Amnesty International (Amnesty) is one of the most prestigious international non-governmental organizations (NGO) dedicated to furthering human rights. Amnesty’s campaigns and publications are widely quoted by political leaders, journalists, diplomats, and academics. Amnesty helps set agendas and influence governments and other international bodies such as the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Founded in 1961 as a small, volunteer initiative by a British lawyer, the London-based organization has evolved dramatically, today operating globally, with thousands of employees and a multi-million dollar budget.

Amnesty’s beginnings were narrowly focused on a single issue, “Prisoners of Conscience,” as reflected in its well-known founding myth.1 While traveling by train in May 1961, Peter Benenson read a report of two students in Portugal who, having raised “a toast to freedom,” were imprisoned. Outraged and inspired, Benenson published an article, “The Forgotten Prisoners,” in the British Observer newspaper. In response, Benenson outlined a one-year campaign, called the “Appeal for Amnesty, 1961,”

to collect information about the names, numbers, and conditions of what we have decided to call “Prisoners of Conscience;” and we define them thus: “Any person who is physically restrained (by imprisonment or otherwise) from expressing (in any form of words or symbols) any opinion which he honestly holds and which does not advocate or condone personal violence.”2

Benenson sought to draw public attention to the prisoners’ plight and apply public pressure on those who might influence their release.3 The response was so positive that, at a meeting in July that year, citizens of several European countries and the U.S. agreed to establish “a permanent international movement in defense of freedom of opinion and religion, and not a one-year campaign.”4 Amnesty collected information on prisoners of conscience, promoted mass campaigns on their behalf, and, upon occasion, organized high-profile missions to report on the policies and practices of offending countries.

In addition to acting as a pragmatic organization assisting prisoners of conscience, Amnesty was also a social movement. “Benenson’s fundamental vision was not only for a movement that would free prisoners, but one that would transform the lives of those who became drawn into the campaign.”5The tension between these different goals continues to frame Amnesty’s agenda in the 21st century.

The importance of activism for its own sake is described in a memorandum Benenson wrote less than one year after Amnesty’s founding:

The underlying purpose of this campaign…is to find a common base upon which the idealists of the world can co-operate … it matters more to harness the enthusiasm of the helpers than to bring people out of prison. With regard to the latter, as a friend pointed out to me, the real martyrs prefer to suffer, and, as I would add, the real saints are no worse off in prison than elsewhere on this earth, for they cannot be prevented by stone or bars from spiritual conversation. From this last point stems the motto of the campaign ‘The Truth will set you free’ [John 8, 32]. Those whom the Amnesty Appeal primarily aims to free are the men and women imprisoned by cynicism, and doubt. 6

A few months later, Benenson added that Amnesty would give people

a sense of belonging to something much greater than himself, of being a small part of the entire human race… if the spark of AMNESTY has any power, it is to convince each of us that everything is in his power.7

Benenson’s emphasis on individual enthusiasm, advocacy, and activism became salient features in Amnesty’s DNA, but also came with negative consequences. The organization today experiences ongoing tension between maintaining centralized bureaucracy versus operating a grassroots, member-driven organization. A 1991 Study of Decision-Making in Amnesty International described the situation as a “vicious circle locking the membership and the [International Secretariat] in a dance of control and mistrust8(emphasis added).

More importantly, Amnesty’s emphasis on the primacy of action over substance has led to its continuously fluctuating mandate, ideological pronouncements driven by bias rather than universal moral principles, and invented legal and factual claims.

Bureaucracy Versus Activism

Amnesty is a highly bureaucratic organization that operates much like a multinational corporation or a government. At the same time, Amnesty continues to present itself as a grassroots, member-driven organization. This contradiction is reflected in the often conflictual relationship between country sections and the international organization. The following section describes Amnesty’s complex corporate structure and analyzes the key dimensions in the relationships between Amnesty’s headquarters, the staff (including researchers), and the country sections.

