Amnesty International was founded by the British lawyer and activist Peter Benenson. In March 1961 Benenson, moved by a newspaper report of two Portuguese students incarcerated for criticizing the regime of their nation's dictator Antonio Salazar, published in a London newspaper an editorial titled “The Forgotten Prisoners.” In it, Benenson urged readers to join his “Appeal for Amnesty in 1961” campaign to aid political dissidents and prisoners of conscience worldwide. As part of the campaign, groups were organized in several countries, including the United States. At a 1962 conference in Belgium, these groups formally joined as one organization, Amnesty International (AI).
Since the time of its founding, AI has presented itself as an ideologically disinterested and apolitical organization. AI maintains that it “does not support or oppose any government or political system, nor does it support or oppose the views of the victims whose rights it seeks to protect. It is concerned solely with the impartial protection of human rights.”
During the Cold War, however, AI focused scant attention on the human rights abuses committed by the Soviet Union and its satellites via the Warsaw Pact. Only in 1975, fully 13 years after its formation, did the organization finally release a report -- “Prisoners of Conscience in the USSR” -- documenting the plight of political prisoners behind the Iron Curtain. In its own defense, AI maintained that its work was complicated by the lack of access to prisoners in the Communist world, and by the possibility that its activism might trigger retaliation against political prisoners by the ruling authorities.
The consequences of this approach were evident in AI’s assessment of human rights in Communist Cuba, where throughout the 1970s the organization underestimated the number of political prisoners while offering only mild criticism of the Castro regime’s persecution of political opponents. An AI annual report for 1976, for instance, noted that the “persistence of fear, real or imaginary, was primarily responsible for the early excesses in the treatment of political prisoners.” This cautiously diplomatic approach to the Castro dictatorship did not prevent AI from being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize the following year. In his acceptance lecture, Mumtaz Soysal, a little-known professor from Turkey, hailed what he called AI’s mission “to spotlight the victims in every society where imprisonment results from political or religious belief …”
A grossly disproportionate share of Amnesty International's criticism is reserved for the United States. In the 1980s AI joined leftist non-governmental organizations like the Church World Service and Americas Watch in vocally opposing the Reagan administration’s support for the Contra resistance movement against Nicaragua’s Communist dictatorship.
In recent years, AI has emerged as a vocal critic of the U.S.-led war on terror, opposing especially the American-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. AI's University of Oklahoma chapter endorsed a May 1, 2003 document titled "10 Reasons Environmentalists Oppose an Attack on Iraq," which was published by Environmentalists Against War.
AI has also condemned the U.S.-operated detention facilities in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. In March 2005, Amnesty International-USA's then-Executive Director William Schulz alleged that the United States had become "a leading purveyor and practitioner" of torture and urged that senior American officials -- including President Bush, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, former Central Intelligence Agency director George Tenet, and high-ranking officers at Guantanamo Bay -- face prosecution by other governments for violations of the Geneva Conventions and the U.N. Convention Against Torture. On May 25, 2005, Schulz announced that his organization "calls on foreign governments to uphold their obligations under international law by investigating all senior U.S. officials involved in the torture scandal.” "The apparent high-level architects of torture," he added, "should think twice before planning their next vacation to places like Acapulco or the French Riveria because they may find themselves under arrest as Augusto Pinochet famously did in London in 1998." Schulz’s remarks were echoed in May of 2005 by Amnesty International's Secretary General Irene Khan, who charged that “Guantanamo [Bay] has become the gulag of our times…”
In a 2002 report, AI admonished the Immigration and Naturalization Service for its policy, instituted after the 9/11 attacks, of “prolonged detention for minor immigration infractions” -- though it neglected to note that such a policy, had it been in place prior to September 11, 2001, might have exposed the three 9/11 hijackers who were in the United States illegally, including two who already had previous immigration violations). In its report, AI placed the word "terrorism" in scare quotes, suggesting that it questioned the serious nature of the phenomenon.
In AI’s calculus, the PATRIOT Act counterterrorism legislation “undermines the human rights of Americans and non-citizens, and weakens the framework for promoting human rights internationally.” In 2004 Irene Khan condemned the “security agenda promulgated by the U.S. Administration,” calling it “bankrupt of vision and bereft of principle.” Khan further claimed that America had “openly eroded human rights to win the ‘war on terror.’”
Amnesty International was a signatory to a March 17, 2003 letter exhorting members of the U.S. Congress to oppose Patriot Act II on grounds that it "contain[ed] a multitude of new and sweeping law enforcement and intelligence gathering powers … that would severely dilute, if not undermine, many basic constitutional rights." Fellow signers included the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Immigration Lawyers Association, the American Library Association, the Arab American Institute, the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, the Center for Constitutional Rights, the Immigrant Defense Project of the New York State Defenders Association, the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, the League of United Latin American Citizens, the Mennonite Central Committee, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Council of La Raza, the National Immigration Law Center, the National Lawyers Guild, People for the American Way, and Women Against War.
In addition, Amnesty International has given its organizational endorsement to the Community Resolution to Protect Civil Liberties campaign, which tries to influence city councils to pass resolutions of noncompliance with the provisions of the Patriot Act. Moreover, AI endorsed the Civil Liberties Restoration Act of 2004, which was designed to roll back, in the name of protecting civil liberties, vital national-security policies that had been adopted after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Local chapters of AI were signatories to a February 20, 2002 document, composed by C. Clark Kissinger’s radical group Refuse & Resist (a front organization for the Revolutionary Communist Party), condemning military tribunals and the detention of immigrants apprehended in connection with post-9/11 terrorism investigations. The document charged that the U.S. government had indiscriminately “rounded up” and incarcerated without cause more than 1,500 Arabs, Muslims, and South Asians.
