notice and help to get across the movement's message.

To gain public attention, AI members use an array of theatrical means. They hold quiet vigils and noisy demonstrations, poetry readings and rock concerts, fasts and elaborate dinners, plain assemblies and torchlight processions, street theatre and film festivals, poster displays and fine art exhibitions, moments of silence and extended readings of the names of victims.

The emotional impact of public drama gives strength and encouragement to the activists who take part. At the same time, these events often support other campaigning techniques.

For example, people marching with AI banners enhance direct pressure when they escort a delegation to an embassy visit. They create publicity when they remember to invite the press. They mobilize non-members to take part when they have posted announcements. Their march comes to the notice of the home government when it embarks from the parliament. They raise money for AI when they ask for a small donation from every person involved.

Symbolic events are sponsored by every level of the movement. They can range from the series of rock concerts that were held around the world as part of the 1988 Human Rights Now! campaign to the quiet display of an AI badge by an individual supporter.


AI activists make it possible to put pressure on target governments by raising money to support the movement's work. Fund-raising is a key campaigning technique.

AI neither seeks nor accepts money from governments. The hundreds of thousands of donations that sustain the organization's work come from the pockets of its members and the public. This money helps make pressure in two ways:

  • each donation adds to the number of appeals AI can send by covering the practical expenses of the organization

        To run the International Secretariat's research, campaigning, and publications programs costs 1.50 each second, 90.00 each minute _ or over 9 million a year. This figure does not include the expense of operating AI's sections or its thousands of local groups. It does not include the cost of the thousands of letters and telegrams sent every month by individual members and supporters around the world.

  • each donation adds to the impact that every one of these appeals will make because it helps to safeguard the independence of the movement and to demonstrate the credibility of its message

Appeals from AI carry weight because the organization is seen to be independent, impartial, and self-financing. AI's reliance on broad-based public support keeps the movement free from interference from governments, funding agencies, and pressure groups.

Fund-raising is a vital part of the work of everyone in the movement. A donation not only helps pay the costs of AI's campaigning _ the donation is itself a crucial part of that campaigning.

AI members often pay subscription fees to their group or section, or to the International Secretariat. These membership charges vary throughout the movement. Some members also make regular monthly or yearly donations to support the work.

In addition, members usually pay personally the cost of the many letters, telegrams, and, in some instances, parcels that they send on behalf of prisoners throughout the year.

Groups are supported both by the fees their members may pay and by fund-raising activities the groups undertake. Often, groups combine these projects with other campaigning techniques, by:

  • n sponsoring a sale of used items where petitions are displayed for signing
  • n placing in newspapers or on radio or television public service announcements that ask for donations and at the same time deliver a brief message about human rights
  • collecting money on street corners in exchange for AI badges the groups have designed and printed
  • organizing a benefit concert during which an AI supporter gives a talk about freedom of expression
  • asking a religious community to hold a service in memory of victims of “death squads” and to donate the collection to AI in support of its continued campaigning against political killings
  • holding a “celebrity auction” where personal articles donated by well-known musicians, actors, or politicians are sold to the highest bidders
  • approaching a trade union for a donation of a service, such as the use of its printing facilities

Many sections are sustained by the fund-raising of their groups, which pledge regular contributions to the national office.

Some sections have broadened the base of their financial support by starting direct mail programs in which thousands of individuals are informed of AI's work and asked to make a donation.

Schemes for selling AI merchandise _ clothing, posters, badges, stickers, postcards, key-rings, umbrellas _ have been launched successfully by several sections.

Sections hold major publicity and entertainment events, such as popular music concerts, from which the proceeds go to AI. Some sections have sponsored large fund-raising projects for the benefit of the entire movement, for example, the Norwegian Operation Give-A-Day Project supporting human rights education worldwide.

AI's international bodies and activities rely on income pledged by sections. There is no central fund-raising program.

The International Secretariat helps sections with their fund-raising efforts by making suggestions about publicity and by supplying facts and figures about AI activities. The movement has formed a Fund-Raising Working Group that distributes a newsletter drawing on the practical experiences of sections.

AI alerted


AI collects its information from many sources.

The Research Department at the International Secretariat receives reports of human rights violations from prisoners and their families (often sent at great personal risk), lawyers, other humanitarian organizations, religious bodies, community workers, refugees, journalists, and diplomats.