Amnesty’s Corporate Structure

Amnesty describes itself as “a global movement of more than 3 million supporters, members and activists.”9While members pay dues, there is no official definition for supporters or activists. Amnesty’s US section (AIUSA), for example, defines supporters as anyone who “has signed up to receive updates from the organization (e.g., email, Facebook, Twitter)” and activists as people who have “[t]aken action for the organization within a recent timeframe; actions can be online (e.g., electronic petition) or offline (e.g., part of local group, participant in events).”10

Amnesty’s self-identification as a “global movement” belies the complexities of the organization. Amnesty operates through a highly complex bureaucratic corporate structure with numerous international and country-specific organizations.11 The organization filters information to the membership, activists, and supporters in non-transparent means via a labyrinth of staff, volunteers, and bureaucratic structures.
Amnesty’s scope is reflected in the size of its workforce and volunteer base. In 2012, it had 2,155 staff members (76% full-time) and 6,811 volunteers who donated time for research, campaigns, translation, office, and events. Although Amnesty has staff and volunteers spread throughout the world, 70% of its staff as of 2012 was located in Europe.12

The International Secretariat (IS) is the hub, responsible for Amnesty’s daily operations and setting the global agenda. Based in London, the IS is led by Secretary General Salil Shetty, who succeeded Irene Khan in July 2010. The IS produces the vast majority of Amnesty’s research and campaign materials. In 2013, Amnesty had a budget of £58.4 million, and the IS had approximately 500 staff members.  The overwhelming majority (over 80%) of the funds come from European entities.13

Legally, the IS is divided into two separate entities, Amnesty International Limited (AIL) and Amnesty International Charity Limited (the “Charity”). This division was created for fiscal reasons – until 2008, Amnesty published a single unified financial report for both. The Charity commissions AIL to carry out charitable activities on its behalf. The Charity’s main funding is from contributions received from Amnesty country-sections and gifts received in kind from AIL.14

For several years the IS operated at a deficit. The following table shows the income and expenditures of the IS from April 2009 through 2013.

Fiscal Year20132012April-December 2011April 2010-March 2011April 2009-March 2010

The IS is overseen, at least in theory, by the International Board (formerly the International Executive Committee; the title was changed at the 2013 Annual General Meeting) and the International Council.

The International Board is the source of guidance and leadership for Amnesty worldwide.15 The Board is ultimately responsible for ensuring that the organization is in compliance with relevant statutes, formulating strategic plans, scrutinizing financial affairs, and deciding on structural changes at the international level (such as approving new country sections).16

Accountability for the International Board lies with the International Council (IC), the most senior decision-making body within Amnesty as a whole. However, board members are elected from within the movement, and upon election, these members may not have the necessary skill-set and experience to lead a constantly-evolving international organization with a multi-million dollar budget.

The IC is composed of representatives from the International Board and individual country sections.17 In addition to electing the International Board, the IC has the authority to set the organization’s strategic goals, create new policies and bodies for internal governance, and amend Amnesty’s statute.18

On top of this convoluted bureaucratic structure, in September 2013 Amnesty launched the Secretary General’s Global Council, “a volunteer forum that brings together leaders in the arts, business and philanthropy to work together to further human rights.”19 The Global Council “was established to help raise the public support and financial resources that will fuel Amnesty International’s expansion in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East.”20 Members have “no role in Amnesty International’s governance or in determining Amnesty International policy,”21 but “are asked to serve as champions for Amnesty International within their own networks and help the Secretary General to identify and engage new human rights supporters.”

The Global Council, a byproduct of a major organizational restructuring, is meant to “play a critical role in attracting the support required to ensure the success of this transformational project.”22

In addition, Amnesty has more than 80 country sections, each one with differing levels of independence from the IS. Country sections are essential to Amnesty, because they provide the majority of its funding and membership.

The following is a visual representation of Amnesty’s hierarchical structure:

Country Sections

Though highly centrally structured, Amnesty functions on a local level, and views itself largely as a grassroots organization. Country sections comprise a variety of individuals who originate from local groups, such as university and youth groups. Although they are bound by the IS vision and mission, these groups largely function independently from the IS. Under the guidance of country section leaders, sections decide on issues to address and how actions are implemented. In large countries, Amnesty also has regional branches that operate on a local level.

