An agent for change

Salil Shetty, Secretary General, Amnesty International

Amnesty International is no stranger to change. As an organization born to transform the world, it’s in our lifeblood. It’s in our DNA.

From the very beginning change has been what Amnesty International has been about.

When British lawyer Peter Benenson launched the organization with an article in The Observer newspaper back in 1961, the idea took hold that ordinary people everywhere could unite in solidarity to work for justice and freedom.

It was an inspiring moment in the search for social justice.

This didn’t just give birth to an extraordinary movement; it gave birth to extraordinary social change. The world had never seen anything quite like it before. More than half a century on, and human rights have moved from the fringes to centre stage in world affairs.

As a leading change-maker, Amnesty International has always been prepared to react, and to evolve.

Benenson’s Observer article, ‘The Forgotten Prisoners’, began with the words: “Open your newspaper any day of the week and you will find a report from somewhere in the world of someone being imprisoned, tortured or executed because his opinions are unacceptable to his government.”

It was a call to arms to defend prisoners of conscience – those imprisoned simply for their peaceful beliefs – and the tortured. The mailbags of tyrants and despots soon began to fill with letters from people around the world, speaking out for the rights of others they would probably never meet. Amnesty International’s research findings soon began to attract international media attention.

Of course, the secret police, the torturers and the death squads – unused to the spotlight of international attention and faced with relentless global pressure – tried to move deeper into the shadows.

But there was nowhere they could hide. Amnesty constantly adapted its approach and always stayed one step ahead, making use of opportunities provided by new technologies. Research missions grew and became more frequent, relentlessly probing for the truth. Letters and phone calls began to be accompanied by the use of telex, fax, emails, and then social media.

Amnesty International had to adapt in deeper ways too, broadening our remit as governments’ tactics changed, or more and more evidence came to light showing the connections between different human rights violations. We tackled the death penalty, we responded to waves of "disappearances".

Over time, it became increasingly clear that the denial of rights to food, health, housing and education needed to be addressed through access to justice too. So today we uphold the whole spectrum of rights enshrined in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

This willingness to change has been one of Amnesty International’s greatest strengths. It has given our movement the resilience and flexibility to evolve and adapt. The world did not stand still through the turbulent years of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, and nor did we.

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