Amnesty International

Better to light a candle than curse the darkness
Amnesty International


Amnesty International has spent decades fighting for free speech and human rights. Now it's expanded its scope to the digital frontier.
Amnesty International
Amnesty International Overview ‧ read
If any organization sets the standard for human rights and free speech advocacy, it’s Amnesty International. The non-governmental organization has been around for over 50 years and has over 7 million members.

Those millions of members include some of the world’s most famous people. Stephen Colbert, Madonna, Justin Bieber and Adele are among its influential supporters.

Amnesty was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977 and became the world’s largest independent human rights organization in 2005. It has influenced the United Nation’s position on torture and human rights and campaigns against violence against women, the use of child soldiers, and other important issues.

But what about digital rights? In recent years, Amnesty International has also campaigned at the digital frontier and promoted the importance of online free speech and privacy.

A toast to liberty: Amnesty International’s beginnings

Amnesty was founded in 1961 by the British lawyer Peter Benenson. While traveling on the London Underground a year earlier, Benenson had read a newspaper report of two Portuguese students who had been imprisoned for making a “toast to liberty”. Benenson was so outraged that he launched an appeal in Britain to free them, as well as other prisoners of conscience, in what was called the “Appeal for Amnesty, 1961.”

The appeal turned out to be the start of something much bigger. In organizing what soon became known as “Amnesty,” Benenson put together a team of researchers and campaigners devoted to human rights. Their work uncovered many more cases of people “imprisoned, tortured or executed because his opinions or religion are unacceptable to his government.”

The organization was officially named Amnesty International on September 30, 1962. In 1963, Amnesty International got its first big result: the release of Ukrainian Archbishop Josyf Slipyj from a Siberian jail.

Amnesty action through the years

From the 1960s to the present day, Amnesty has continued to grow in size and influence. By the end of the ‘60s, Amnesty had become an official consultant of the UN, the Council of Europe, and UNESCO.

In 1977, Amnesty was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its “defence of human dignity against torture, violence, and degradation,” which “constitutes a very real contribution to the peace of this world.”

In the 1980s, governments whose actions Amnesty had campaigned against began to criticize the NGO. The then-USSR accused AI of espionage, Morocco denounced it as “a defender of lawbreakers,” and Argentina banned Amnesty’s annual report in 1983.

Amnesty International’s membership reached 7 million in the 1990s, but it continued to face opposition to its work. Some newspapers and magazines blocked Amnesty’s advertisements because the companies they exposed were also paying advertisers. Newspapers have continued to reject Amnesty’s ads in recent years. An Anti-Shell Oil ad, timed to coincide with Shell’s annual general meeting, was pulled by the Financial Times in 2010.

Since 2000, Amnesty’s focus has shifted to the effects of globalization and the erosion of human rights following the 9/11 attacks. Amnesty International’s work has broadened to include economic, cultural, and social rights, such as the right to privacy and free speech. Amnesty has also clashed with the U.S. government over prison camp Guantanamo Bay, which it called “the gulag of our times.”

Amnesty takes on the digital frontier

Amnesty continues to fight for freedom of expression; its work has always “supported and protected people who speak out – for themselves and for others.” Today Amnesty International’s work also covers digital communications.

In 2014, Amnesty launched Detekt, a tool for journalists and human rights defenders to scan their PCs for surveillance software known to target and monitor activists: “Governments are increasingly using dangerous and sophisticated technology that allows them to read activists and journalists’ private emails and remotely turn on their computer’s camera or microphone to secretly record their activities. They use the technology in a cowardly attempt to prevent abuses from being exposed.”

Governments are increasingly using dangerous and sophisticated technology [...] in a cowardly attempt to prevent abuses from being exposed.

How you can join Amnesty International’s fight online

Amnesty International has embraced the internet and social media as a way of campaigning for human rights. The organization has a page of resources for people who want to support Amnesty online. You can join, volunteer, take action, and promote Amnesty via social media at its Get Involved page. Amnesty mobile

In March 2014, Amnesty took over dating app Tinder for a day to promote its women’s rights campaign.

Amnesty is the benchmark for digital rights campaigners

We’ve profiled many organizations that campaign for online freedoms, such as Access Now, Fight for the Future, and The Internet Defense League. Those fearless activists have achieved great things in defending our rights. But what shape would these organizations be in if Peter Benenson hadn’t started Amnesty International back in 1961? Would they even exist?

As well as freeing many “prisoners of conscience” and defending world peace, Amnesty has paved the way for other organizations to protect our internet rights. And now Amnesty is helping to protect the internet too.

There’s no other organization like Amnesty International, and we’re eternally grateful it’s around.

Tinder image: Amnesty International/PR