The vast majority of the IS’s budget is provided by country sections, some of which are financially struggling as a result (see below). The 15 largest sections of Amnesty world-wide provide 95% of IS income, the overwhelming majority from within Europe; in 2011 (April-December), European sections contributed £41.3 million, followed by the Americas with £8.1 million. Remaining country sections contributed £5.1 million.23

In 2012, sections contributed £48.6 million in assessment fees (a percentage that the IS demands of sections), with an additional voluntary contribution of £4.7 million.  In 2013, the assessment fee was £49.5 million with a voluntary contribution of £4.9 million.24 As of 2013, the U.S. and Ireland sections are in arrears to the IS. To fund the current restructuring process (discussed below), large sections are expected to increase their IS assessment.

Each country section holds an Annual General Meeting (AGM), where participants attend discussion panels and vote on resolutions. Resolutions vary and may relate to the country section’s structure, attempts to sway the country section’s agenda for the upcoming year, efforts to encourage the IS to take up particular issues, or motions for the next IC meeting.25


Amnesty’s American and British country sections, two of its largest, are facing unprecedented crisis. AIUSA is the largest country section claiming “nearly 250,000 members, who work for human rights independently, through national online networks, or with high school, college or community groups.”26

Despite substantial membership numbers, AIUSA is in fact suffering from reduced membership, “severe financial constraint,”27 waning visibility and impact, and increased difficulty in implementing successful campaigns.

These troubles triggered the development of a “2012-2015 Strategy and Business Plan” designed to reverse these trends. The plan itself reveals the problems AIUSA is facing, “[a]n increasing political challenge, given the combination of a climate of regressive attitudes towards human rights and general polarization in the U.S.”28

Among other factors, AIUSA officials attribute the organization’s declining impact to this “climate.” Additionally, “Interviews with Washington DC advocates suggest that AIUSA is no longer seen as an essential go-to source on human rights issues.” AIUSA’s media presence is also weaker than several similar human and civil rights focused NGOs.29

AIUSA’s relationship with the International Secretariat (IS) is a particular source of its difficulties. This problem is not new. In 1996, AIUSA and the IS had to negotiate a protocol “outlining the terms in which the two would treat one another so as to reduce the level of animosity.”30 Due to limited coordination, AIUSA staff is often unaware of IS statements, only learning of them later from its “advocacy targets” instead of from the IS directly. This friction is exacerbated by AIUSA’s slow reaction to the IS, with AIUSA frequently taking up to 10 days to coordinate with the IS on a policy response.31 Finally, and most crucially, AIUSA staffers often find the IS to be irrelevant to the U.S. market; statements from the IS in London are not always reflective of local sensitivities and issues.32 Amnesty officials hope these problems will decrease after Amnesty’s global restructuring, when the headquarters of the U.S. program within the IS will be relocated to the U.S.

AIUSA is also suffering from falling membership numbers. The number of dues-paying members fell by a full 20% between 2007 and 2010. Of those who remained, more than half are age 55 and over; at the current rate, this age group will be two-thirds of AIUSA membership by 2025. At the same time, 38% of AIUSA constituent groups became inactive between 2008 and 2011, with the sharpest decline (about 40%) from among student groups.33

Declining membership and influence have left AIUSA struggling to raise money. Relying primarily on direct marketing, AIUSA’s own statistics show that 78% of monies raised are spent on defraying its campaign costs.34 Against the wishes of many members, AIUSA implemented a Strategic and Business Plan, which included closing two regional offices and staff reductions.

Amnesty UK (AIUK) faces similar challenges and has been forced to make significant staff cuts. In 2013, as a result of restructuring, AIUK reduced staff by “12 per cent to 151.5 full-time equivalent posts”35 in order to lower costs and comply with funding demands from the IS. As of year-end 2013, “20 staff whose applications for voluntary redundancy have been accepted.”36

The vast majority of funding for Amnesty UK comes from individual memberships and supporters, approximately £17.1 million in 2012 and £17.6 million in 2013, as well as some specific grants. In December 2013, AIUK claimed to have had 126,016 “regular section givers,”37 and in June 2014 it reported 208,000 “financially active supporters (regular and non-regular givers).”38 Amnesty’s 2013 Annual Report claimed 232,252 supporters and stated that 183,542 individuals paid an AIUK membership fee. In 2012, it reported 150,935 for “Individual voting membership.”39 The difference between these disparate categories is unclear.

