Amnesty International: 50 years of speaking out for the powerless

By Antje Bormann

The executive producer for BBC Four’s international documentary strand Storyville, Kate Townsend, was at the Frontline Club last night to introduce the film Amnesty! When They Are All Free, which marks its 50th anniversary.

The film goes on to tell the story of not so much an organisation, but a movement, that began 50 years ago and is still going strong, despite some questions about its objectives and the way it goes about achieving them.

After the screening James Rogan, the film’s director, Claudio Cordone, senior director at Amnesty International, Patricia Feeney, former Amnesty researcher for Argentina, and Dr Stephen Hopgood, reader in international relations at SOAS and Amnesty biographer, answered questions about the film and the organisation.

Claudio Cordone
classed it as the best documentary about the organisation so far, acknowledging that 50 years was a long time to condense into just over one hour, and that the issues chosen were necessarily limited but still representative of Amnesty’s work, successes and difficulties.

With a remit that has widened from pressing for the release of prisoners of conscience in the beginning to take in other human rights issues, like ending poverty, violence against women, and homophobia, tensions have appeared between the broad base of the membership, which is predominantly European and North American and middle class.

The campaign against homophobia in Uganda was cited as an example where Amnesty as a Western NGO might not be as helpful as it would like to be, due to the perception there of homosexuality as an essentially Western evil.

A long-time worker for Amnesty International in the audience defended the organisation against the  “McDonald’s of human rights” label, which was used at the beginning of the film, pointing out that Amnesty had always worked by asking those affected what kind of help they needed. There was no “set menu” that did not necessarily fit the purpose of those whom they tried to help.

Other questions probed changes Amnesty International made after being criticised for their hesitant response to Rwanda, the rift at times between its principles and practice, as in the controversial pay-off of its General Secretary Irine Khan at a time when the organisation was fighting poverty elsewhere, as well as Amnesty’s role in the Arab Spring.

James Rogan said that in initial talks about the documentary questions had been raised about whether Amnesty had lost its way. However, there was a bigger message, he said: Amnesty International as a movement is about people who are free to protest using that freedom on behalf of those who don’t have it. As a principle, there is little in that anyone could find fault with.