AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL; Letters that unlock prison doors

Its insignia is a burning candle wrapped in barbed wire. Place 20 of them on a cake this year. Amnesty International (AI), the world's foremost international organization for human rights, is celebrating two decades of existence.

Like many birthdays, the celebration involves that introspective glance into the mirror: a close look at where it stands today, at how far it has come, and where it's going.

For alongside its phenomenal growth in numbers, prestige, and influence has been a parallel rise worldwide in the same forms of repression it was born to combat: torture, execution, unwarranted detention, murder, abduction, unjust imprisonment. Too, a new term, "disappearance," has acquired dark meaning and entered the human-rights vocabulary.

The organization has fought and survived battles over its impartiality -- charges that it is too liberal, that it lashes out at rightist regimes more than leftist. It has weathered pejorative labels: "Western do-gooders," "bandaids," "well- meaning amateurs."

It has had to cope with problems of its ever-growing size and internationality: language and cultural hurdles, and differing political economic approaches to its goals. Today, many within the organization would have it attack causes as well as results, to try to affect the decisions that bring about human-right violations.

Through it all, AI has never flagged in its original intention to keep up the case, at the grass roots, of the individual prisoner of conscience (anyone imprisoned for his or her ideas, race, or religion, as long as he has not used or advocated the use of violence).

Have there been results? Yes. According to Josh Rubenstein, New England coordinator of Amnesty International, USA (AIUSA), of 20,000 cases taken up over 20 years, 17,000 of the people have been freed.

AI officials hasten notm to take credit for those released. "But we obviously play some role in these individual cases," says Vincent McGee, chairman of the board of directors of AIUSA.

While never outgrowing its concern for the individual prisoner, AI has, however, tried on some new clothes: global campaigns against torture (1972) and the death penalty (1977). Both concerns have been part of AI's mandate since the beginning, and elements of both campaigns have since been absorbed into the normal work of its 250,000 members on six continents. A similar campaign on "disappearances," to inform the public and get international agencies to deal with this latest pattern of abuse more comprehensively, will begin in the fall.

Thus, the 20th birthday party finds Amnesty International having passed through adolescence standing tall and strong, a proud and still-growing legacy of the infant idea born in the mind of Peter Benenson, a lawyer, in London.

"Open your newspapers any day of the week," he wrote in his now-famous article "The Forgotten Prisoner," published simultaneously in the Observer (London) and Le Monde (Paris). "You will find a report from somewhere in the world of someone being imprisoned, tortured, or executed because his opinions or religion is unacceptable to his government. . . . The newspaper reader feels a sickening feeling of impotence."

He had just read about two students in Portugal who were arrested in a restaurant and sent to prison for seven years for the "crime" of raising their glasses in a toast to freedom. Infuriated, he wanted to visit the Portuguese Embassy in London to protest against the arrests, but he realized his isolated gesture would accomplish little. The more than 1,000 letters he received in response to his article let to one-year campaign, "Appeal for Amnesty," which a year later (1962) became known as Amnesty International.

Five years after is birth, Amnesty International was operating on a shoestring $50,000-a-year budget in a dingy, fifth-floor office in London's Crane Court, where Sir Isaac Newton had presided over the Royal Society. Peter Benenson, assisted by a staff of eight full-time workers, assigned prisoners to AI's 430 volunteer groups in 20 countries.

By 1970 the budget had grown to $69,000 with an International Secretariat of 19 people, 27 national sections, and 850 groups.

Today, the budget is $3.3 million. The International Secretariat has a staff of 150, and there are 41 national sections (with three or four more waiting to be added), and 2,500 groups.

Headquarters is a gray building behind the recently renovated covent Garden market. The office stretches over four floors, and the staff represents 26 nationalities, speaking more than a dozen languages.

Sean McBride, chairman of the International Executive Committee for 10 years, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1974. The Peace Prize in 1977 went to the organization itself, and the next year Amnesty received the UN Human Rights award. "I know of no other case of government's recognizing the hand that bites them, rather than the hand that feeds them," says Martin Ennals, AI's secretary-general from 1968 until last year.

The 2,500 adoption groups (AGs), usually made up of 10 to 12 members (not every AI member is in an adoption group) are assigned prisoner cases researched by a 60-member team at the London headquarters. Each group receives three dossiers. Ideally, one is from a prisoner in a left-wing country, one from a right-wing country, and one from somewhere in between.

Lights, camera . . . letters: the weapons of moral suasion, strengthened with a potent brew of publicity but carefully worded according to strict guidelines. The targets: governments, prison officials, embassies, and the news media.

"This is the kind of pressure," founder Benenson said, that hits totalitarian regimes "at their most sensitive point, their public image, their trade image, their tourist image."

Each adoption-group member writes two or three letters a month asking for the prisoner's release, along with the embarrassing questions: "Why are the charges?" "Does he have a lawyer?"