Despite these reports, AIUK has been unable to maintain sufficient membership. A 2013 quarterly update to AIUK members revealed that “Overall we continue to lose more members than we recruit and members are the mainstay of AIUK’s regular income.  This means that despite successes in major donor and legacy fundraising, we are struggling to increase income in other ways which is cause for concern.”“40.

Financial Burden of the IS

The financial struggles of Amnesty in the U.S., UK, and other country sections are largely due to financial obligations to the IS. AIUSA was $20 million in arrears to the IS at the end of the 2011 financial year.41 In 2012, the IS assessed that AIUSA should pay $13.5 million. In consultation with the International Board, AIUSA was scheduled to pay $9.2 million in 2012 with the possibility of an additional $1 million due upon execution of a memorandum of understanding with the International Board for future assessment relief.42 In 2013, AIUSA was able to operate with a budget surplus after paying $8 million to the IS, a decrease from 2012’s $10 million. In 2011, AIUK contributed £7 million ($11.3m) to the IS.43 Sections such as AIUK and AIUSA are required to increase their contribution from 30% of their income to 40% by 2017 in order to help fund the global restructuring.

These contributions are the decisive reason why the U.S. and UK sections, Amnesty’s largest, were operating at an annual loss. In 2011, AIUK expenditures exceeded its total income, by £2.7 million ($4.3 m).44 In 2012, the deficit was significantly lower, at only £48,000.45. In 2013, the organization closed the gap and had a surplus of £427,000.46

A similar situation can be seen with AIUSA. AIUSA ended 2012 with a $1.8 million deficit.47 It closed this gap by drawing down on its reserves. Between 2007 and 2010, AIUSA revenues fell by 20%, mirroring a 20% drop in membership during the same period,48 while AIUSA’s reserves also fell by 47%.49 In 2013, AIUSA had a budget surplus of $598,350, largely due to a decreased assessment from the IS.

Global Transition Program

Since Shetty’s appointment as Secretary General in 2010, Amnesty has begun to design and implement a Global Transition Program for corporate restructuring. The restructuring would divert staff and resources to several hubs in developing countries, break Amnesty’s London centralization. As of spring 2014, “hub offices in Johannesburg, Hong Kong, Nairobi, and Dakar [had been opened], and in the second phase this year will be doing so in Mexico City, Bangkok, and Delhi.  The third phase, in 2015, will set up offices in either Lima or Bogota, at a location in the Middle East or North Africa, and in a larger office than the present one in Moscow.”50

Amnesty has been trying unsuccessfully to build a presence in the developing world for decades. In 1977, senior Amnesty members and staff set a goal to “make Amnesty more universal especially by getting a ‘foothold’ in second and third worlds.”51 The recent restructuring seems to be a continuation of past failed attempts to draw in the developing world. In 2013, Amnesty moved “the entire Africa program to Africa.”52  In 2014, Amnesty intends to move the Latin America and Asia programs. The plan is similar to Human Rights Watch’s “Global Challenge,” which envisions “key regional centers – in Delhi, Nairobi, Johannesburg, Bangkok, Beirut, São Paolo, and Cairo.”53

Amnesty has not clearly stated its objectives for the restructuring. In a critique, Amnesty’s staff union noted that the organization has not “clarified whether the desired ‘impact’ [of the restructuring] is in relation to increasing the number of members, the level of funds available to Amnesty or reducing human rights violations. These are all different aspects of AI’s work and each requires its own set of activities to be achieved.”54

According to Shetty, the global restructuring is “centrally about building a membership in the [global] South.” The point, he argued, is “to make sure that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights becomes real and meaningful to every human being in the world” and that Amnesty is “an organization which has to respond to change.”  He adds:

