Working for human rights around the world

Working for human rights around the world

Connie L. Mah

Among the many international organizations for justice, there are groups that focus on advocating universal human rights.

Amnesty International

Amnesty International is one of the most prominent international human rights organizations. It has about 1.8 million members and supporters from more than 150 countries.

Amnesty International was established in 1961, after British lawyer Peter Benenson wrote to the British newspaper, The Observer, to instigate an international publicity campaign called Appeal for Amnesty 1961. This campaign protested the imprisonment of people for their political or religious beliefs (called prisoners of conscience) after two Portuguese students were imprisoned for raising a toast to freedom. Due to its widespread appeal, this campaign quickly developed into a permanent movement that is today known as Amnesty International.

Organizational Structure

Amnesty International is a democratic, self-governing international movement. The organization’s structure includes an International Council comprised of representatives from national sections that determines policy decisions such as strategy, setting the organization’s vision, and establishing systems and bodies of governance (elected bodies) for implementing its objectives.

Amnesty International promotes human rights on an international scale by undertaking research and investigating violations of human rights, by campaigning against human rights violations, and by promoting the education of internationally recognized standards of human rights.

Undertaking Research and Investigating Violations of Human Rights

Amnesty International monitors media outlets (newspapers, websites, and so forth) and various sources of information throughout the world. Its contacts include professionals such as lawyers, journalists, and diplomats. Other contacts include religious bodies and community workers as well as humanitarian agencies and human rights organizations.


Once advised of a violation of human rights, Amnesty International undertakes research by sending experts on fact-finding missions to interview victims and their families, local human rights activists, and officials. Its experts comprise various specialties including experts in international law. Its researchers work in teams that focus on particular countries. Amnesty International investigates both individual cases and allegations of systemic human rights violations. To ensure accuracy, researchers cross-reference and locate corroborating information from various sources. Amnesty International’s research is generally recognized by governments and news media as reliable.

Once research is completed, Amnesty International publishes the results in its reports. It understands that it deals with allegations, and generally calls for investigations of alleged abuses.

Campaigning Against Human Rights Violations

Amnesty International campaigns for human rights by publicizing violations of human rights through reports, advertisements, newsletters, websites, and contacting news media.

Amnesty International further campaigns for human rights by motivating its members and the public to put pressure on governments to stop human rights violations by governments, intergovernmental organizations, armed political groups, companies, and non-government abusers. Methods of applying such pressure include: public demonstrations; letter writing campaigns; lobbying intergovernmental organizations; and appeals on behalf of a specific individual, specific country or specific issue.


Amnesty International’s membership includes two campaigning networks. Firstly, there is the Health Professional Network that includes doctors, nurses, and mental health and other health specialists from over 30 countries. This network provides professional knowledge and lobbying. Secondly, there is the International Legal Network that includes lawyers and law student groups in over 40 countries.

International Scope

Amnesty International’s campaigning originally addressed government or state sponsored violations of human rights by focusing on the following areas: freeing all prisoners of conscience; ensuring the prompt and fair trial for political prisoners, abolishing the death penalty and torture internationally; ending extrajudicial executions and disappearances; and fighting impunity by bringing perpetrators to justice in accordance with international standards.

Now, Amnesty International’s scope has expanded to include researching, investigating, and campaigning against human rights abuses by non-government bodies and private individuals. For instance, it opposes abuses by armed political groups.

Some of Amnesty International’s current campaigns include stopping violence against women, controlling the arms trade, stopping torture, eliminating the death penalty, and assisting former child soldiers.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Amnesty International’s main objective is to campaign and promote internationally recognized human rights as set out in the United Nations (UN) Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This Declaration is based on the premise of the recognition of the inherent dignity and entitlement to equality of rights of all persons. Its fundamental belief is that all persons are entitled to the right to enjoy freedom of speech, freedom of belief, and freedom from fear.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was proclaimed by the UN as a common international standard for human rights to be recognized and observed by all member states. The Declaration itself expressly noted that “no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or, international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty” supporting these universal standards of human rights.

The Declaration expressly includes some prohibited violations of human rights as well as some universal human rights. Some of the prohibited human rights violations include: slavery; torture; cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; arbitrary arrest and detention; and arbitrary interference with privacy, home, or correspondence. Some of the universal human rights include: the right to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal respecting any criminal charge; the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty for penal offences; the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; the right to freedom of opinion and expression; the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and; and the right to equal pay for equal work.