The researchers watch events and maintain a range of contacts in the countries for which they are responsible. They scan newspapers, journals, and government bulletins, and monitor television and radio broadcasts. They gather information by way of telephone calls, letters, FAX messages, telegrams, and visitors.

From time to time _ openly, and with the permission of the authorities _ the movement sends fact-finding missions to assess situations on the spot. The delegations might interview prisoners, their relatives and lawyers, and witnesses, or observe trials, or meet with government officials.

AI has no paid agents, no “spies”, and no links with intelligence agencies.

When the researchers receive a report of a human rights violation that falls within AI's mandate, their first step is to check the credibility of the report _ AI does not campaign on the basis of hearsay, rumour, or biased or slanted stories.

Before AI takes any action on a piece of information, the information is carefully checked and cross-checked among different sources, and the reliability of the sources is examined.

The researchers build up profiles of known and possible victims of human rights violations _ prisoners of conscience, other political prisoners, prisoners subjected to torture, refugees, individuals facing the death penalty, people illegally executed, or “disappeared”, or living under threat of a “death squad”.

Before any statement is issued, its text is vetted and approved at different levels within the International Secretariat, to make sure that the statement is accurate, that it falls within AI's mandate, and that it is politically impartial.

When AI is compelled to deal with allegations rather than established fact, it makes this plain, and often calls for an investigation of the allegations. If AI makes a mistake, it issues a correction immediately.

The movement's research is recognized as highly reliable, and is widely consulted by scholars, journalists, governments, and organizations seeking information on violations of human rights.

The instructions for the researchers are: get the facts, double-check for accuracy before taking action, when verification is not possible say “alleged”, where exactness is lacking lean toward understatement, if ever an error is made correct it at once.

Setting goals, choosing methods

Once the facts have been established, AI takes action.

Armed with information about human rights violations that fall within AI's mandate, the International Secretariat asks the movement's worldwide networks of sections, groups, members, and supporters to put pressure on governments to stop these abuses.

To maximize the impact of this pressure, the International Secretariat chooses carefully:

  • the government authorities, influential personalities, organizations, and news media that need to be targeted in the country where the human rights violations are taking place
  • the countries from which pressure on the target country is likely to have the most impact
  • the AI networks that will make the most effective pressure
  • the channels it uses to transmit information to these networks
  • the campaigning activities it asks them to carry out

These choices are based on the International Secretariat's judgments of many factors, including the urgency of the situation, those people in the target country who have power and influence, those people abroad who may have influence on the target country, the most effective timing, and AI's available resources.

The movement has developed a rich and flexible array of forms of action. Unlike techniques, which are means of bringing public pressure to bear on governments, forms of action are ways of organizing this work within the internal networks of AI.

Sudden danger: emergency response

When AI confirms that an individual is in grave peril, it acts immediately.

As soon as it learns that a person is suffering or threatened with torture, or has “disappeared”, or is being menaced by a “death squad”, or has been sentenced to death, or needs urgent medical treatment, or faces return to a country where persecution is likely, AI mobilizes its global resources at once.

In cases where the movement has only hours to act, it cannot possibly organize mass distribution of information or mass appeals. There is time only for immediate protests from AI's centre. The Secretary General will make pressing appeals direct to a target government.

At the same time, the International Secretariat may urgently mobilize sections. Using rapid means of communication, it asks sections to send protests instantly to the target government and to its embassies. Sometimes it may ask sections to enlist the influential voices of national politicians or other high-profile figures.

If there is time to do so, AI can organize protests from large numbers of members and supporters. It has developed a network of volunteers _ perhaps as many as 50,000 in 60 countries _ who are ready to send Urgent Action appeals in emergency cases.

Urgent Actions are telexed and mailed from the International Secretariat to section coordinators who forward the information speedily to the groups or individuals in the network. The participants are asked to send, as soon as possible, express or airmail letters, telexes, FAX messages, or telegrams.

Within forty-eight hours of issue, each Urgent Action can generate scores of appeals. Within six weeks, it can produce several thousand protests from people throughout the world.

AI also takes up the cause of those asylum-seekers who are in danger of forcible return to countries where they risk becoming prisoners of conscience, or “disappearing”, or suffering torture or execution.

Sections, often in consultation with the International Secretariat, work to ensure that asylum-seekers have access to fair refugee-determination procedures and that if held in detention they are treated in accordance with international standards. Sections also provide home government officials with information about the human rights situation in the countries the refugees have fled.