In India, in Nigeria, in Brazil, in Africa, it’s really important that people from those countries become part of this global human rights movement, and there’s a huge interest in it. The growing middle class, young people, you’re seeing all the protests all over the world.  What’s it about? It’s about unaccountable governments. You know, people taking injustice personally. That’s opening up the possibility for Amnesty to become a truly global movement.55

This vision differs from that of Campaigns and Communications Senior Director, Thomas Schultz-Jagow, who said:  “The main driver for this [international restructuring] is our belief that we need to be based and operate much closer to where human rights violations take place.”56

Whatever the reason, it remains to be seen whether a decentralized Amnesty will be more effective or if the restructuring amounts to an expensive failed experiment.

The expected cost of the Global Transition Programme is £3.5 million in 2014.  Amnesty’s 2013 financial documents have already revealed several major failures of the Global Transition Programme, including

Failure to establish legally registered offices in the planned timescale, which would be likely to cause delays in the establishment of the new regional operating model.

Not effectively managing the staff related aspects of the GTP during the transition period, which could adversely affect human rights impact, as highlighted in the following point on resourcing risk.57

“Do Something” – Amnesty’s Changing Mandate

In the more than 50 years since Peter Benenson founded Amnesty, the focus of the organization’s activities has changed considerably. In its early decades, Amnesty’s main interest and source of influence were its campaigns for the release of prisoners of conscience, particularly in closed and non-democratic societies. The original core principle of Amnesty’s mandate was that prisoners who advocated for or engaged in violence could not be designated as a “prisoner of conscience,” and the NGO would not campaign on his or her behalf.

Amnesty International opposes the imprisonment not only of those imprisoned for their conscientiously held beliefs who neither use nor advocate violence.58

This standard was so strict that Nelson Mandela was originally excluded from advocacy by the organization.59 However, the end of the Cold War, and the collapse of the Soviet empire, other military dictatorships around the world, and South African apartheid, interest in (and the number of) political prisoners declined, as did Amnesty’s role and influence.

At the same time, Benenson’s original vision also imagined “get[ting] people of different opinions, class etc. to work together in the same direction, and to learn to co-operate. Thus, it does not matter so very much what they do, so long as they do something.”60 Indeed, since 1961, Amnesty has greatly expanded its remit to encompass an ever widening range of human rights claims, so that its members and the organization can “do something.” In line with this reasoning, Secretary General Shetty argues that the core message of Amnesty is to “make sure that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights becomes real and meaningful to every human being in the world. And by definition the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is wide.”61

In accordance with this vision, and more importantly – to stay relevant – Amnesty, like Human Rights Watch and other similar groups, broadened the menu of issues on which it claims expertise. In doing so, Amnesty dramatically extended its definition of “prisoners of conscience.”

It also opposes the imprisonment of people imprisoned by reason of their ethnic origin, sex, colour or language, who neither use nor advocate violence. To call these detainees prisoners of conscience, as Amnesty International does, is highly artificial.62

Amnesty continued to expand its scope as an organization as additional types of human rights violations were defined. This helped keep Amnesty relevant, but also had negative aspects. First, Amnesty faced resistance from grassroots members, especially with regards to its stance on the death penalty. Second, as the mandate expanded, Amnesty’s resources and research abilities were unable to keep up with new issues. By 1989, “Amnesty International barely had the resources to do what it was doing then. Covering a large number of new areas would have meant diluting its work, and its effectiveness in what Amnesty International did.”63 Today Amnesty falsely claims to have knowledge and expertise in all human rights-related fields.

As the mandate grew and shifted over the years to accommodate more human rights issues, grassroots Amnesty members were frequently unaware of the mandate’s actual scope. This problem was largely bureaucratic. The mandate was partially described in the Amnesty Statute,64 which could be “amended by the International Council by a majority of not less than two thirds of the votes cast.”65 Given the difficulties of changing the actual Statute, interpretive resolutions (which only required a simple majority) of the mandate were the norm.

