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Amnesty International is
40 years old this week



By TFF associate


Penguin published Power's history of Amnesty International on May 31st "Like Water on Stone". (See below).



May 29, 2001

LONDON - Amnesty International, founded forty years ago, was almost immediately dubbed "one of the larger lunacies of our time". The then bizarre idea was to collect information on people incarcerated in prison solely for their political views and then, by means of an army of volunteer activists, bombard the offending governments with massive numbers of letters, postcards and telegrams, calling for the prisoner's swift release. Other critics called it "subversive" and "an agent of Satan". Iran's Ayatollah Khomieni, Uganda's Idi Amin, Iraq's Saddam Hussein, Chile's Augusto Pinochet, Britain's Margaret Thatcher and France's President Jacques Chirac are all heavyweights who have gone into the ring to try and squash it.

In the 1990s and the new century the criticism has been subtler. The attacks came not only from government leaders but from sceptics in the media as well. Some have argued that Amnesty has become respectable, a part of the international establishment. Others have claimed it has lost its unique profile and been submerged in a plethora of other human rights groups. Perhaps the unkindest cut of all has been the allegation that Amnesty publicity campaigns have resulted in the development of even more insidious methods of torture and repression, designed to avoid the calumny of global exposure.

But the prisoners, often enough, have been released. The postcards, telegrams and parcels do get through. Letters come back, many smuggled out of prison or past airport censors. The same week that a young law student was sentenced to three years' imprisonment in an eastern European country- he had been arrested after collecting signatures calling for the release of political prisoners - his father wrote to Amnesty: "I have experienced the blessing of your appeal for you have raised your voice in defence of my son…. Amnesty International is a light in our time, particularly for those on whose eyes darkness has fallen, when the prison doors shut behind them. By your selfless work this light shines on the ever-widening circle of those who need it". Among the many victims was a teacher in Latin America. While he was being tortured by the police they opened a telephone line between the torture chamber and the prisoner's home, forcing his wife to listen to her husband's screams. During the ordeal she died of a heart attack. The prisoner himself survived and eventually he was allowed to go into exile with his children. He told Amnesty: "They killed my wife. They would have killed me too, but you intervened and saved my life."

The most unexpected challenge came from the United States. Successive post-Vietnam War governments, starting with the administration of Jimmy Carter, took up human rights as a geo-political crusade. Suddenly U.S. officials around the world were brandishing Amnesty International reports as they waged highly selective campaigns against their enemies, whilst often enough remaining tight-lipped or, at least reserved, about torture and "disappearances" in the regimes they supported for "reasons of state" in the Cold War age.

Famously, during his campaign to build up the coalition against Saddam Hussein prior to the Gulf War in 1990, President George Bush Senior took to quoting Amnesty reports on Iraq, even letting it be known he was sharing them with his wife, who said they made her very upset and angry. Yet at the same time, the U.S. authorities were steadfastly ignoring Amnesty's critique of the role of the Central intelligence Agency (CIA) in torture in Guatemala or the use of capital punishment at home. Amnesty was being used in one-sided, high profile diplomatic war that threatened to poison international human rights efforts. In what must surely be one of the most extraordinary dialogues for a human rights organization, Amnesty sent one of its top people to Washington to plead with US officials to stop quoting from the organization's reports.

By the beginning of the 1990s the question was not whether Amnesty would survive, but whether it could adapt to a changing world. On the economic front, growing disparities of income, the severe impoverishment of a number of countries and the danger of economic collapse in some of the new states of Central and Eastern Europe held the explosive potential for widespread political instability. Armed conflicts in Europe and Africa were seen to be spinning out of control, increasing tensions in the surrounding countries and creating vast refugee populations, while international peace-keeping efforts were often proving impotent. Many observers both inside and outside Amnesty were worried that Amnesty might be becoming overstretched, perhaps even developing a tendency in the face of large-scale atrocities to shoot from the hip.

Some claimed that Amnesty was moving too quickly and merely publishing rumours. Picking up the rumblings, the New York Times charged that there was a new culture in Amnesty which was " a response to CNN- members who see atrocities on television demand to know what Amnesty has to say about them - and to a growth in a number of rights groups putting out reports in the middle of conflicts". The mass killings in Rwanda brought the debate to the boil.

Pierre Sane, Amnesty's Senegalese-born Secretary-General, determined that the genocide in Rwanda should not engulf the entire region, was passionate. "The objective of our report is to force governments to conduct their own investigations quickly". He sensed that time was running out in Central Africa. And even without all the research completed, as was the norm in a more slow-moving situation, Amnesty had to fire all its cannons. He was right.

