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Amnesty International, at 30, Keeps Focus on Individuals

By Jeff SilversteinSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / May 28, 1991



LONDON

IN the winter of 1960, Peter Benenson, a commercial lawyer, read a newspaper article about two Portuguese students in Lisbon who had been imprisoned for seven years for raising their glasses in public in a toast to freedom. Incensed, Mr. Benenson began to ponder ways Portuguese officials could be persuaded to release such victims of injustice.

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His idea, spelled out in an article he wrote for the London Observer in May 1961, was simple: to bombard governments with letters of protest over prisoners of conscience. The response to Benenson's proposal was overwhelming.

Amnesty International was born.

Today, the London-based group marks its 30th year. Amnesty isn't celebrating, but human rights activists might be forgiven for feeling euphoric. Today Western Europe and much of Eastern Europe are free, and world leaders are talking tough about tying aid to human rights practices.

In 1961, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights from 1948 - upon which Amnesty bases its activities - went largely unnoticed. Today, human rights are an important issue. Amnesty International's staff of 260 and its membership of a million people in 60 countries have an annual budget of 11 million British pounds (about $19 million), raised through donations and concerts.

Its technique of publicizing the personal stories of prisoners of conscience (a phrase Amnesty coined) has secured thousands of releases.

Amnesty highlights 30 cases

Despite progress, torture continues in 96 countries - more than half the world's nations. To mark its anniversary, Amnesty is highlighting the cases of 30 people to illustrate the range of its concerns.

They include American Dalton Prejean, a black juvenile offender who was executed in Louisiana last May for the murder of a white police officer, the fourth juvenile offender executed in the United States since the death penalty was reintroduced in the 1970s.

In Turkey, Erhan Tuskan was tried more than 20 times and sentenced to 123 years in jail for ``making communist propaganda'' in the magazine he once edited.

And in China, Wang Xizhe, a pro-democracy activist in the late 1970s, received a 14-year sentence for belonging to a ``counterrevolutionary'' group aimed at ``destroying the one-party dictatorship.''

The campaign, ``No More Excuses,'' is likely to draw fire from governments on the left and the right.

Over the years, various governments have tried to discredit Amnesty International's reports. Two years ago, after a report was released documenting human rights abuses in several states in Brazil, the state governor of Sao Paulo signed more than 100 postcards condemning the report and sent them to Amnesty's London office.

It is Amnesty's commitment to political neutrality, says Benenson, that is the key to its success. Until 1961, the work of human rights groups was afflicted with partisan loyalties.

``I'd been in this work of trying to help political prisoners for a number of years,'' he says, ``and I realized to what extent that work had been made virtually useless because of the political overtones of those who intervened.''

Today, Amnesty International's reports are generally respected, and it has become a resource for governments, international agencies, and human rights activists.

Ian Martin, the secretary-general, has met people who have been subjected to Amnesty letter-writing campaigns. ``You have to understand the effect on some obscure district political official in Africa when he suddenly finds that letters are pouring in from all over the world about a person for whom he is responsible.''

Today, Amnesty is increasingly looking beyond individual prisoners to broader human rights issues. Recently, it published a report on women and torture, and it is currently concentrating on the plight of children. The focus of its work, however, remains largely unchanged.

``I don't think it will ever change,'' Benenson says. ``It will always be bound to the fate of individuals. It wouldn't be able to keep its vast membership if they weren't working for individuals. It's the person-to-person relationship that has built up the movement.''

Organization sees need to adapt

But, he admits, Amnesty must adapt to a changing world, and one of its greatest challenges is the ethnic unrest threatening to disrupt so many countries. ``We must have common agreement within the international community about what exact rights minorities should be allowed to enjoy,'' he says. ``These should be enshrined in an international charter which is enforcable, otherwise what we're going to go on watching is the splitting up of country after country into fragments.''

Equally important will be the linking human rights to aid to developing countries, Benenson says. ``It's a field where all organizations around the world should get together and agree on just what they're asking governments - particularly the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank - to do.''