Over fifty years ago, on 19 November 1960, a youngBritish barrister travelling on the London underground read an article about two Portuguese students who were jailed after raising their glasses to toast liberty. The students were sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment.
The barrister, Peter Benenson, was so outraged at this that he wrote to The Observer in an appeal to unite people against injustice of this kind. His article, ‘Forgotten Prisoners’, which was published on 27 May 1961, stated: ‘Open your newspaper any day of the week and you will find a story from somewhere of someone being imprisoned, tortured or executed because his opinions or religion are unacceptable to his government … The newspaper reader feels a sickening sense of impotence. Yet if these feelings of disgust could be united into common action, something effective could be done.’ Benenson called for an international movement in which individuals could communicate by letter, in order to prevent events like this happening again.
Although it would be almost a year before the organisation was given its official name, Amnesty International was born. The organisation is now a household name and has an extremely favourable public image. To maintain such a positive public image and span the globe so comprehensively, in a time before internet communications, is a respectable achievement in itself. However, Amnesty International’s most significant and noteworthy work is undoubtedly its enormous contribution to the fight for human rights.
Amnesty International has approximately 3 million members worldwide and is the longest-running of all the organisations that campaign for human rights. Although its initial focus was to support and aid people who had been wrongly imprisoned, the charity now fights against any abuse of human rights.
Amnesty’s 50th anniversary marks a great achievement. The charity’s growth over the last half-century has been quite incredible, and the passion that surrounded the cause at the time of its conception showed that Benenson was not alone in his desire to address breaches of human rights. Although Benenson was the first to act, the organisation’s success shows that human rights issues were clearly at the fore of many people’s minds.
Amnesty International’s influence provides a lifeline for people who have been deprived of their liberty and dignity. As an organisation that fights against injustices of human rights, it is unsurprising that gay rights are also firmly on the charity’s agenda. Amnesty International’s LGBT network addresses injustice for people who are marginalised, or worse, due to their sexual orientation. It puts pressure on governments and leads campaigns in order to empower individuals and groups.
Clare Bracey, LGBT Campaign Manager for Amnesty International tells So So Gay that ‘over 60 countries around the world criminalise homosexuality, and in eight of these countries the maximum penalty is death. The criminalisation of people based on their sexual orientation contravenes international and regional human rights treaties.’ Some of Amnesty International’s recent achievements include helping legalise same-sex marriage in Argentina, campaigning for Lithuania to have its first Baltic Pride, and helping Turkey keep open Black Pink, an LGBT organisation that had been threatened with closure.
Amnesty International’s work in such cases is undoubtedly admirable. However, a criticism that might be ventured is that there appears to be an imbalance in the charity’s national and international work. The majority of Amnesty’s LGBT work in the UK involves a presence at various Pride marches. Although necessary, some might claim that this kind of support is neither unique nor innovative; pride marches are an absolute necessity for the gay community, but it is perhaps in the political realm where there is more work to be done. ‘Pride events in the UK are a fantastic opportunity to celebrate the successes made in the fight for equality and to remind us that there is still so much to do,’ says Bracey. They unite, inspire and empower people, allowing them to claim ownership of their spaces and give them the courage to feel proud of who they are.
But are they enough? Very clearly, there is still a lot of work to be done. In comparison to injustices in many countries, the UK is undoubtedly a fair few steps ahead, but just two very recent events in London indicate that the LGBT community is still less than fully equal in society.
On 13 April 2011, a gay couple were asked to leave the John Snow pub in Soho because they kissed. The second incident, only days later, involved a twenty-year-old man being physically attacked in Clapham, opposite the gay bar Kazbar. The events sparked public outrage and made many people think about how gay people are still treated by some in society. Incidents like this highlight the need to remember the attitudes that still need to change at home, as well as internationally.
One example of where the charity can play a big part internationally is that of Malawi couple Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, who were sentenced to 14 years in prison in June 2010 for participating in a same-sex engagement ceremony. Following international condemnation of the sentence, the couple were eventually given a presidential pardon. Still, concerns remained – and remain – about further harassment they could face unless the law is changed. Amnesty International put pressure on Malawi’s government to prevent abuse towards the couple. Here in the UK, it can be all too easy to forget how far things have come. Laws have been changed to protect gay people, but with this privilege comes a necessary understanding that this was not always the case. Amnesty would argue that as a country that has made achievements in this area, we need to be leaders in enforcing change elsewhere.
Another recent example of Amnesty’s role is in the case of Bradley Manning, the US soldier accused of leaking confidential documents to Wikileaks. He was subjected to detention conditions which contradicted his pre-trial status. Amnesty International sent letters to US President Barack Obama and Secretary of Defence Robert Gates, aiming to put a stop to this treatment. In April this year, Amnesty International Americas Director Susan Lee said: ‘Bradley Manning is being held in unnecessarily harsh conditions that are inconsistent with his status as an untried prisoner. We urge the US authorities to review Bradley Manning’s situation. Under international standards, prisoners who have not yet stood trial should be treated in accordance with their right to the presumption of innocence.’ Last month it was announced that Manning would be moved to a new detention centre where it was hoped his conditions would significantly improve. Lee announced, ‘We believe sustained public pressure for the US government to uphold human rights in Bradley Manning’s case has contributed to this move.’ Amnesty, too, surely played a part.
The 50th anniversary of any charity is a great cause for celebration. As well as their LGBT campaigning, the work that Amnesty International has done is influential, far-reaching and appreciated by millions. It tirelessly campaigns to fight injustice, and is realistic in knowing how much work still needs to be done, including within the LGBT arena. As Bracey points out, ‘LGBT rights are not special rights – they are human rights. As we move forward into our next 50 years we need to challenge this unacceptable situation.’