Amnesty International: Successes and Criticisms

by Vivian Righter

Amnesty International, a human rights organization, is one of many non-governmental organizations necessary to present information and lobby for better protection of human rights, particularly in a world where the number and scope of violations is constantly changing. Although non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have had their fair share of criticism in the past, the work of these organizations have tirelessly pushed humanity towards a world with less human rights violations. Amnesty International continues to effectively address and help solve human rights issues on a global scale through its broad scale engagement with the global community and lasting influence on the spread of human rights.

Amnesty International’s mission statement is to “undertake research and action focused on preventing and ending grave abuses of human rights” (Amnesty, 2017, p.1).  What dictates a human right according to AI is loosely attributed to the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which in scope contains civil, political, cultural, and social rights (Martens, 2004). AI is composed of worldwide voluntary membership, with members composing the teams that work on campaigns and goals for the organization. AI completes these goals and campaigns through conducting “research to uncover human rights abuses and document patterns…use this research to educate the public and equip activists to demand change and…mobilize grassroots activists nationwide to advocate for human rights in the U.S. and around the globe” (Amnesty, 2017).  Each of these aspects of fulfillment plays a critical part in the NGO’s role as a source of information for lawmakers and grassroots movements alike.

For the first primary method of fulfilling their mission, research, Amnesty International members are engaged in fact-finding investigations culminating in hundreds of reports published every year, documenting first hand insight into violation of people’s human rights across the world (Amnesty, 2017). The second aspect, mobilization, involves using said research to educate the public on human rights abuses and to give members of AI and other grassroot organizations the information and tools they need to demand human rights be protected. Finally, AI is involved in advocacy. AI advocacy involves members of the organization directly engaging with lawmakers and policymakers, as well as creating and fostering grassroot movements that are focused on protecting human rights nationally and internationally. One of the most well known and longstanding forms of advocacy that AI engages in are letter writing campaigns (Savelsberg, 2015). Letter writing was actually how AI began, with a campaign taking place after an op-ed piece was published about a person imprisoned under unjust charges.

To execute all of these methods, Amnesty International is funded completely independently, meaning without government entity involvement. Most of their funding instead comes from small private donors and individual membership dues (Amnesty, 2017). Although AI is independent of funding from the government, it has been critiqued because in a way it has been encouraged by certain governments to continue acting as an NGO, such as in the U.S. it is a tax-exempt charitable organization (NGOMonitor, 2016). Criticism has also been placed on this particular organization as the organization has received different types of indirect funding from UK Department for International Development (DFID), the European Commission, the Netherlands, the United States, and Norway. However, most of these funds were not necessarily directly from the government but rather through other institutions that received government funding.

Amnesty International has used its funding to grow in strength and scope throughout history. One of the most important contributions to long lasting international legal change that AI has accomplished was the campaign to create an International Criminal Court (Martens, 2014). Starting in 1994, AI began publishing papers and documents that advocated for the creation of an International Criminal Court. AI proved to be one of the most influential NGOs in creating such a court, attaining over a million signatures on petitions and lobbying UN member states and leaders. In 1998, AI focused its attention on creating a network of support from human rights lawyers, the final step needed to eventual convince the UN to adopt the ICC as part of the Rome Treaty between 1998 and 2001 (Martens, 2014).  Although controversy still exists in regards to the International Criminal Court, the ability of AI to have the capacity influence the UN to create such a court shows just how successful their campaigns have been.

In the present day, although the scope of Amnesty International has increased to advocacy and policy making, letter writing remains at the core of its human rights efforts. One of AI’s current campaigns is the freeing of NGO campaign worker Lee Ming-Cheh (Amnesty, 2017). Lee Ming-Cheh worked previously for an NGO in Taipei and after crossing into a province in China, he disappeared. It was later indirectly revealed to his wife that he was being held by the Chinese government. Ming-Cheh was later taped confessing to charges of subversion, however it is clear that he was coerced. His arrest is one of many that AI fears will happen after the Foreign NGO Management law was passed in China. This law allows the Chinese government and law enforcement to have direct oversight of individuals in NGOs and NGOs themselves, a law that AI fears will lead to increased intimidation of NGO workers (Amnesty, 2017). The campaign hopes to encourage AI members to write to the Chinese government to release Ming-Cheh unless credible evidence can be produced and not to harm him in any way while in prison. This campaign may run into difficulty however as China’s policy has been made clear on NGO involvement in political matters with the passing of the Foreign NGO Management law.