Forty years on Amnesty remains on the front line, the organization that has set the pace in making human rights a central tenet, if not always the practice, of the policy of democratic governments everywhere. Even dictatorships often feel they have to, at least, take notice of it. Its successes are often no more dramatic than the constant dripping of water on stone. But if Amnesty may not yet have changed the world, it has not left it as it found it either.


I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:


Copyright © 2001 By JONATHAN POWER



Publication date: 31 May 2001

More information?
Please contact Ruth Killick
Head of Publicity
0207 416 3258

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Published to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Amnesty International


"When the two hundred letters came the guards gave me back my clothes. Then the next two hundred letters came and the prison director came to see me. When the next pile of letters arrived, the director got in touch with his superior. The letters kept coming and coming: three thousand of them. The President was informed. The letters still kept arriving and the President called the prison and told them to let me go."*


Like Water on Stone: The Story of Amnesty International

By Jonathan Power


In 1960, during the darkest days of the Salazar dictatorship, two Portuguese students were sentenced to seven years' imprisonment. Their crime? Raising a glass to freedom in a Lisbon café. In London, Peter Benenson, a lawyer and human rights activist, was shocked by the case. With two colleagues he launched the "Appeal for Amnesty 1961" on behalf of political prisoners worldwide. And so Amnesty International was born.

Forty years on, the organisation labelled "one of the larger lunacies of our time" is one of the largest and most influential non-governmental organisations in the world with supporters in 160 countries and territories. How did this happen? In Like Water on Stone, published by Allen Lane on 31 May, Jonathan Power tells how, against all the odds, Amnesty brought human rights onto the international agenda.

Like Water on Stone acknowledges Amnesty's extraordinary achievements. But Amnesty has always been controversial, and Jonathan Power doesn't shy away from asking awkward questions. Do Amnesty's campaigns actually work? Or can campaigning on behalf of political prisoners lead to repressive governments murdering their opponents rather than locking them up? Is the organisation's research always accurate? How can it guarantee its reports are correct when, as in Guatemala in the 70s and 80s, an entire population is silenced by terror? Closer to home, was Amnesty right to label British methods of interrogation in Northern Ireland as "torture"? Or did this simply give fuel to Pinochet's lawyers who last year argued that the General should not be singled out, for "there is torture everywhere"? Was Amnesty right to lobby for better prison conditions for the notorious Baader-Meinhof group in Germany in the 70s? And what of countries like China which seem oblivious to any attempts to push for human rights? Or the USA, where decades of Amnesty lobbying on prison conditions has had little impact?

Power shows how Amnesty has often got it right. Its successes are truly inspiring. In Nigeria President Obasanjo, (former AI adopted prisoner of conscience and the first civilian ruler for over a decade), is beginning to tackle the appalling record of his predecessors. Power describes how Amnesty's discovery and exposure of child murders in the Central African Republic led the French government to drive the Emperor Bokassa into exile. Amnesty pressure has helped to pave the way to bring former human rights abusers such as Augusto Pinochet to justice. The book shows how 30 years of Amnesty lobbying has helped to found the International Criminal Court. And Power describes how, in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, Amnesty's campaigning led to more humane prison conditions and the end of cruel and degrading methods of interrogation.

Power, himself a human rights activist, has the inside track on Amnesty's activities. He gives a fascinating account of a mission to Nigeria where Obasanjo, (also a personal friend) receives a visit from Amnesty lobbyists. His account of research into Guatemalan "disappearances" tells a moving story of the courage and persistence of Amnesty researchers as they painstakingly pieced together the details of atrocities.

Olusegun Obasanjo once described Amnesty International as operating "like water on stone". Jonathan Power's book tells the moving story of an organisation which "may not have changed the world; but hasn't left it as it found it either".


About Jonathan Power, TFF associate

"One of the finest journalistic talents I"ve seen in thirty five years in the business" ** Jonathan Power was for 17 years a foreign affairs columnist for the International Herald Tribune. He has written regular columns for the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. He has also written for The Times and The Guardian, Encounter, and Prospect, and his column is presently syndicated internationally to over 20 papers. In 1972 he won the silver medal at the Venice film festival for his documentary, It's Ours Whatever They Say.

Jonathan will be in the UK at the time of publication and is available for interview.

Like Water on Stone by Jonathan Power is published on 31 May, price £12.99 Allen Lane paperback original, ISBN 0713993197. For more information please contact Ruth Killick, head of Publicity, on 0207 416 3258 (

* Former prisoner of conscience, Julio de Pena Valdez, a Trade Union leader in the Dominican Republic, on the impact of Amnesty's letter-writing campaign.

** Murray Weiss, former Editor-in-Chief of the International Herald Tribune.



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