AI Handbook

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Chapter 6

AI Structure and Organization

Toward the 21st Century

This chapter briefly reviews AI's history. It describes the organization's decision-making structure. It presents AI's vision of its future and its long-term plan for achieving this vision.


Toward the 21st Century


AI was founded by British lawyer Peter Benenson.

He became angry after reading a newspaper report about two Portuguese students. They had been sentenced to seven years' imprisonment. Their crime: raising their glasses in a toast to freedom.

Benenson began to think of ways to persuade the Portuguese government _ and other oppressive governments _ to release such victims of injustice. His idea was to bombard the authorities with letters of protest.

To draw public attention to the fate of political prisoners, Benenson and several other activists organized a one-year campaign. They called it “Appeal for Amnesty, 1961”.

The campaign was launched in a newspaper article printed internationally on 28 May 1961. “The Forgotten Prisoners” called on people everywhere to protest _ impartially and peacefully _ the imprisonment of men and women around the world for their political and religious beliefs.

These detainees were to be called “prisoners of conscience”. With that, a new phrase entered the vocabulary of world affairs.

The article received a tremendous response. Within a month, more than a thousand readers had sent letters of support and offers of practical help. They also sent details of the cases of many more prisoners of conscience.

Here was to be the driving force behind AI _ popular action by many “ordinary” people worldwide.

As a result of the support it received, six months after the publication of the article Benenson announced another step in the campaign. What had started as a brief publicity effort was being converted into a permanent international movement. AI had begun.

Creativity and growth

Within a year, the new organization had sent delegations to four countries to make representations on behalf of prisoners, and had taken up 210 cases. Interest and enthusiasm were at such a level that members had organized national bodies in seven countries.

Gradually, AI expanded its mandate. While continuing to work for the release of prisoners of conscience, it began to campaign for fair trials in political cases and against the torture and ill-treatment of all prisoners. In the 1970s, AI took a formal position opposing the death penalty in all cases, and it extended the application of this stand to include unlawful executions and “disappearances”.

In 1977, the movement's efforts were recognized by the world community when AI was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1978, it was honoured with the United Nation's Human Rights Prize.

AI broadened its focus and gave its attention to the protection of people who might suffer as a result of activities taking place between governments. It worked to safeguard those seeking refuge in one country from an oppressive government in another country, and it opposed the international transfer of equipment or expertise that might lead to human rights violations.

As its mandate evolved, the vigour and imagination of its members created new ways to bring pressure to bear on behalf of the movement's concerns. They built on the success of AI's primary tactic _ mass letter-writing demanding the release of adopted prisoners _ and developed an array of flexible action forms. These ranged from urgent appeals to stop torture and executions, to broad-based campaigns that confront patterns of abuse.

The movement carried out a worldwide effort _ the 1988 Human Rights Now! campaign _ aimed at promoting awareness and observance of international human rights standards.

In 1991, basing its position on the norms of humanitarian law, the movement decided that it would directly address political opposition groups that commit abuses such as hostage taking or deliberate and arbitrary killings. And it expanded its focus in other ways, giving its attention to such issues as the forcible exile of people from their own country.

AI today

In the 1990s, AI is a global presence.

Well over a million members, subscribers, and regular donors support the movement's work in 150 countries and territories. Tens of thousands of these people take part in AI's Urgent Action network. More than 6000 local AI groups are active around the world. AI has formed sections in dozens of countries.

Each year, the movement sends countless appeals on behalf of thousands of individual victims of human rights violations. It sends scores of delegations on missions to gather research information, observe trials, or meet with government officials. It makes representations each year to the inter-governmental organizations where it has established formal relations.

Since AI accepts no government money, it mounts large public fund-raising efforts to raise the massive funds that are needed to finance its research and campaigning programs.

How AI governs itself

AI is constantly struggling to meet two opposing challenges.

On the one hand, AI is driven by the vigour and imagination of its hundreds of thousands of members who live in many different cultures. If their campaigning is to be effective, these members must be free to draw as fully as possible on their own rich stores of energy, creativity, and local resources _ they must speak in “many voices”.

On the other hand, the impact that these members will make depends on the consistency and credibility of the message they deliver. If their campaigning is to be effective, these members must observe AI's working principles, coordinate their words and actions, and assure the security of the information they handle _ they must deliver “one message”.

AI responds to this challenge by being participatory. Just as the bulk of its work is carried out by volunteer activists, so too are the movement's fundamental policies set by the same activists. This happens through AI's governing body, the International Council.

International Council

The International Council is a gathering of representatives of all sections. It alone has authority to amend the movement's Statute.

