Amnesty blows out 50 candles in shadow of identity crisis

27th May 2011, Comments 0 comments

Amnesty International, which turns 50 on Saturday, has expanded from supporting prisoners of conscience into a global human rights watchdog, leaving some wondering if it has lost its sharp focus.

Recognised around the world by its simple logo of a candle wrapped in barbed wire, the organisation started out as a simple letter-writing campaign.

British lawyer Peter Benenson was outraged by the imprisonment of two Portuguese students under the dictatorship of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar for having allegedly toasted freedom.

On May 28, 1961, he wrote an article entitled "The forgotten prisoners" in The Observer newspaper. He urged people to speak up for prisoners of conscience -- and that was the start of Amnesty.

This straightforward approach has not changed in the 50 years since: bombarding the authorities with correspondence, though these days filling up their email accounts as much as their letter boxes.

"Amnesty is like mosquitos buzzing round governments," said Javier Zuniga, who has worked for Amnesty for more than 30 years.

"Our power is nothing other than the power of the pen.

"We put people who suffer in contact with people who care. We have no weapons other than public opinion, and that often works," he told AFP.

Imen Derouiche, a Tunisian arrested in March 1998 under the regime of president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, is living proof of Amnesty's effectiveness.

She was detained for having taken part in a peaceful protest and tortured for five days, when 12 could have been expected.

"Amnesty saved me from at least six or seven days of torture, which for me was the equivalent of six years in prison," she said.

In its 50 years, Amnesty has rallied to the cause of tens of thousands of prisoners, and its work was recognised with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977.

However, in recent years, the London-based organisation, which publishes an annual report into the state of human rights around the world, has started campaigning on new fronts.

"When we started we were very much focusing on issues of torture and prisoners of conscience," said Amnesty secretary general Salil Shetty.

"We are now working on issues of poverty and discrimination and the rights of women or people who are excluded."

"It changed from a very polite approach to human rights in which you wrote letters to governments asking for the release of people, to an organisation which is visible at almost every human rights crisis", explained Stephen Hopgood, author of the book "Keepers of the flame: Understanding Amnesty".

Zuniga argues that this was an essential evolution.

"Once the dictators are gone, people say we have no house, no water, no electricity, no vaccines," he said.

"We cannot say: 'Now that (former Chilean dictator Augusto) Pinochet is gone, for example, we go somewhere else'. We have to be responsive to the new needs of the globe," he added.

However, this strategy concerns some Amnesty supporters.

"I am worried that they will not be able to prove their effectiveness in the way they have done in the previous 40 years," Roger Graef, executive producer of a new documentary entitled: "Amnesty! When They Are All Free", told AFP.

Hopgood also expressed reservations.

"These large-scale issues, like tackling poverty, will be very difficult to achieve," he said.

Amnesty "was now competing with some major human rights organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Save the Children," he said. As a result, he said, the organisation was suffering an identity crisis.

Another challenge facing the group is to diversify the background of its members, argued human rights lawyer Conor Gearty.

Amnesty boasts 3 million members in 150 countries, but the overwhelming majority of these are in North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

"It will be great in the future if Amnesty becomes an organisation that has a genuine global membership", he said.

And that could also go some way to redefining the charity's new identity.

© 2011 AFP

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