Patterns of abuse: strategic action

Even though AI holds the position that all abuses of human rights should stop at once, the movement does not have sufficient resources to maintain a continuous level of intense campaigning on every issue that falls within its mandate.

As well, different human rights concerns in different countries require different approaches to campaigning.

If AI is to campaign effectively for such a range of long-term goals as freedom for prisoners of conscience, an end to the death penalty in law, the ratification of human rights standards, and long-term public awareness about human rights, it must plan with care the allocation of its limited means.

The organization takes two broad strategies: it uses mass resources for a limited time, and specialized resources for an extended time.

Mass resources, limited time

AI activates large parts of the membership for short-term work:

  • to try to halt new or growing patterns of human rights violations, or to confront a situation of abuses so serious that only mass protests can hope to make any impact
  • to take advantage of opportune periods in the calendar, such as the run-up to a national election, or International Labour Day (1 May), International Women's Day (8 March), Human Rights Day (10 December), or the anniversary of AI itself (28 May)
  • to raise funds for AI and human rights awareness generally
Worldwide Appeals

On a regular basis the movement centres its attention on particular individual cases that are highlighted for mass appeals.

The Worldwide Appeals are publicized in the monthly Amnesty International Newsletter. The cases are reprinted in many section and group newsletters, which appear usually monthly or bimonthly.

For many years, Worldwide Appeals were known as the Campaign for Prisoners of the Month, and prisoners of conscience were profiled. The new focus reflects AI's concern with a widening range of victims of human rights violations.

The individuals who are featured in Worldwide Appeals are people who may already have been supported by particular AI groups. They may be prisoners who are extremely ill or who have been held in severe conditions for a long time, or they may be representative of a group of prisoners needing extra efforts on their behalf. The cases are carefully chosen to reflect the overall diversity of AI's work.

The newsletter summarizes each case, gives addresses for letters, and calls for immediate mass appeals, petitions, and publicity.

Country campaigns

From time to time, the movement organizes periods of intense activity aimed at stopping a pattern of human rights violations in a particular country.

Concentrated protests from many quarters are often the only way to put pressure on governments responsible for systematic abuses.

Country campaigns vary in their scope and duration. The design of any campaign is based on specific circumstances in the target country, and is determined by the Campaigning Unit and the Research Department, often following consultation with sections.

Some of these initiatives are intended to confront many concerns in the country. The International Secretariat invites most of AI's networks to take part, and because such large efforts usually last for several months, the movement holds only two or three each year.

“Limited” country campaigns happen more frequently and may focus on aspects of AI's mandate (such as the death penalty) in a particular country. Often, the International Secretariat invites participation by selected sections that are chosen for strategic reasons.

Every country campaign usually calls for a wide range of techniques _ domestic media approaches aimed at publicizing an AI report, mass appeals directed to many state officials, lobbying of sympathetic home government officials, outreach to community sectors with links to the country, perhaps demonstrations at its embassy, and fund-raising based on showing how every donation helps stop these abuses.

In coordinating these campaigns, the International Secretariat works closely with each section's campaign coordinator and country coordinator. A local group that joins a campaign often appoints a member or a small team to organize its involvement.

Theme and awareness campaigns

AI occasionally holds movement-wide campaigns that seek to achieve broad, long-term goals.

Theme campaigns address categories of abuse. In the mid-1980s, for example, the movement carried out a two-year campaign against torture. During most of 1989, it conducted an ambitious worldwide campaign against executions and death penalty laws in 41 countries.

Awareness campaigns pro-mote general support for AI or for human rights activism. The movement has organized education and awareness programs on the occasion of its own anniversaries and the anniversaries of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Every October, AI holds a special action called Amnesty International Week. The International Executive Committee chooses a human rights theme, the International Secretariat selects cases to illustrate it, and the movement conducts a program of public activity. AI Week has drawn the world's attention to such issues as state violations against women and children, long-term prisoners, and the persecution of writers and journalists.

Each year, AI launches worldwide letter-writing and publicity actions on and around International Labour Day, International Women's Day, and Human Rights Day.

Domestic campaigns

Some sections occasionally carry out domestic campaigns that confront particular human rights issues within their own borders.

Although AI members must not take up individual cases within their own countries, they can lobby their home governments to ratify international human rights covenants. They can (with the approval of AI's International Executive Committee) campaign for the repeal of legislation that may lead to violations of AI's mandate.

