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What is Amnesty International?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 07 October 2014
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Amnesty International is a nongovernmental organization which coordinates efforts on behalf of human rights around the world. A major force behind letter writing campaigns, marches, and other coordinated efforts, Amnesty International has been fighting for human rights since 1961. The organization believes that coordinated efforts on behalf of other humans can make a difference, and that fighting against injustice is a moral imperative.

Amnesty International was begun in 1961 by Peter Benenson, an English lawyer who launched an “Amnesty '61” campaign on behalf of two Portuguese students who had been imprisoned for making a political toast over glasses of wine. He wrote a passionate appeal which was printed in newspapers worldwide, and in July of that year delegates from several nations met, starting Amnesty International. These delegates agreed to “adopt” political prisoners from other nations, lobbying for their release on humanitarian grounds. On 10 December, a candle for amnesty was lit in St. Martins in the Field's, London, to commemorate Human Rights Day.

Amnesty International took off, sending missions all over the world to meet with prisoners and achieving liberation for 140 people by 1963. The staff of the organization quickly grew, with many lawyers and public officials donating time and efforts on behalf of Amnesty International. In 1965, the organization began the Postcards for Prisoners Campaign, which sends postcards of encouragement to political prisoners all over the world.

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Amnesty International proved to be a forceful and effective organization, releasing more political prisoners every year including many prominent individuals. To express their thanks, these individuals in turn adopted prisoners and encouraged global citizens to speak out against human rights violations and “prisoners of conscience,” another term for political prisoners. Amnesty International was recognized by the United Nations in 1969 as a vital human rights organization.

In 1974, Sean McBride, Chair of the International Executive committee, received a Nobel Peace Prize. In that same year, Amnesty International posted a public list of those who had been “disappeared” under Chile's Agusto Pinochet. Accompanying the list was a public exposé of political and social conditions in Chile. In 1977, Amnesty International as an organization received another Nobel Prize in recognition for the contribution to global human rights.

Amnesty International continues to be active for human rights, launching numerous education campaigns and exposing human rights violations around the world with the assistance of numerous regional chapters. Thousands of political prisoners have been released due to efforts by Amnesty International, which believes in the core rights set forth by the United Nations in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

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