Mr. Rubenstein says one recent dossier on a Pakistani prisoner included provisions from the Pakistan Constitution which adoption- group members could quote to officials in their letters. "We are not asking them to uphold US law, we are asking them to uphold their own law and international covenants," he says.

An adoption group never appeals for prisoners in its own country. "This is what gives us our unique clout," Mr. Rubenstein says. "This way, a government cannot claim that an amnesty group in Jakarta or Moscow or Seoul is by definition a challenge to its own authority."

"The idea of releasing prisoners of conscience by writing letters to governments [once] seemed a little pretentious," Mr. Ennals says. But the novelty of the idea has been replaced "in the mind of press and public by an awareness of the accuracy of AI information."

Indeed, a reputation for accuracy is a fundamental goal of the organization, something AI has been striving to build a protect. Without it, the prospect to trying to convince governments that their critics are not only sincere, but also right, is lost.

"Every society is capable of providing and does provide examples of violations of the rights its constitution guarantees," Mr. Ennals says. "All nations have contradictions within their systems which create the tensions which lead to human-rights abuses. AI makes no attempt to offer solutions to economic or political problems, but works to make the violation of human rights more difficult in any political system."

Prisoners taken up by Amnesty who aren't released right away often say AI still made a big difference: They were treated better, were less subject to hearings; they received their mail more often; guards treated them with more respect.

"This is because they [prison officials] were getting evidence every months from, say, New Zealand or Australia that inhibited the government from abusing them more," Mr. Rubenstein says. "Governments like to think they can take a prisoner and put him in a hole somewhere. AI demonstrates these prisoners are not forgotten."

Amnesty has "Prisoner of the Month" and "Prisoner of the Year" campaigns -- high- lighting the plight of the incarcerated by political systems they feel need global attention.

It also regularly puts in play what it calls the "Urgent-Action Network" (UAN). Since some prisoners face acute crises -- threats of execution, tortune, disappearance, or a need for immediate medical attention -- "it just isn't enough to alert a group of 10 people in Peoria to write 10 letters," Mr. Rubenstein says.

Through modern technology, thousands of letters and telegrams can be generated in less than 24 hours. "We've been able to verify that in 50 percent of the cases assigned to UAN, something good happens: prisoner released, execution stayed, medical attention given," he says. Last year, this network handled 248 such cases in 56 countries.

As the number of adoption groups has grown, it has become more and more difficult to assign each one prisoners crossing world ideologies. The fact that prisoners in, say, Chile are easier to document than prisoners in Cuba has also led to charges that AI is not evenhanded in its efforts.

"At a given point it may be possible to have documentation of a thousand prisoners in one country," Mr. McGee says. "But we feel it may not be most effective to assign them all to adoption groups, because there may be morem prisoners in the country next door for which we can't get firm documentation. This shifts public focus toward one country and unbalances the work."

To try to help the cases where firm documentation is not available, AI began "country" and "issue" campaigns about 10 years ago.

Using the well-documented individual prisoner cases as examples of broader violations throughout a given country, AI researchers for six months to a year focus resources to expose a larger pattern of repression. The AI adoption groups are urged to sponsor public discussions, visit embassies, and deal with the press and diplomatic crops to generate international concern.

How do Amnesty researchers get their information?

Diplomatic sources, churches, labor unions, business, press reports, clippings sent by concerned public, and extensive debriefing of refugees and individual travelers.

How can such information be verified?

"Individual researchers will a times have enough background material to be able to judge from corroborating evidence in files," Mr. McGee says. "Usually, three or four kinds of corroborating evidence build the case for a dossier," he says.

"To involve and collaborate with trade unions and professional bodies is to go a long way toward explaining to governments that AI's activities are impartial," says Mr. Ennals, "and motivated only by internationally accepted objectives. . . ."

Besides AI's expansion into "disappearance" cases, the whole range of members' work is widening.

"We now have a situation where instead of each adoption group working on three individual prisoners, AGs very often have just one, maybe two," Mr. McGee says. "Meanwhile, AG members do work on torture, death-penalty, and country campaigns, involving themselves in public education, fundraising, membership drives. So if you joined today, you would have a much broader range of activities at your group level."

Extending its concern beyond the individual prisoner has generated concern, both within and without, the AI is becoming more political. "As we expand the techniques that we use away from focus on the individual prisoner and begin to get into areas which sometimes inevitably bring us to root causes, there is anxiety that we began to be perceived as more political and making value judgments about certain situations in countries, so we have to be very careful," Mr. McGee says.

So it was that in 1978, after Amnesty began the deathpenalty campaign, William F. Buckley Jr., a longtime member of AI's National Advisory Council, resigned. He wrote in his National Review:

"The decision of Amnesty International to go for the abolition of capital punishment is stupid in the most unforgivable sense of the word," he wrote. "It is a triumph of ideology over compassion. . . .