The Council meets every two years, on each occasion in a different city on the invitation of one of the movement's sections. The International Council Meeting involves hundreds of people and lasts for a week or more.

Because it determines AI's mandate and policy, and endorses a plan that sets new priorities for the coming years, each International Council Meeting is a pivotal event in the history of the movement.

In working parties and in plenary assemblies, the International Council debates and makes decisions on resolutions concerning strategy, action, organization, and finance. It receives the accounts and approves the budget, and agrees on the annual financial contributions to be made by each section. It reviews the work of the outgoing International Executive Committee, and it elects eight of the nine members of the incoming International Executive Committee.

International Executive Committee

During the period between meetings of the International Council, its decisions are carried out by the International Executive Committee. At the same time, this body takes overall responsibility for the conduct of AI's affairs.

The International Executive Committee comprises nine members, eight of whom are elected by the International Council. The staff at the International Secretariat elect one member from among themselves.

This board provides guidance to the International Secretariat, monitors the activities of the membership, and generally ensures that AI's mandate, policies, values, and principles are respected and followed.

The Committee meets several times a year. The minutes of its meetings are circulated to all sections.

The International Executive Committee is assisted by permanent standing committees. These committees study, advise, and decide on certain issues relating to:

  • the mandate, ranging from the interpretation of borderline cases to overall mandate review
  • program activities, including campaigning strategy, public information programs, and evaluation of techniques and actions
  • organization, including section establishment and growth, and fund-raising
  • finance, including auditing and financial control

Secretary General

The International Executive Committee appoints the Secretary General. Under its direction, this person is responsible for the day-to-day conduct of the international affairs of the movement.

The Secretary General serves as a primary spokesperson for AI's worldwide membership, representing the movement to governments, international organizations, the news media, and the general public. The Secretary General serves also as the head of the International Secretariat.

International Secretariat

The International Secretariat provides professional expertise and support to the movement. It guides the organization's day-to-day work but is not authorized to make fundamental policy decisions.

The London office employs about 300 paid staff, as well as many volunteers who work on a regular basis. These people come from dozens of countries. Many have been active with AI as volunteers in groups or in sections. Some have themselves been victims of human rights violations.

Reporting to the Secretary General's Office are departments, units, and divisions that:

  • carry out research
  • advise about international law
  • organize approaches to intergovernmental organizations
  • develop strategies and materials for casework, campaigns, and actions
  • write publications and generate worldwide publicity
  • support section and group development, and member training
  • maintain documentation and information systems
  • provide administrative services to the International Council, the International Executive Committee, and the International Secretariat itself

Through the office of the Secretary General, the staff are collectively responsible to the International Executive Committee. In view of the key role of the International Secretariat in the movement as a whole, however, one member of the International Executive Committee is elected directly to that body to represent the staff.

Some of the functions of the International Secretariat are being decentralized to offices outside London. AI maintains permanent representation at the United Nations in New York and in Geneva, and at the European Communities in Brussels, as well as translation units in Paris and in Madrid and an Asian distribution service in Hong Kong. AI will likely establish other such bases as it expands its presence in different parts of the world.

From time to time, the International Secretariat delegates specific tasks to sections. Among these have been responsibility for outreach on human rights issues relating to abuses against women and for the revision of the Amnesty International Handbook.


Sections are coordinating bodies established by members and groups active within a single country.

National coordinating structures can be formally recognized as sections once they have demonstrated to the International Executive Committee that they have the capacity to administer, support, and develop AI campaigning throughout the country or territory.

All sections must have an executive committee or national board that represents the membership of the section and that meets regularly. The board, either directly

or through a permanent office, helps the membership organize into networks, supports and improves group work, plans campaigns, develops contacts with the news media, lobbies the home government, holds national public events, raises funds, and reaches out to professional associations and other bodies.

Different sections respond to the local needs of their members by setting up different kinds of networks, groups, or structures. Many sections have chosen to give considerable autonomy to regional membership structures within their own country or territory.

Annually, each section must report on its activities to the International Executive Committee, and must make a financial contribution to the international movement that is determined by the International Council.

All sections take part in the movement's decision-making in a variety of ways:

  • n they send representatives to the International Council Meeting (the exact number is determined by the number of groups or members in the section)
  • n they contribute to the regular reviews of country, campaigning, and development strategies, and public information policies
  • n they are consulted formally and informally on important issues as they arise

Many sections maintain an office with a professional staff that, like the staff at the International Secretariat, is often drawn from the volunteer sectors of the movement.


The initiative for forming an AI group usually comes from a core of interested individuals who live or work near one another. When these people have decided they wish to be recognized as a group, they apply to the section or, in countries without a section, to the International Secretariat.