Matas notes the development of “a whole body of arcane science within Amnesty, knowledge of the mandate. There grew up a group of mandate technicians who knew and argued about the finer points of the mandate. There arose mandate historians, mandate lawyers and mandate political trends within the movement.”66

Amnesty went to great lengths to spin off the mandate from the Statute, without amending the actual Statute. As a result, the mandate was ethereal and only the “mandate technicians” could explain and understand it.

Amnesty International has been defining vague words in its statute with gusto.  Indeed Amnesty had an Alice in Wonderland attitude to its statute.  Words in the statute have not had their ordinary everyday meaning.  They meant what Amnesty International said they meant.  And the decision about what the words in the statute meant could change and did change from one International Council Meeting to another.67

In this way, the text of the Statute largely stayed the same, while its “real meaning” required information beyond the grasp and access of grassroots members. Because of this, thousands of Amnesty members (and most employees) throughout the world were unable to say precisely what Amnesty actually did.

History of Amnesty’s Mandate Expansion

Wong outlines the four human rights drawn from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) that Amnesty focused on from 1961 through 2001: torture; arbitrary arrest/exile; belief/religion; and opinion.68 Arguably the limited made it an extremely effective NGO during its early decades. The narrow set of goals created a situation where energies and resources were channeled directly to the problems at hand.69

Over time, however, Amnesty’s mandate grew. The following table shows the history of Amnesty’s mandate expansion at International Council meetings.

Year of expansion (location of International Council meeting)Expansion of mandate
1973 (Vienna, Austria)Death penalty
1974 (Askov, Denmark)Fair trial/ reasonable time for prisoners imprisoned for political reasons
1979 (Leuven, Belgium)Extrajudicial killings for political reasons
1983 (Jouy-en-Josas, France)Ability to condemn torture and/or killing of prisoners by non-state actors
1985 (Helsinki, Finalnd)Refugees
1987 (Aquas de Lindoia, Brazil)All extrajudicial killings
1991 (Yokohama, Japan)Sexual orientation, administrative detention, forced deportation, house destruction
1993 (Boston, USA)Non-governmental prisoners of conscience
1995 (Ljubljana, Slovenia)Unfair trials of political prisoners by non-state actors
1997 (Cape Town, South Africa)Opposition to weapons of war & land minds in particular
1999 (Troia, Portugal)No changes - A mandate review was in process during this meeting
2001 (Dakar, Senegal)Move to full-spectrum approach
2005 (Morelos, Mexico)Mandate replaced with "mission"

The first mandate expansion came at the Vienna International Council Meeting of 1973, when Amnesty took a blanket opposition to the death penalty70. The 1974 expansion demanded fair trials in a reasonable time for prisoners held on political grounds. In 1979 the expansion demanded an end to extrajudicial killings for political reasons (extended in 1987 to demand an end to all extrajudicial killings). Even then, insiders were concerned that the issue took Amnesty too far afield of its original mandate. However, Rodley notes that “it was unsustainable for [Amnesty], on the one hand, to insist that, for example, prisoners of conscience be released, while ignoring on the other hand, lethal action by which States could circumvent the need to imprison in the first place.”71

By 1983, however, a mandate expansion gave Amnesty the ability to condemn torture and/or killing of prisoners by non-state actors. This expansion brings into focus a classic problem with human rights organizations: while states can sign and violate international treaties, and be subjected to international law, non-state actors (terrorist groups, rebel groups, paramilitaries, criminal groups, etc.) are not bound by these “restrictions.” However, also condemning non-state actors, furthered Amnesty’s claim of political impartiality, “seen as contributing to Amnesty’s credibility and thus to its effectiveness.”

The policy of “maintaining its political impartiality as well as the wish to avoid even the appearance of such partiality”72 was also the reason that Amnesty failed to condemn the Apartheid regime in South Africa and the “main reason why Amnesty ha[d] included a non-violence clause with regard to the notion of prisoners of conscience in its mandate.”73

Despite these additions, the mandate was relatively specific, and Amnesty still focused on prisoner issues: prisoners of conscience, death penalty, and torture. Eventually, however, pressure grew from membership to change and expand the mandate. This began at the 1989 International Council meeting, when a Mandate Review Committee discussed the question of “Should the mandate be made general – to oppose any grave and compelling violations of the rights Amnesty chooses to oppose, or should it remain specific?”74 The shift from focused, and in some cases measureable, rights violations, to a broad-based approach was a major debate within Amnesty for years. Such a transition, from a specific to general a mandate, would considerably change how Amnesty functioned.