Some sections, for example, have organized mass membership campaigns against laws that permit the death penalty. Smaller actions have been aimed at safeguarding asylum-seekers by improving their country's refugee-determination policies. Section initiatives have sought to discourage the transfer of security equipment and skills to countries where they might be used in committing the human rights violations that AI opposes.

Specialized resources, extended time

AI asks many of its groups to campaign on a single human rights issue for long periods, sometimes for years:

  • to take advantage of the high level of energy and commitment sustained by activists who work on behalf of a clear and distinct concern, such as the plight of an individual victim
  • to maintain a constant level of pressure on the target authorities in order to remind them that their victims are never forgotten

Traditionally, AI's work has been carried out by small circles of activists who focus on doing long-term letter-writing on behalf of individual victims of human rights violations. The adoption of prisoners of conscience by AI groups is the best known example of this basic approach.

As the movement has grown and as the patterns of human rights violations have changed, AI members have developed a range of new action forms. For example, Urgent Actions and a flexible choice of country, theme, and awareness initiatives are meant to confront life-threatening situations or else to protest broad patterns of abuse.

Long-term campaigning by groups, however, remains an essential part of AI's grassroots approach. The movement is constantly looking for new ways to apply it to dealing with the changing human rights picture.

In the 1990s, there are two forms of long-term action that local groups can carry out: Action Files and Regional Action Networks.

Action Files

Over the years, AI groups have accepted responsibility for different types of “dossiers” or “case sheets”:

  • prisoner of conscience adoption dossiers
  • investigation dossiers
  • “disappearance” dossiers
  • death penalty dossiers
  • “action files”, a recent form of long-term dossier that aims to confront a variety of themes and mandate areas

To simplify the organization of AI's work, the 1991 International Council Meeting decided that the movement will gradually replace all these dossiers with a single category to be called Action Files.

Each AI group can take responsibility for one or more Action Files.

Normally, an Action File will concern an individual, an event, or an issue in one country. The group's aim could be the release of a prisoner of conscience, finding out the circumstances of a “disappearance” or an extrajudicial execution, the introduction in the target country of certain legal safeguards or the withdrawal of certain laws, the abolition of the death penalty, and so on.

A group assigned an Action File will receive background materials, addresses for appeals, and advice on strategy and tactics. The recommended actions, however, will often not be expressed specifically, in terms of step-by-step instructions, but they will be expressed broadly, in terms of the ultimate goal of the Action File.

Therefore, the specific activities that groups will undertake will often be left to the group itself to decide. A group with an Action File will plan its long-term campaigning on the basis of a strategic evaluation of its local resources and opportunities and its potential for bringing pressure to bear on the target government.

In some instances, not all the information required to carry out the campaigning program will be available. One of the tasks of the group and of the section's coordinator for the target country may be to supplement the information available to the research team at the International Secretariat.

Here are some examples of the campaigning goals that Action Files can address:

Adoption of prisoners of conscience

Once AI is convinced that a detainee is a prisoner of conscience, the case is assigned to one or several local groups around the world for adoption.

These groups are responsible for campaigning for the prisoner's immediate and unconditional release.

They send regular and countless appeals to the target government. They publicize the story in their community news outlets, ask local politicians to take up the cause, involve professionals and other influential groups, raise money to support their own activities and possibly to provide relief to the prisoner or the family, and hold demonstrations and other public events.

The work of groups on behalf of adoption cases is constant and unceasing. They continue to make relentless pressure until the case is resolved.

Investigation and “disappearance” cases

If AI's researchers believe that a person held in custody might be a prisoner of conscience, but they lack conclusive evidence, the case may be assigned to groups for investigation.

These groups do not demand the prisoner's release. Instead they make inquiries of the government to try to learn more about the case. Their function is to give some help to AI's researchers, and they limit their activity to asking questions of fact.

If the investigation should find that the detainee is not a prisoner of conscience (because, perhaps, the person had used violence), the case may be closed. If, however, the information that comes forward confirms that the detainee is a prisoner of conscience, the case may then be changed to an adoption.

Occasionally, AI asks groups to investigate cases involving political prisoners who may have used violence.

When such prisoners are held without charge or trial, or have been convicted after unfair trials, AI may advise a group to send messages urging the authorities to respect the detainee's right to a fair trial or else to release the person from custody.

