Amnesty International

Overall its mission is “to undertake research and action focused on preventing and ending grave abuses of the rights to physical and mental integrity, freedom of conscience and expression, and freedom from discrimination, within the context of its work to promote all human rights."


Amnesty International is an organization that works to protect human rights with over 1.8 million members in over 150 countries and territories across the globe.  It prides itself on being non-partial to government, religion or economics (Amnesty International USA).

Amnesty International’s mission is “to undertake research and action focused on preventing and ending grave abuses of the rights to physical and mental integrity, freedom of conscience and expression, and freedom from discrimination, within the context of its work to promote all human rights” (ibid.).

Amnesty International is a democratic, self governing movement, answering only to its own worldwide membership. All policy decisions are taken by elected bodies. Major policy decisions are taken by an International Council consisting of representatives from all the countries where Amnesty International members are organized into groups and national sections. They elect an International Executive Committee of volunteers which carries out their decisions and appoints the movement's Secretary General, who is also head of the International Secretariat, the main Amnesty International Headquarters in London (ibid.).

Historic Roots

Peter Benenson, a British lawyer, founded Amnesty International in 1961.  Benenson had heard about two Portuguese men who were arrested and in the process of receiving seven-year prison sentences for simply raising their glasses in a toast to freedom.  Because of this, he decided to take action on behalf of these prisoners.  “It was necessary to think of a larger group which would harness their enthusiasm of people all over the world who were anxious to see a wider respect for human rights” said Benenson (Amnesty International (1)). 

Benenson wrote an article titled, “The Forgotten Prisoners” on the front page of the London Observer on May 21, 1961.  This appeal spoke out against all people imprisoned because of peaceful expression of their beliefs, politics, race, religion, color, or national origin.   He called these people, "prisoners of conscience” (Amnesty International (2)). 

Benenson’s plan was to encourage people to write letters to government officials in countries which had prisoners of conscience to ask for their release.  After that, newspapers in more than twelve countries ran the appeal.  The appeal gained so much attention that over one thousand letters were sent on behalf of the two Portuguese prisoners (ibid.). 

As a result of this public outcry, Belgium, United Kingdom, France, Germany, United States, Switzerland and Ireland sent delegates to establish a “permanent international movement in defense of freedom of opinion and religion.”  Later in 1962, these countries, along with several others, decided to set up a permanent organization called Amnesty International (ibid.). 


Amnesty International’s membership exceeds 1.8 million people worldwide.  The organization was the winner of the 1974 Nobel Peace Prize and the United Nations Human Rights Award in 1978 (Amnesty International USA).

Historically, the main focus of Amnesty International's campaigning has been to free all prisoners of conscience; ensure a prompt and fair trial for all political prisoners; abolish the death penalty, torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; end extrajudicial executions and "disappearances;" and fight impunity by working to ensure perpetrators of such abuses are brought to justice in accordance with international standards (ibid.).   

However, over the years, Amnesty International has expanded their focus to include human rights abuses committed by non governmental bodies and private individuals (non state actors). The organization opposes abuses by armed political groups (in control of territory or operating in opposition to governments), such as hostage taking, torture and unlawful killings. It opposes human rights abuses against civilians and non combatants by both sides during armed conflict. Amnesty International has also targeted abuses in the home or community where governments have been complicit or have failed to take effective action (ibid.). 

It is also very important to note that the organization receives no funds from any type of government.  This allows Amnesty International to work on behalf of the victims and their families without any obligations (ibid.). 

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Amnesty International is the largest human rights organization in the world with enormous ties to the philanthropic sector.  Its funding depends on the contributions of its worldwide membership and fundraising activities.  In 2004, Amnesty International USA’s contributions from individuals totaled over $32 million; grants from foundation totaled over $300,000; donated services were worth nearly $7 million; literature and merchandise sales equaled over $300,000; list rental provided over $200,00; media award and miscellaneous income totaled over $600,000; conference fees and regional fundraising was over $90,000; and total operating revenue totaled over $40 million (ibid.). 