Following the Declaration, Amnesty International actively promotes the right to physical and mental integrity, freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, and freedom from discrimination.

Promoting Education About International Human Rights

Amnesty International believes that all governments have a responsibility to provide education about human rights. Thus, Amnesty International promotes the education or spread of knowledge about the core values underlying human rights as the foundation for preventing human rights violations.

It supports programs such as the United Nations World Programme for Human Rights Education that was launched in December of 2004 and has developed materials for use in schools and for use in training teachers and government officials. Amnesty International also lobbies governments to include human rights education as part of the curriculum.

Furthermore, it has developed programs that include recommendations for the protection and promotion of specific human rights. These programs are often promoted in conjunction with Amnesty International campaigns respecting certain issues of human rights violations. For example, Amnesty International has developed a 15-point program to protect women from human rights violations and a 12-point program for the prevention of torture.


Amnesty International is independent of governments, political ideologies, and religion. It preserves its independence by not accepting funding from governments or political parties for its work to investigate/campaign against human rights violations.


Amnesty International’s national sections and local volunteer groups are responsible for fundraising efforts that include donations by individuals and its membership.

Amnesty International also administers funds donated for specific causes. In 2006, the actor Nicolas Cage donated $2 million (US) to provide shelters, psychological rehabilitation services, and medicine for former child soldiers. The United Nations estimated that there were at least 300,000 child soldiers active in 2006.


Amnesty International also seeks impartial protection of human rights. That is, it promotes international standards of human rights regardless of political systems. Amnesty International encourages all governments to observe the rule of law and to implement internationally recognized human rights standards. It also opposes human rights violations of civilians and non-combatants by both sides in armed conflicts.


Amnesty International has been recognized for its efforts to advocate for international human rights. In this regard, it was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977 and the United Nations Human Rights Award in 1978.

Amnesty International also bestows awards to recognize individual activism in the advancement of human rights. The organization granted the 2006 Ambassador of Conscience Award to Nelson Mandela to recognize his leadership in combating human rights violations and promoting international standards of human rights.

Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch is an organization with a similar mandate to Amnesty International. It is the largest human rights organization based in the United States. It is also an independent organization that conducts fact-finding investigations and reports on human rights violations by governments and non-government violators around the world. It publishes and distributes reports based on its investigations. It advocates for governments to abide by international standards of human rights. Like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch does not accept funding from governments to ensure its independence.

Human Rights Watch’s main method of influence is to use the media and attempt to enlist governments and institutions to “shame offenders”.


Gorbachev Foundation

The Gorbachev Foundation (also known as the International Foundation for Socio-Economic and Political Studies) was launched in 1992 and is headed by the former Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. Its mission is to promote the belief that Russia and the world requires new notions of progress, humanism, and justice. This organization is involved through its various branches in human rights projects in Russia and abroad.

The Gorbachev Foundation/Humanitarian Aid & Children

The Gorbachev Foundation has provided humanitarian aid to the children and refugees of Chechnya such as clothes, medicine, dressing material, and baby food; equipment to hospitals; medicine and equipment; and food and financial assistance to maternity homes and orphanages. Its two new projects include combating tuberculosis in Russia and medical assistance quality management in Russia.

The Gorbachev Foundation/USA

This organization is based in San Francisco, and it mainly organizes The State of the World Forums. The first State of the World Forum was held in 1995. These are high profile events that assemble non-government organizations, leaders, and individuals. Invited participants have included people of diverse disciplines including Heads of States, politicians, military officers, scientists, Nobel laureates, social analysts, grassroots activists, spiritual leaders, and academics.


The objective is to establish a worldwide leadership of diverse disciplines that commence with dialogue in a collaborative environment. Participants are expected to transform the dialogue into action plans to address global issues.

The last forum was held in September of 2000 in New York City. It was chaired by Mikhail Gorbachev and the forum focused on initiatives for human rights, democratization, and disarmament.


The Gorbachev Foundation also awards an annual Man of Peace Award to recognize people who promote human rights and world peace. This Foundation, in conjunction with the City of Rome, organizes an annual meeting of Nobel Peace Prize laureates in Rome. In 2006, the Man of Peace Award was granted to the musician, Peter Gabriel, who founded the rock music group Genesis. The Award was presented to him at the opening ceremony for the 2006 meeting of Nobel Peace Prize laureates.

Connie L. Mah is a lawyer practising in Edmonton, Alberta.

COPYRIGHT 2007 Legal Resource Centre of Alberta Ltd.

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