"Those who believe that capital punishment is a legitimate exercise of social authority, but who believe that the punishment of the individual conscience is not, are going to have to suspend their support of an agency who has done so much . . . to help lonely men and women in every area of the world who have never committed a crime but who suffer for having expressed their opinion. Now suddenly they find that they are in a common pool, laboring over objects of the compassion of AI that suddenly include the Black Septembrist or the Japanese Red Army member sentenced to death."

One other charge that AI is constantly faced with is that it has a liberal bias -- although it has been more successful in recent years in avoiding that charge.

In a 1974 National Review article, George H. Nash demonstrated that there many liberals on Amnesty's board of directors. The New Republic (May 23, 1981) says that is still the case. AI's response:

"It is true that the majority of people involved with AI on a day-to-day basis as volunteers would have to be classified to the left of center," says Mr. McGee. "The unique thing about the organization is that all of these people understand that our effectiveness means we stick to the guns while working with AI on a nonideological, nonpolitical basis across the board."

Does AI favor exposing rightist regimes to those of the left?

"This a question of public perception rather than the fact of our work," Mr. McGee says. He says it can be a matter of how "hot" a given area of the world is in the news of the moment.

Two years ago, he says, when Amnesty released a report on Guatemala, the Guatemalan government claimed Amnesty members were agents of the British Crown. The government said AI wasn't paying attention to problems in Northern Ireland, and that it never paid attention to communist or leftist countries.

"I showed the Guatemalan ambassador in Washington, D.C., AI reports from just the past three years -- a major report and follow-up on the Soviet Union, a report on China, Cuba, twom on Northern Ireland," Mr. McGee says. "There may have been more of a public perception of unfairness because Guatemala was more in the news at that time."

"Guatemala also claims we're communist," Mr. Rubenstein says. "Well, the Soviets say we are the leading antisocialist organization in the world, funded by US imperialism. Ethiopians and East Germans say the same thing. We feel that if allm these governments are uncomfortable with us, we are doing the right thing. Because our job ism to make governments uncomfortable."

AI has also strived to eliminate claims of uneven documentation. The critical Nash article pointed out that the 1973 AI annual report on tortune had a 25-page case study on Greece, but only two pages on China, and one paragraph on North Korea.

"We admit this is still a problem," Mr. McGee says. "We do what we can on specific situations about which we can get documentation. That doesn't mean we make a value judgment that one country is more or less serious than another on which we've done little work." He says this is why AI never compares countries or rates one as being better or worse than another.

"We were 10 years in China documenting a report that became dated when China opened up diplomatically at the same time. That doesn't mean we are not attempting, within our limited resources, to get as much information as we can," he explains.

Little solace to critic Nash: "The fact that AI's own report acknowledges tortune in Greece has received 'clearly a disproportionate amount' of attention relative to tortune worldwide -- this fact is apt to be lost in the general uproar about Greece."

Describing the growth of Amnesty International in the '70s, Mr. Ennals says AI has had to still the doubts of those who saw it as a tool of right or left; as an emanation of a Western liberal ethic; or as a well-meaning body of amateurs playing at international do-goodism.

"The critics of AI will always use such arguments. But the pattern of the criticism and of the movement's programs is today so well recognized that AI no longer has to defend its existence, only its standards of accuracy and impartiality."

As AI enters the '80s, it recognizes the active participation an AI by interested organizations and individuals in Eastern Europe, China, the Soviet Union, Vietnam, and Cuba is long overdue.

"There is a danger than unless AI makes a conscious effort to avoid it, the support for AI will come in some countries only from movements sometimes called 'dissident,'" Mr. Ennals observes. Unless the distinction can be made that AI members are not responsible for AI activity in their own country, many in the government framework who would willingly work toward AI objectives may stay away.

The organization has remained very much rooted in the wealthy countries of the North, with small tentacles slowly reaching the South. Although it was a point of principle from the beginning to have sections in Asia, Latin America, and Africa, differences in culture, finance, and attitude toward nongovernmental organizations "have not always been appreciated in practical terms," Mr. Ennals says.

"In Latin America, there are sections of AI in Mexico, Peru, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Costa Rica," he says. "Yet much remains to be achieved in seeking and finding the type of activities to help prisoners which can best be carried out from these areas."

AI's own summary for the challenge of the coming years:

* Improve at all levels the gathering and using of information about prisoners whose cases come under AI mandate.

* Find the ways whereby AI members, associates, and supporters, regardless of economic resources, can work on behalf of those prisoners.

* Find ways to convince those governments and peoples that human rights are universal and that their protection demands a universally shared responsibility.

* Find ways to raise the level of awareness of human rights to the point that knowledge is positive and mobile among agencies and peoples.

"There is and always has been debate that AI is only a bandaid, that the real issues are economic oppression or US- Soviet imperialism, and that we should be condemning those issues and not just supporting individual cases," Mr. Rubenstein says. But I think what makes AI unique is that we focus on the individual and don't pretend to make political judgments. If people want to know what we think of a government or a political system, they should just read our literature. Governments that imprison prople for circulating literature or following prayer meetings deserve condemnation."

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