AI was a signatory to a November 1, 2001 document characterizing the 9/11 attacks as a legal matter to be addressed by criminal-justice procedures rather than by military retribution. Suggesting that the hijackers were motivated chiefly by a desire to draw attention to global injustices perpetrated by the United States, this document explained that similar future calamities could be averted only if America would finally begin to “promote fundamental rights around the world.”
AI is an opponent, in all cases, of the death penalty, which it regards as the “ultimate form of cruel and inhuman punishment,” and has repeatedly urged Congress to abolish it. Because the death penalty is currently a legally permitted punishment in the United States, a 2003 AI report characterized the U.S. as part of the "axis of executioners" along with China and Iran.
Another recurring target of disproportionate criticism from Amnesty International is Israel. For example, AI rushed to denounce Israel’s April 2002 military campaign in the Jenin refugee camp. A November 2002 AI report on the events -- bearing the title “Israel and the Occupied Territories, Shielded from Scrutiny: IDF Violations in Jenin and Nablus” -- accused Israel of “serious violations of international human rights or humanitarian law.” Among other criticisms, AI reproached Israel’s allegedly ongoing “occupation” of Jenin, though control of the city had in fact been ceded by Israel to the Palestinian Authority in 1996. The AI report additionally accused the Israeli Defense Forces of using Palestinian civilians as “human shields,” though it was later demonstrated that Palestinian terrorists, rather than Israeli soldiers, had exploited the camp’s residents as shields against incoming fire. In 2004 Irene Khan singled out Israel -- along with Colombia, Indonesia and Pakistan -- as a state exhibiting an “appalling human rights record.”
In the summer of 2006, AI issued a de-contextualized censure of Israel’s retaliatory military campaign against the Lebanese-based terror group Hezbollah. In an August report, AI accused Israeli forces of engaging in "war crimes" such as the “deliberate destruction” of civilian infrastructure in Southern Lebanon, omitting to note that Hezbollah terrorists had initiated the conflict and then intentionally sought refuge amid residential areas.
In May 2007, NGO Monitor released the results of its quantitative analysis of Amnesty International’s 2006 publications and alerts vis a vis human rights violations. According to the study, Israel had been the subject of 63 such Amnesty documents that year, more than any country in the Middle East except Iran. The corresponding numbers for other nations and notable entities in the region were as follows: Sudan (61 documents), Syria (51), Iraq (29), Hezbollah (20), Algeria (19), Tunisia (15), Egypt (13), Jordan (12), the Palestinian Authority (10), Libya (6), Saudi Arabia (6), and Morocco (5).
At a London ceremony in June 2009, AI honored the founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, with its Media Award, in recognition of his expose of hundreds of recent extrajudicial assassinations in Kenya.
In 2011, AI hosted an anti-Israel conference in London titled “Complicity in Oppression: Do the Media Aid Israel?” Organized by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, this event featured an appearance by al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper editor Abdel Bari Atwan, who in 2007 had declared that he would dance “in Trafalgar Square if Iran attacked Israel,” and in 2008 had said that a terrorist attack which killed eight Israeli students at the Mercaz HaRav yeshiva in Jerusalem, “was justified.” A co-sponsor of “Complicity in Oppression" was the Middle East Monitor Online, headed by Daud Abdullah -- a signatory of the Istanbul Declaration stating that the “Islamic Nation” was obliged to “carry on jihad and Resistance” against Israel.
AI has played a major role in advancing the perception of Israel as a human-rights violator. In 2002, for instance, the organization falsely accused Israel of committing “war crimes” in Jenin. Thereafter, Amnesty’s reports formed the basis of charges that Israel was an illegal settler “entity.” Amnesty asked the Obama Administration to “immediately suspend military aid to Israel."
Amnesty has denounced Israel as an "apartheid state" with an “apartheid wall” and “apartheid roads,” which are designed to protect Israelis from Islamic terrorism.
According to YNetNews: "Amnesty’s 'soft war' against the Jews has been crucial in the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, where 3,000 NGOs convinced the United Nations to condemn Israeli 'racism.' Well-known NGOs such as Amnesty International and Save the Children attached their names to the conference. A few weeks later, the Second Intifada broke out."
YNetNews also says: "Amnesty’s played a prominent role at the UN Human Rights Council, where Israel has become a pariah state while major human rights violators enjoy exculpatory immunity, and at the Conference of the Contracting Parties to the Geneva Conventions, where Israel became the first ever state to face a country-specific indictment." In 2011 Frank Johansson, the head of Finland’s branch of AI, called Israel “a scum state.”
In 2006, the year of the Second Lebanon War, AI produced more documents against Israel than on the genocide in Darfur. The organization also played a major role in depicting Mordechai Vanunu, who offered to sell Israel’s nuclear secrets to the highest bidder anywhere in the world, into a hero.
AI's condemnations of Israel also have a strong influence on the various biased reports against Israel submitted at the UN, like the discredited Goldstone Report, and in the campaigns for boycotts, divestment and sanctions against the Jewish State in European courts.
The current Executive Director of Amnesty International is Larry Cox, who succeeded William Schulz in January 2006.
AI has received funding from dozens of foundations, including Agape Foundation, the Bank of America Foundation, the Columbia Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, the JEHT Foundation, the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Minneapolis Foundation, the the Open Society Institute, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Stewart R. Mott Charitable Trust, the Vanguard Public Foundation, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
A small portion of this profile is adapted, with permission, from NGO Monitor.