Annual Report 2013
The state of the world's human rights

Stories to inspire

The people, the faces, the stories – 50 years of defending rights

Protecting lives by letter and fax

Leila writing a letter for Amnesty's global Write-a-thon on International Human Rights Day in Ottawa, Canada, 2004.

© Amnesty International

“We will stop blocking faxes when governments stop blocking human rights.”

Amnesty International, 1993


Ordinary people can change – and sometimes even save – lives, simply by sending a letter.

  • Urgent Actions are a classic Amnesty International campaigning tool.
  • They can be very powerful, as these stories show.

Amnesty International’s members have changed many people’s lives over the last 50 years. They do it simply by sending out Urgent Action faxes and letters. The sheer volume of their correspondence has even forced some officials to plead for mercy.

A race to prison in Colombia

In 1989, a Colombian lawyer was arrested at home by security forces. He managed to shout “Call Amnesty! Call Amnesty!” before he was taken away. Others in the house immediately contacted Amnesty International. Members of our Urgent Action network then reacted so quickly that their faxes protesting against the lawyer’s detention arrived at the prison before he did. Amnesty International staff received a personal “thank you” from the lawyer after his release.

Counting stamps, not prison days, in Indonesia

A prisoner of conscience in Indonesia, Tri Agus Susanto, found a unique use for the letters he received from Amnesty International members: “Prisoners with money and influence over the guards had more freedom. I had influence because of the 5,000 letters written about me, 1,000 of which I received. I counted the stamps rather than the days! I advertised the stamps in an Indonesian philatelist magazine and a stamp collector visited me to collect them. We agreed that he would exchange stamps with shuttlecocks because we played badminton in prison and shuttlecocks were always in short supply.”

An urgent plea from overwhelmed embassy officials

Amnesty International’s members set up an Urgent Action stall equipped with five fax machines outside the United Nations World Conference on Human Rights in 1993. The stall attracted much attention, and by the third day there was already cause for celebration when a journalist was freed from prison in Peru. More than 25,000 faxes were sent out from the stall over the conference fortnight.

Meanwhile, Amnesty International’s headquarters in London received a message from the Egyptian embassy. It read: “The Embassy of the Arab Republic of Egypt understands your concern with human rights affairs and your activities in connection with them. Between us working people, though, we have a request: would it be possible for you NOT to block our fax? Please send your letters by mail or some other way. We cannot use our fax machine due to your continuous engagement of it.”

The response from Amnesty International was simple: “We will stop blocking faxes when governments stop blocking human rights.”

(We have lost touch with some of the people mentioned in this story. In order to protect their identities we have not used their names.)


The Archives of the International Secretariat of Amnesty International are deposited at the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam, The Netherlands:

For over 50 years we have been fighting for freedom of expression. The world has changed, but violence and imprisonment are still used to silence people who defend human rights and criticize the powerful. By calling on millions of activists and supporters worldwide, we can jam the fax machines of governments and send them a message they can’t ignore. Speak out against repression – deliver a message directly into the hands of those in power.
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