A third type of investigation inquires into “disappearances”.

Groups assigned an Action File on a “disappearance” case send persistent messages to the authorities, asking if they know the whereabouts of the person who has “vanished” and calling for official inquiries. Often, these groups will also keep in touch with the families of the missing people.

Themes and issues

An Action File could deal with practically any issue of concern to AI. It might confront, for example, extrajudicial executions, deaths in custody, or deaths as a result of torture.

An Action File could also mobilize a local group to carry out long-term appeals calling for an end to the death penalty in one specific country (or state within a country). Each such Action File could be assigned to several dozen AI groups worldwide.

Regional Action Networks

Networks of specialized AI groups, spanning different sections, respond promptly and expertly to a call for action on one world region or cluster of countries.

These Regional Action Networks (RANs) vary in size. Some RANs may consist of hundreds of member groups worldwide, while others may consist of only a few dozen groups. Some 21 RANs have been formed, and together they cover every country in the world.

It may be said that the RAN method is a combination of the approach taken by two other forms of AI action: long-term work on Action Files, and the rapid response of the Urgent Action scheme. Groups in a RAN are expected to keep informed about the human rights situation in their region of responsibility, and at the same time to be prepared to act quickly.

The International Secretariat asks groups in a RAN to take fast action in emergencies like short-term detention, “disappearances”, or imminent executions. It may also ask them to use their expertise to campaign on general concerns such as prison conditions or legislation, or to organize fund-raising for the purpose of relief.

While groups in a RAN are asked to make a commitment to work on a region for a year or more, each specific action lasts from one to three months.

Groups in a RAN use the campaigning techniques that are appropriate to the concern _ rapid appeals and focused lobbying in the case of emergencies, a broader range of techniques for less urgent matters.

The background information and requests for action are prepared by the International Secretariat and are distributed to groups via appointed RAN coordinators at the section level.

An evolving campaign

Just as AI changes its mandate in response to changing patterns of human rights abuses, so too does the movement constantly try to revitalize the practical methods it uses to stop these abuses.

In the 1990s, AI has strengthened its worldwide networks by introducing more advanced communications technologies in order to spread the news of human rights violations faster and to wider audiences.

It has trained its activists to reach out to their communities and to integrate the proven tactic of letter-writing with a range of other techniques, such as publicity and fund-raising.

In the context of the consolidation of action forms into Action Files, it has assigned to groups new and innovative tasks that will draw upon the enthusiasm and creativity of their members.

It is experimenting with a system of “country linking” whereby special responsibilities are offered to sections based in countries that may have a unique influence on a target government.

AI is a permanent, evolving campaign. It encourages its activists at all levels to search continually for more effective means of putting pressure on governments that violate human rights


In certain circumstances, letters are sent to detainees themselves or their families. Such letters can help raise the morale of prisoners and relatives, and can be highly motivating for AI groups and members when these activists get replies.

From Morocco:

“It was in the darkness of my humid cell that I received my first reassuring sign: a letter from Amnesty. It was a sign of hope. It was the. variety of actions undertaken by this brave group of Amnesty members which over the years managed to break the wall of silence my oppressors tried to build around me, and which led to my release.”

The United Nations and international organizations

An important part of AI's lobbying for human rights is its work at the United Nations and at other intergovernmental organizations.

AI encourages such organizations to develop international human rights standards and to strengthen the machinery for ensuring that these standards are respected by governments. Whenever it is appropriate, AI also makes available to these organizations its information on different countries and cases.

The International Secretariat organizes formal representations to and relations with the United Nations, particularly its human rights bodies, as well as to regional intergovernmental organizations including the Council of Europe, the Organization of American States, the Organization of African Unity, among others.

Sections take part in this international lobbying process by making AI's concerns known to their countries' representatives to these bodies.

How does AI obtain information about “closed” countries?

Refugees, state radio, and the “closed” country's diplomatic representatives abroad are among the few sources of information about states that isolate themselves from the rest of the world.

Unfortunately, such sources often provide information that is too unreliable, dated, or incomplete to meet AI's rigorous standards of verification.

The fact that certain countries are not mentioned in AI's reports does not mean that AI has concluded there have been no human rights violations there. It may mean only that its researchers lack sufficient reliable, current, and detailed information to make an accurate judgment about these countries' human rights performance.