Amnesty International was founded in 1961 by Peter Benenson, a British lawyer. It was originally his intention to launch an appeal in Britain with the aim of obtaining an amnesty for prisoners of conscience all over the world. The committee working for this cause soon found that a detailed documentation of this category of prisoners would be needed. Gradually they realized that the work would have to be carried out on a more permanent basis; the number of prisoners of conscience was enormous and they were to be found in every part of the world.
Amnesty International is a world-embracing movement working for the protection of human rights. It is independent of all governments and is neutral in its relation to political groups, ideologies and religious dividing lines. The movement works for the release of women and men who have been arrested for their convictions, the colour of their skin, their ethnic origin or their faith – provided that they have not themselves used force or exhorted others to resort to violence. It is this category of prisoners that Amnesty International calls “prisoners of conscience”. The movement proclaimed 1977 “Prisoners of Conscience Year” and collected signatures for an appeal addressed to the General Assembly of the United Nations.
To begin with, Amnesty International was a British organization, but in 1963 an international secretariat was established. Seán Mac Bride – later awarded the Nobel peace prize – became chairman of the organization in 1963, at a time when Amnesty International was rapidly expanding. Ten years after its foundation the organization comprised more than 1000 voluntary groups in 28 countries and the figures are steadily rising. In February this year (1977) there were 1874 groups in 33 countries. The present chairman of Amnesty International is the Swede Thomas Hammarberg.
In addition to its work for the prisoners of conscience – “the forgotten prisoners” – Amnesty International has also carried on campaigns against torture and ill-treatment as well as – in recent years – against capital punishment. In the statutes adopted by the organization in 1974 these three tasks are named as the most important ones for Amnesty International.
By Amnesty International
Amnesty International 1994. London: Amnesty International Publication, 1994.
Larsen, Egon. A Flame in Barbed Wire. New York: Norton, 1979.
Power, Jonathan. Amnesty International. The Human Rights Story. New York: McGraw Hill, 1981. (Well-illustrated journalistic account.)