In 1961, London lawyer Peter Benenson read a news article about a group of Portuguese students arrested for making a toast to “freedom” in a restaurant. He was inspired to begin a year-long letter writing campaign in support of political prisoners. Within months, that well-publicized campaign grew into the organization known as Amnesty International. The Williams College branch now meets every Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. in Baxter Lounge.
“One of our main goals for this year is to increase our visibility and educate the campus about improvements of human rights and, more broadly, involvement in the international community,” said Elisa Beller ’01, one of the group’s leaders.
Amnesty International, which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its activities in 1977, is known for its letter-writing campaigns, directed towards authorities with the power to free prisoners of conscience. In fact, the organization – which included over a million members in over 150 countries as of 1993 – is an intricate network of paid and volunteer workers who pursue a variety of projects directed by an International Secretariat’s Office in London.
The AI mandate identifies “prisoners of conscience” as those who have been imprisoned following peaceful demonstration of their beliefs, politics, race, religion, color or national origin.
The goals of Amnesty, as specified in the mandate, also include “to ensure fair and prompt trials for all prisoners . . . abolish the death penalty, torture and other cruel treatment of prisoners,” and “to end extrajudicial executions.” The mandate’s principles are based on the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in December, 1948.
“Far from trying to cram issues down people’s throats, we are trying to engage them and get them to understand the importance of these issues,” said Beller.
Already this year, the campus chapter has organized a display case in Baxter, tabled in Baxter mail room to gather signatures towards release of imprisoned journalists and run articles from the Declaration of Human Rights in the Daily Advisor.
Additionally, Beller has gathered updated news related to human rights issues, and posted these bulletins on a WSO listserver “to stimulate conversation.”
In March, the group hopes to bring Hafsat Abiola to Williams. Abiola, a woman in her 20s, is the daughter of the late Nigerian politician Moshood Abiola. Democratically elected to be the leader of Nigeria in 1993, Mr. Abiola was imprisoned in 1994. His wife was shot in 1995, after advocating for his release; Mr. Abiola himself died of a heart attack last July. Hafsat Abiola will speak of human rights violations from her unique perspective.
All of this is in addition to Amnesty’s weekly letter-writing sessions in Baxter lounge. This week, in the spirit of the holiday season, cards will be made for prisoners. A flood of holiday cards may have some persuasive effect on authorities, Beller said. She added, “Our main goal is simply to reassure the prisoners themselves that the world knows of their plight and that we’re thinking of them. It may seem corny, but I find that inserting such a human touch into the awful conditions many of these people are facing is extremely important.”
Amnesty International brings international attention to bear on individual cases of human rights abuse. According to its own figures, some improvement of a prisoner’s condition is reported in about one-third of its cases. Such improvement ranges from cessation of torture to the prisoner’s release. Beller acknowledged that a person can harbor unreasonable expectations of Amnesty’s influence. Still, she maintained, “if you put enough pressure on people, they do respond sometimes.”
Alison Booth ’00 is the contact person for Williams College’s chapter of Amnesty. Booth is on leave this semester, working for Amnesty’s Program to Abolish the Death Penalty in Washington, D.C.
“Amnesty International uses the power of public opinion to make human rights real for everyone,” Booth said. “It is an idealistic view which, for those of us who are committed to human rights work, sometimes takes a struggle to maintain, between what we know of human history and current events, and what we are trying to design for the future.”
Booth’s experiences are evidence of the abundant opportunities for student involvement and leadership within Amnesty International. In high school, she served as a Student Area Coordinator, facilitating interaction between various student chapters and a regional office. As a Williams freshman, she became National Campus Advisory Committee Representative for the Northeast. In the process, she has attended four regional and three national meetings, led workshops at two regional conferences, and contributed a piece to Amnesty’s literature, entitled “How to Organize on Your Campus and in Your Community.”
Booth explained that the leaders at the international headquarters in London regularly designate specific campaigns to be the temporary focus of Amnesty groups worldwide. Currently, a campaign called “Rights for All” is working against human rights violations in the U.S. This means that campaign departments from all of Amnesty’s 150-plus nations are putting pressure on the United States to end the death penalty, and any other practices not in keeping with the mandate.
While the interest level on campus in AI issues has not been particularly high in the past, those who do participate are passionate about their cause and are not discouraged by Amnesty’s inability at times to effect change. Ending human rights violations around the world is a noble, yet daunting cause, but some Williams students meet that ongoing challenge with undying vigor.
“I couldn’t not do what little I can, once I found out what brutality is perpetrated against other people every day,” Booth said of her extensive involvement in AI. “I truly believe that human rights. . .are not ‘Western’ standards, but standards that everyone, everywhere, is entitled to in order to realize their potential.”