A Candle in the Darkness — Amnesty Turns 50

  • by Portia Crowe (united nations)
  • Inter Press Service

The symbolic salute paid tribute to two Portuguese students who, 50 years ago, were imprisoned for toasting to liberty, and whose story inspired Peter Benenson to found the global human rights watchdog and demand justice for Prisoners of Conscience around the world.

<a href='http://www.amnesty.org/en/50' target='_blank' class='notalink'>Anniversary celebrations</a> took place in nearly 60 countries, from Argentina to Ghana to Turkey to New Zealand, and in London's Trafalgar Square, Amnesty International Secretary-General Salil Shetty gave a public address.

'We can offer something that the forces of repression can never contain or silence: people united in common action; the sharp and powerful rallying of public opinion; the lighting of one candle at a time until millions of candles expose injustice, and create pressure for change,' Shetty said, in reference to the wave of popular uprisings known as the Arab Spring.

The world's largest human rights organisation, Amnesty International was kickstarted in 1961 when Benenson published 'The Forgotten Prisoners' in The Observer newspaper and launched a global campaign called 'Appeal for Amnesty 1961'. He opened a small office in London and held an international meeting to establish a permanent movement in defence of freedom of opinion and religion.

By 1964 the organisation had gained consultative status at the United Nations, and in 1977 it received the Nobel Peace Prize for 'having contributed to securing the ground for freedom, for justice, and thereby also for peace in the world'.

Today, Amnesty International, or AI, has grown to have more than three million members and 500 staff working in over 150 countries worldwide.

It works closely with the United Nations and other non-governmental organisations (NGOs) like the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch.

'We see Amnesty as an indispensable ally in promoting and protecting human rights around the world,' Iain Levine, deputy executive director (programmes) at Human Rights Watch, told IPS.

Levine, who was also Amnesty International's representative at the United Nations for three years, described 'a very close relationship and a very important partnership' between the two organisations.

'The basic principles and values that underpin what we both do — which are essentially international human rights law, international humanitarian law, the laws of war, refugee law — are really extremely similar,' he said.

Past AI campaigns have focused on arms control, international justice, security, abolition of the death penalty, and demanding dignity to enable the world's poor to claim their rights.

'We continue that kind of work; it's sort of become part of the DNA of the organisation,' Jose Luis Diaz, Amnesty International's current representative at the United Nations, told IPS. 'It's such an integral part of the organisation,' he added.

More recently, the organisation has campaigned against torture, violence against women, small arms, and HIV/AIDS.

This year, Amnesty International is paying particular attention to the turbulent uprisings in the Arab world. It sent staff on the ground across the Middle East to collect information and, in turn, make that information available to the international community.

It has also campaigned for intervention at the highest international levels.

'In Libya, we called for the referral of the situation to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court,' Diaz told IPS.

That endeavour came to realisation on May 16 when the International Criminal Court (ICC) chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo issued an arrest warrant for Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

But AI activists are demanding the same justice for Syria.

'We're particularly concerned right now with what's happening in Syria,' Diaz said. The organisation is calling on the United Nations Security Council to refer Syria's situation to the ICC as well.

'We think that the failure to do that is sending entirely the wrong message about accountability,' Diaz said.

This year, AI will also campaign for freedom of expression, reproductive rights for women and girls in Nicaragua, international justice in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and corporate accountability in the Niger Delta.

To Levine, Amnesty International's uniqueness is in its ability to rapidly mobilise millions of members in grassroots activism.

'They can really demonstrate the universality of human rights and of the human rights movement through how they work on a daily basis,' he said.

But the organisation does not go without criticism. Sri Lankan politician Gamini Lakshman Peiris has accused Amnesty International of selectivity, inconsistency, and applying a discriminatory bias in its human rights advocacy.

Diaz, however, said that 'even the most cursory, but genuine, evaluation of AI's work, as reflected in its reports, research and statements, will tell you that we look at how human rights are respected or violated throughout the world in a consistent and unbiased manner.'

'We are funded by membership fees and donations — not government money — and, as our public and regular reporting demonstrates, we are absolutely transparent about how we work and what our priorities are,' he added.

To commemorate its landmark birthday, Amnesty International is launching a new Global Call for Action, including a digital 'Earth Candle' designed to illuminate the actions taken by activists around the world. It is symbolic of the proverb, 'better to light a candle than curse the darkness', which inspired Benenson 50 years ago.

AI will also pioneer a new slogan, 'Be one more, ask one more, act once more,' urging supporters to encourage at least one more person to take action for human rights.

'I think that's hugely important, that ability to mobilise people in one part of the world to care about people in the other part of the world for no reason,' Levine said, reflecting on Amnesty International's greatest accomplishments.

'There is a recognition of their shared humanity and their shared commitment to human rights advancement — and that's very powerful,' he added.

© Inter Press Service (2011) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service