Such a “group-in-formation” is trained by the section or by the International Secretariat. Sometimes, experienced members visit the group, or the group members attend training seminars that teach the basics of AI campaigning: media and home government approaches, outreach, public events, and fund-raising. During this period, such a group will often carry out a minimum level of direct campaigning, and will focus on Urgent Action cases, Worldwide Appeals, or, in some countries, Action Bulletin cases.

When the group has shown that it is able to carry out effective and consistent activity _ in particular, to take responsibility for long-term tasks _ the section recommends that the group be accredited with the International Secretariat. In some sections, specific categories of groups (such as letter-writing circles or student clusters) are registered with the section rather than accredited with the International Secretariat.

To operate efficiently, every AI group should have at least five active members. It should assign responsibility for key tasks to individual members. And it should maintain a reliable mailing address.

Every group is expected to report regularly on its activity, to train new members, and to contribute to the financial support of the movement.

Groups take part in the movement's decision-making by answering requests for consultation on organizational and mandate issues. Groups also take part in setting their section's budget and priorities, and in electing its governing body.

Looking forward: the next steps

AI has adopted a long-term strategic vision of its work, a sense of what it would like the organization to have achieved by the beginning of the 21st century.

AI's broad objective is to heighten its capacity for effective intervention to stop human rights violations.

To reach this goal, the movement will aim to mobilize for dynamic action, establish a universal presence, and create an efficient organization.

Dynamic action...

to stop and to prevent violations of human rights

During the 1990s, AI will increase the resources it applies to research so that it

can investigate human rights abuses in those areas of the world, or broad human rights themes, that currently do not receive the level of attention they should. At the same time, it will increase its campaigning resources so that when it learns of a crisis in human rights, it can respond more urgently and forcefully.

In membership campaigning, AI will encourage new and creative approaches, particularly at the local level. It will support

the use of campaigning tactics that can be taken up by anybody _ regardless of the activist's country, culture, or class.

A universal presence...

in all parts of the world, among people from all walks of life

AI will encourage further membership growth in areas outside Western Europe and North America. It will concentrate especially on human rights education projects among young people in developing countries in Asia, Africa, and the Americas.

As part of a more general focus on human rights promotion, AI at all levels will reach out to forge stronger links with other human rights organizations and networks.

In line with its principle of “one movement, one message, many voices”, AI will translate more information into a wider range of languages. To help counter the “London-based” description of the movement in international news media, it will launch regional media initiatives throughout the world and encourage sections and groups to develop a higher profile in their local media.

An efficient organization...

so that AI's resources are used to the best effect

All parts of AI will learn to work more effectively through better planning. The movement will aim to set realistic goals and priorities that are based on the most efficient use of its limited resources. It will evaluate the work it has done and try to learn from it.

As an organization whose core activity is receiving and distributing information, AI will continue to install modern information technologies until by the year 2000 it is at the forefront in this area.

Finally, AI will establish a new framework for participatory decision-making, and will create structures that support democracy, accountability, and efficiency at all levels of the movement.

“What so devastatingly shocked me about the imprisonment of those two now-legendary Portuguese students was that the offence they committed was to utter the one word 'freedom'. So far as I was concerned, freedom was what Amnesty International was going to be about.”

_ Peter Benenson in 1991, on the 30th anniversary of AI

“I believe that world peace can only be achieved when there is freedom for people of all politics, religions and races to exchange their views in a continuing dialogue. For this reason I would particularly ask all those who are working in their different ways towards world peace to make their contribution, preferably by active service or, failing that, by financial contribution, to this great new endeavour called Amnesty International.”

_ Dr. Albert Schweitzer, 1963

“I believe that world peace can only be achieved when there is freedom for people of all politics, religions and races to exchange their views in a continuing dialogue. For this reason I would particularly ask all those who are working in their different ways towards world peace to make their contribution, preferably by active service or, failing that, by financial contribution, to this great new endeavour called Amnesty International.”

_ Dr. Albert Schweitzer, 1963

Section development _ section cooperation

All AI sections, regardless of size, wealth, or status, should see themselves as “developing”.

This means, for example, that members are always learning more effective ways of doing AI work, always recruiting new members, and always adapting their work to changing circumstances.

The movement has set up a system to make it easier for sections to cooperate for their mutual benefit. The short-term assistance to areas of need is designed to enhance the long-term self-sufficiency of the whole movement.

Sections and “pre-section” coordinating structures can apply, through the clearinghouse of the Section Development Committee, for project grants, program funding, and other financial transfers.

The program is administered with the help of the International Secretariat's Membership Unit.