Happy Birthday Amnesty!

Amnesty International turns 50 this month

by Laura Osborne-Coffey

Amnesty International turns 50 this month!

Founded in 1961, Amnesty International was the brain child of British lawyer, Peter Benenson. He read an article about two students in Portugal, who were arrested simply for making a toast to freedom in a bar. This incident was the incentive for Mr. Benenson to write an article in the London Observer, titled “The Forgotten Prisoners.” After writing this article, which was reprinted in other countries, he started a program called “Appeal for Amnesty 1961.” It was to help what he termed ‘prisoners of conscience’ – men women and children who are arrested or detained for their race, religion, work, or political view – be treated fairly and within international laws.

After the initial meeting that July, Mr. Benenson thought this would be a one year program to help to free these ‘forgotten prisoners.’ However, the incidence of such cases of prisoners of conscience soon grew as international awareness of the plight of these people was known. Soon, Amnesty International took on the cause of working against torture in all cases.

In 1977, Amnesty International was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

In the mid-seventies, Amnesty took on work for abolition against the death penalty. In the 1980’s and 90’s, Amnesty widened its focus to adapt to the changing nature of human rights abuses, as many governments who used to imprison prisoners of conscience were now disappearing them instead, or executing them extra-judicially.

Amnesty International’s 30th anniversary saw the organization broaden its scope to cover work on abuses by armed opposition groups, hostage taking and people imprisoned due to their sexual orientation. And after 9-11, Amnesty took on the cause of working against ‘rendition’ – cases of people who were forcibly removed to countries where torture could and did occur.

Also in the last decade, the organization adopted a change to its mandate to work on the case of social economic and cultural rights thus committing itself to advance both the universality and indivisibility of all human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration.

In honor of Amnesty’s 50th Birthday, Amnesty International Group 86 held a very successful meeting at the University Of Cincinnati Law School on Saturday, May 7th. Fifty people from the community and the University of Cincinnati Amnesty student group attended.

The morning panel, titled: “Egypt, Libya, and the future of Human Rights in the Middle East” was power-packed with speakers: Robert Haug, Stephen Porter and Elizabeth Frierson, all professors of History at the University of Cincinnati and Bert Lockwood, professor at the UC School of Law and director of the Urban Morgan Institute for Human Rights. Moderator for this panel was Debra Ehrenberg, the Director for Amnesty’s Midwest office in Chicago.

Mr. Haug discussed the Muslim Brotherhood’s beginnings as a liberal democracy and their current form and focus, and stated that it is interesting that a peaceful protest in Egypt succeeded where other, armed revolutions have not, and Mr. Porter discussed the history of human rights in the region, and the audience discovered that in April 1968 the U.N. International Conference on Human Rights was held in Tehran, and the results of this conference with a trend in the Middle East of state rights over individual rights, which he called the ‘rhetoric of acrobats’ and has been much used since then.

Ms. Frierson discussed the history of democratic leanings in the Middle East with Iran’s First Constitution in 1876, which was later broken by the Shah upon going to war with Russia, and shared that other democratic steps had been taken in the past. Mr. Lockwood discussed current legal issues relevant to the region and the human rights agenda. He stated that on the BBC, that the flows of refugees from Libya into Tunisia have been constant. The Interior Minister commented that he has ‘seen nothing like it’ – with all the troubles in their own country, the Tunisians have taken care of the refugees, and he ‘has never seen such a generous pouring out of spirit.’ Bert stated that it is ‘not sexy work’, but there needs to be international human rights institutions built up in the area.

The speakers also discussed if any form of human rights agenda or organization be allowed in the region after the current unrest.

After a great lunch of pizza provided by Marco’s in Deer Park and a donor, the keynote speaker J.S. Tissanaiyagam (aka: Tissa) spoke. Originally from Sri Lanka and a journalist for the last 20 years, Tissa talked about the past and current political climate in Sri Lanka, and the civil war between the Singalese Majority and the Tamil minority, which ended in 2009. Tissa shared that he wrote two paragraphs in a journal about Tamil issues that were critical of the government. He was arrested in March of 2008, then charged in August, and then on August 31, 2009 he was convicted. He was reluctant to speak of his time in prison as it brought back poor memories.

J.S. Tissanaiyagam, a Sri Lankan reporter, spoke about his country's humanitarian concerns at the University of Cincinnati law school to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Amnesty International. Photo: Laura Osborne-Coffey

J.S. Tissanaiyagam, a Sri Lankan reporter who was recently jailed for only doing his job, spoke about his country's humanitarian concerns at the University of Cincinnati law school to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Amnesty International. Photo: Laura Osborne-Coffey

During this time, Amnesty International adopted Tissa as a prisoner of conscience, as he was prosecuted solely for his legitimate journalistic activities. In a statement to mark the World Press Freedom Day, US President Barack Obama mentioned Tissainayagam. He said: “In every corner of the globe, there are journalists in jail or being actively harassed … Emblematic examples of this distressing reality are figures like J.S. Tissainayagam in Sri Lanka, or Shi Tao and Hu Jia in China.”

Tissa was the first winner of the Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism; Foreign Journalist of the Year at the British Press Awards 2010.

Tissa explained that he was pardoned on 3 May 2010, as the sentence he’d received couldn’t be commuted; only pardoned by President Rajapakse.

The audience asked Tissa many questions, and gave him a huge round of applause for coming and speaking honestly about his situation in Sri Lanka. He told the group that due to his charges and his release, “I cannot go back.” He said “Like me, many journalists in Sri Lanka are reprimanded, arrested or shot just for what we write.”

The attendees then did a ‘toast to freedom’ with Debra Erenberg, who led the group in a discussion of Amnesty’s current campaigns, such as the Maternal Mortality campaign and the upcoming Torture Awareness month in June.

Look for more events throughout the year to help Amnesty celebrate its 50th anniversary!