During the early 1990s, the limitations of a narrow approach dominated. However, as the Cold War faded and the number of prisoners of conscience declined, new sources of influence and rationales for raising funds became an organizational necessity. Amnesty had to redefine itself. In 1991 Kaufman noted that “it is an open secret that its Research Department has encountered increasing difficulty in coming up with sufficient POC adoption cases to satisfy the demands of its growing membership.”75

At the 1991 meeting,

the organization ha[d] on the whole opted for a gradual expansion of the mandate, taking into account a number of criteria. Although this was sometimes discussed, it [had] always rejected to take on the full spectrum of human rights or to deal more specifically with aspects of economic, social and cultural rights, as suggested by friendly critics.76

The 1991 meeting also highlighted the unique place of Arab-Israeli politics within the Amnesty landscape. One of the most pressing issues, unrelated to Israel per se, was whether or not to define those jailed for homosexuality as prisoners of conscience. Amnesty’s plan was to stretch the meaning of the word “sex” in its mandate to include “sexual orientation,” a move that would have been rejected by conservative Arab and Muslim sections of Amnesty.

However, another set of issues became important at the meeting —house demolitions, deportation, and administrative detention – that is, allegations frequently lodged against Israel.  These three issues were packaged together with sexual orientation in a blanket clause for acceptance during the meeting, and it passed. One observer described the 1991 meeting as “an exercise in Israel bashing”: “It was clear from the debates that it was rejection of Israeli practices that motivated many delegates. It was deference to this rejection under the name of multiculturalism that motivated many more delegates.”77

Amnesty also began to prioritize issues based on what would drive its member base instead of objective human rights standards. Starting in 1995, Amnesty officially focused on countries and popular issues that would increase the possibility of organizational impact (leading to more members) by prioritizing its mandate resolutions. Not only did member groups need to get a resolution passed, they also had to secure for it a high priority. Essentially, Amnesty would rank countries and human rights violations by “importance.” Unless resources became available, only high priority issues would be addressed.78 In this way, massive human rights violations around the world became secondary to “low-hanging fruit” that served to bolster media attention and membership.

A study in the Journal of Peace Research by Howard Ramos, James Ron, and Oskar Thoms (2007), confirmed that the media significantly influences NGO priority-setting: “many social movement scholars” believe that “the most influential activists are those capable of packaging their concerns in ways that appeal to the media.”79 In another article, Ron and Ramos (2009) argued that human rights “watchdogs feel compelled to respond to media interest.  Supply rises with demand; the more journalists who ask about a country, the more information watchdogs will supply.”80 Ramos, Ron, and Thoms (2007) note that “groups such as Amnesty are drawn to high-profile countries, but so are many others. Cumulatively, this reinforces a country’s centrality, but it also undermines the ability of individual voices to be heard.”81

Although Ramos, Ron, and Thoms (2007) found a statistical association between Amnesty’s press releases and media coverage, the exact relationship is unclear.  Amnesty and other groups, “as Hilgartner & Bosk (1988) argue… often cluster around high-profile issues, borrowing each other’s ideas and information and driving increased rates of public attention through multiple feedback loops (Dalton et al., 1998; Ungar, 1998; Wood & Peake, 1998). Human rights violations will receive more attention when Northern activists and journalists reinforce each other’s interests and reporting.”82 This “feedback loop” creates “the virtuous (or vicious) cycles that drive public attention.”83 “Neglected countries” therefore are “simply too small, poor, or unnewsworthy to inspire much media interest.  With few journalists urgently demanding information about Niger, it ma[kes] little sense to invest substantial reporting and advocacy resources there.”84 One senior Amnesty official summed up this attitude, “’You can work all you like on Mauritania, but the press couldn’t give a rat’s ass.’”85 In other words, media focus is a major driver of Amnesty’s research agenda.86