Although Amnesty International continues to have many successes in terms of its influence and capability for change, criticism of the organization still exists. Critics of AI have asserted that many aspects of the NGO are not as morally upstanding as they may seem. Some argue that the practice of upholding moral standards and human rights is predominantly based on western ideas of what human rights are, a critique often aimed at the UN as well (NGOMontior, 2016). Furthermore, there has also been backlash after Amnesty International UK spoke out against the American Guantanamo Bay prison treatment, specifically on behalf of Moazzam Begg, a British Pakistani man who was considered an enemy combatant held by the U.S (Tusa, 2010).  AI has also been attacked for being anti-Israel in the Israel Palestine conflict and that AI’s reporting does not consider the complexity or history of the conflict (NGOMonitor, 2016).

On the contrary, many of these critiques have well founded responses. Although western standards of human rights may be imposed on non-western countries, these same standards of human rights are upheld in the UDHR (Universal Declaration of Human Rights), an agreement that allowed each country to voice its dissenting opinions on said agreed upon human rights. The criticism that Amnesty International received based on the Guantanamo bay reporting on the other hand rather reinforces that the organization is unbiased. Many of the actions that took place at that prison facility are now proven to be violations against human rights, including methods of torture. AI has been criticized for sticking to western standards of human rights involvements and bias however they still campaigned for the end of controversial actions taken by one of the western superpowers, the United States. As for the Palestine-Israel conflict, after being called out for unfair bias, AI began to cover each side more evenly, although even in their initial reports they were mainly focused on the human rights violations carried out by countries and not the political skewing of sides. AI acknowledges criticism and responds to it by changing their policies and practices.

In a more general sense, Amnesty International’s achievements far outweigh its failures. AI has effectively been accomplishing its goals to campaign for human rights and demands to free prisoners ever since its beginning. Although the achievement of its goals has been very important,  perhaps more important is AI’s presence as a large NGO that has remained relatively politically impartial when deciding which individuals to fight for and what grassroots movements and advocacy projects to support (Scobles & Wiseberg, 1974). AI can be considered still as one of it not the most powerful INGO in terms of influencing international human rights decision making and policy enactment (Martens, 2014). AI has had the unique capability to act as both a state and international advocacy group. National chapters report national citizen complaints to national governments, but also still try to hold other international governments accountable. Another important aspect of AI is its relationship with the United Nations. The UN, being the largest congregation of nations focused on international and human security, has been influenced by actions of AI and encouraged to develop new methods and policies on human rights because of the organization (Martens, 2014). For these reasons, AI should continue to receive funding because of their valuable status as a powerful NGO and their capability of influence on the international stage (Scobles & Wiseberg, 1974).

The increased capability of NGOs everywhere to advocate and influence policymakers has occurred in part due to the success of Amnesty International. Criticism of AI will always exist in part due to the fact that no human run organization can remain entirely impartial or run completely without obstacles. However, through nonpolitical avenues of research, mobilization and advocacy, Amnesty International continues to be an important player in the context of attaining equality and human rights around the world.



Amnesty, I. “About Us – Amnesty International USA.” Amnesty International USA. Amnesty International, 2017. Web.

Amnesty, I. “China: Further Information: Taiwan NGO Worker Faces Life Imprisonment: Lee Ming-Cheh.” Amnesty International. Amnesty International, 23 Oct. 2017. Web.

Martens, K. “An Appraisal of Amnesty International’s Work at the United Nations: Established Areas of Activities and Shifting Priorities since the 1990s.” Human Rights Quarterly, vol. 26, no. 4, 2004, pp. 1050–1070. JSTOR, JSTOR, Web.

NGOMonitor. “Amnesty International (AI).” Ngomonitor. Institute for NGO Research, 27 Nov. 2016. Web.

Savelsberg, J. “The Human Rights Field and Amnesty International.” Representing Mass Violence: Conflicting Responses to Human Rights Violations in Darfur, University of California Press, Oakland, California, 2015, pp. 61–82. JSTOR, Web.

Scoble, H., and Wiseberg, L. “Human Rights and Amnesty International.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 413, 1974, pp. 11–26. JSTOR, JSTOR, Web.

Thakur, R. “Human Rights: Amnesty International and the United Nations.” Journal of Peace Research, vol. 31, no. 2, 1994, pp. 143–160. JSTOR, JSTOR, Web.

Tusa, J. “Mid-life Crisis for Amnesty?” BBC News. BBC, 28 Dec. 2010. Web.


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