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World: Amnesty International 40 Years Old This Year

Amnesty International, a worldwide monitor of governmental human rights violations, is 40 years old this year. RFE/RL correspondent Don Hill traces the organization's history and finds that a kind of spontaneous combustion kindled the fire of the influential non-governmental agency in London in 1961.

Prague, 31 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- In 1961, lawyer Peter Benenson heard a sad tale of two Portuguese students who had been jailed after raising wine glasses in a toast to freedom.

On 28 May of that year, he published an article, "The Forgotten Prisoners," in Britain's "The Observer" weekly newspaper. In the article he made an appeal for amnesty. That was the spark that flared into a worldwide fire that has come to be known as Amnesty International, or AI.

In the 40 years since, the British-based AI has won the admiration of human rights advocates in every corner of the world and received official recognition from the United Nations. It has also been the object of hatred for rulers from Uganda's Idi Amin in the 1970s to Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini in the 1980s, as well as from contemporary governments in China, Russia, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

In a package of press materials distributed on the occasion of its anniversary, AI proudly includes a page of quotations from some of the enemies it has made over time. Here's a sampling:

-- Amin, 1975: "Amnesty International [has] blackmailed over 100 nations of the world."

-- Khomeini, 1981: "All the lackeys of satanic powers, like Amnesty International, [are] trying to suffocate the Islamic republic."

What the organization does both to anger its detractors and please its supporters is to search out what it considers violations of human rights everywhere and then describe them publicly in no-compromise language.

Here's AI researcher Abbas Faiz on the ultimate goal of the organization:

"Amnesty has achieved some successes in the past 40 years, but the challenge for the future is to eliminate the need for organizations like Amnesty to exist. In today's world it is very easy to be immune to reports of torture. But we must remember that as we are speaking now someone is likely to be being tortured." AI says that it has grown from a membership of one, its founder, in 1961 to more than a million members, subscribers, and regular donors in more than 140 countries and territories.

The organization began with a self-designed mandate to expose violations of human rights -- especially illegal imprisonment and mistreatment of prisoners -- by governmental authorities. It soon expanded its perceived mission to attacking violations not only by governments but also by opposition groups and by private citizens and organizations.

AI has been responsible for fixing new terms and concepts of human rights in the public consciousness.

Amnesty archives have on file the sound of demonstrators in Chile last year protesting against the return of former dictator Augusto Pinochet from Britain after extradition hearings initiated by Spain. British authorities arrested him in London in October 1998. AI was a party to the hearings and publicized internationally the then-untested principle of "universal jurisdiction" in cases of human rights violations.

Another human rights principle that AI helped establish worldwide is that of "impunity." Amnesty analyst Ivan Fiser defines the term:

"Impunity to us means the failure to bring to justice those who are responsible for torture and ill treatment, the most serious human rights violations that we work on."

The principle of impunity allows human rights advocates to hold governments responsible for violations committed by low-level offenders and even by private persons and groups with no official authority. It holds that the failure of governments to protect their citizens from abuse, or to investigate reports of police torture or other misbehavior, or failing to prosecute violators is itself a state human rights offense.

Amnesty published its first annual report in 1962. In its Year 2000 report, issued yesterday, it points a blunt finger at tiny tyrannies and major powers alike, at formerly communist countries, at third world dictatorships, and at Western democracies.

The report decries U.S. states' penchant for imposing the death penalty, recording that the principal state executioners are Saudi Arabia, the United States, China, and Iran. It says that 88 percent of the known 1,457 legalized executions last year took place in these countries.

The report also says that Russia committed "grave crimes on a massive scale" against civilians in Chechnya last year, that Chechnya was the backdrop for a general disregard for the rule of law and for increased restrictions on civil liberties throughout Russia. It says that Afghanistan's ruling Taliban engaged in abuses ranging from torture to kidnapping and the suppression of women. It says the Taliban forcibly uprooted populations as a deliberate tactic. China, says the report, last year repressed basic freedoms throughout the country, using arbitrary detention, unfair trials, executions, and torture.

In recent years, the organization has graduated from its role as a mere observer, reporter, and opponent of human rights violations to adopt a more activist posture.

Among the programs AI has adopted are teaching projects to promote awareness of the rights of minorities among police and private people in Central Europe. It is actively lobbying for the creation of an International Criminal Court.