However, members provide not only monetary donations, but also a voice.  This voice is powerful and has provided freedom to thousands of prisoners throughout its time.  When human rights are neglected, Amnesty researchers do extensive background work to determine the facts of the particular situation.  If they decide that action is needed, they mobilize their membership by sending out mass email, literature and contact the media about the current situation. It is then that the true “philanthropy” happens…members unite to put pressure on the governments to do something to stop this neglect of human rights.  This might be through phone calls, emails, petitions, letters, candlelight vigils or peaceful protests (ibid.). 

Amnesty International also helps educate the general public on current situations involving human rights.  Some of their recent campaigns are called Stop Torture, Control Arms, Stop Violence Against Women, Child Soldiers, International Justice and The Death Penalty (ibid.).  

Key Related Ideas

Amnesty is the act of an authority by which pardon is granted to a large group of individuals (Webster 1963).

Human Rights are those basic standards that without, people cannot live in dignity (ibid.).  

Universal Declaration of Human Rights was written and approved on December 10, 1948, which was adopted by the United Nations to declare individual rights worldwide, regardless of politics or geography (ibid.).  

Important People Related to the Topic

  • Peter Benenson (1921-2005): Benenson was the founder of Amnesty International ((Amnesty International USA).

  • Ginetta Sagan:  The late Ginetta Sagan, was a founder of Amnesty International USA and a former Honorary Chairperson of the Board of Amnesty International USA.  For more than 50 years she was a champion and fighter for human rights for the interests of all people, especially women and children. Every year Amnesty International USA honors Ginetta Sagan through the Ginetta Sagan Award (ibid.).  

  • Rick Halperin:  Halperin was elected Chair of the Amnesty International USA's Board in 2005. He is a human rights educator and longtime activist who has lobbied with abolitionist organizations on the frontlines of the struggle against the death penalty in Texas, elsewhere in the United States and abroad (ibid.).  

  • Sean MacBride (1904-1988):  MacBride was an Irish activist and the chairperson of the International Executive Council beginning in 1963.  He  saw the organization through tremendous years of growth and was the winner of the 1974 Nobel Peace Prize (ibid.).  

  • Dr. William F. Schulz:  Schulz was appointed Executive Director of Amnesty International (USA) in March 1994. Dr. Schulz is the author of several books, including In Our Own Best Interests: How Defending Human Rights Benefits Us All by Beacon Press (ibid.).  

Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • American Civil Liberties Union helps protect citizen's right to freedom of speech, equal protection under the law, due process, and privacy (

  • Advocacy Project was formed in 1998 to help community based advocates for peace and human rights.  They help NGOs and networks become self sufficient in the use of information and communications technologies ( 

  • Human Rights First was established in 1978 and is a leading human rights advocacy organization based in New York City and Washington, DC. The organization works in the United States and abroad to advance justice, human dignity, and respect for the law (

Related Web Sites

Amnesty International Web site, at, provides a wealth of information on the organization, its history, mission and current campaigns.  In addition, the site provides News, a Library, Resources and Links, and information on ways to become a member and get involved.

Amnesty International USA Web site, at,  provides a look at current campaigns and gives information on becoming a member and getting involved.  The Action Center urges support and offers briefings on urgent case where prisoners need help.  The site also provides links to over member 150 countries’ Web sites.

United Nations Web site, at, Daily Briefings, Maps, Publications, and information on Peace and Security, Economic and Social Development, Human Rights, Humanitarian Affairs, and International Law. 

Bibliography and Internet Sources

 Amnesty International (1).  “Peter Benenson, 1921-2005:  Founder of Amnesty International.” Amnesty International (2005): 3.

Amnesty International (2).  Historical Timeline.  Accessed on July 5 2005.

Amnesty International USA.  About Amnesty International.  Accessed 31 December 2005.

Webster.  (1963).  Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary.  Springfield, MA:  G & C Merriam Company Publishers. 

This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at Ferris State University - Grand Rapids Campus. It is offered by Learning To Give and Ferris State University - Grand Rapids Campus.