Another issue Amnesty faced at its 1995 meeting, was the problem of what standards to use to condemn actors in internal conflicts. It decided to use International Humanitarian Law (IHL) as its basis of criticism of both governments and nongovernmental groups.87 By this time Amnesty began to recognize that a focus on government abuses alone was outdated. The Integrated Strategic Plan for 1996-1999 noted three key trends: state authority was weakening, entities other than governments were violating human rights, and internal conflicts were making it more difficult to determine blame.88

By 1999, “mandate” was defined at the International Council meeting as “the boundaries of AI’s permissible work.”89 Matas argues that the idea of the mandate was not redefined, but totally obliterated, and replaced by and large by what Amnesty called an “Integrated Strategic Plan.” By 2001, the old mandate was essentially dead, however:

The status quo was indefensible. It was so befuddling that it had ceased to be an option. The mandate had become so layered and complex that no one could reel it off without referring to notes. AI’s refusals to oppose some human rights violations, though there were always reasons, seemed arbitrary and illogical.90

The general decision in 2001 was that Amnesty would go for a full spectrum approach—opposing all violations of human rights—though the transition was intended to move gradually. In 2001, the list of civil and political rights, for which Amnesty claimed both a mandate and expertise, expanded, going from the defense of specific rights to the opposition of an infinite range of issues under the label “grave violations of all human rights.”91 It should be noted that much of Amnesty’s mandate expansion can be attributed to the rise in influence of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty’s attempt to remain relevant.

At the 2005 International Council meeting, the mandate was replaced with a mission. This change did little to improve functionality on the ground.

When AI worked under a mandate, getting AI to oppose any particular abuse involved three steps – getting opposition to the abuse into the mandate; getting opposition to the abuse into the strategic plan; and giving opposition to the abuse a high priority in the strategic plan. Now that AI works under a mission, getting AI to oppose any particular abuse also involves three steps, albeit three different steps – getting opposition to the abuse into the strategic plan; getting opposition to the abuse into the operational plan; and giving opposition to the abuse a high priority in the operational plan.92

In 2007, the International Executive Council (now called the International Board), Amnesty’s highest body, officially changed Amnesty’s mission to include “the full spectrum of human rights.”93 Amnesty defines its vision as one in which “every person enjoys all of the human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights instruments,” and declares its mission “to undertake research and action focused on preventing and ending grave abuses of these rights.”94 Amnesty currently prioritizes its campaigns in an “Integrated Strategic Plan” published once every six years.

For 2010 – 2016, campaign priorities for “Human Rights Change” are listed as:

Empowering people living in poverty

Defending unprotected people on the move

Defending people from violence by state and non-state actors

Protecting people’s freedom of expression and freedom from discrimination95

Because its mission and priorities are so broad, the number of human rights “principles” that Amnesty has committed itself to protecting applies to more positions than Amnesty has actually defined. For example:

In some cases, Amnesty’s policy is very simple and straightforward –Amnesty International is unconditionally opposed to capital punishment.’ In others, defining policy become very complex, for example, forced feeding of hunger strikers. Often this leads to, ‘Amnesty International has no position on …’ This non-position tends to keep Amnesty out of debates where we might be able to contribute a useful and meaningful human rights perspective.96


In its early years, Amnesty was an effective human rights organization characterized by clarity of purpose and focused on prisoner of conscience release. In contrast, its current mission attempts to tackle the entire universe of human rights violations. In pursuit of this goal, Amnesty has bureaucratized to the point of stagnation, spreading itself too thin to affect real change or provide meaningful expertise.

Falling further away from its original intent, Amnesty’s campaigns prioritize countries/regions and topics that garner the most media and popular interest in order to boost and maintain its own membership and reputation. Amnesty remains embedded in Ramos et al.’s “feedback loops,” whereby countries that already attract the most attention drive Amnesty’s agenda instead of the most egregious human rights abuses because “advocacy on highly ‘peripheral’ countries is likely to fail.”97  In this way, Amnesty fails its members, donors, and the victims of human rights abuses world-wide.