Nonprofits and Historical Research

Early Amnesty International and the Art of Foreign Relations

Editors’ Note: This post, from Swati Srivastava, is adapted from her article, “Navigating NGO-Government Relations in Human Rights: New Archival Evidence from Amnesty International, 1961-1986,” recently published in International Studies Quarterly.

In 1961, when Amnesty International was founded, it entered a daunting international landscape for human rights. After World War II, the international community passed the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1949 Geneva Convention. But even after those landmark events, the world was no closer to implementing human rights. The United Nations (UN) Commission on Human Rights, established in 1946, prohibited direct criticism of member states. Over the course of the 1950s, human rights principles faced practical obstacles to becoming a reality. Amnesty’s closest model was the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC), which did not publicly release its findings or openly shame governments. Yet Amnesty aimed for both access and shaming. Remarkably, it succeeded.

This post draws on my recent article in International Studies Quarterly that unveils new archival evidence from Amnesty’s first 25 years (1961-1986) to shed light on the realization of international human rights as Amnesty balanced “non-political politics” through multifaceted government relations. I examined minutes and reports of 80 meetings of Amnesty’s executive leadership – its International Executive Committee (IEC) – and interviews from the 1983-85 Amnesty Oral History project, all collected from the International Institute of Social History. The records show that during this time Amnesty cultivated a private diplomatic network with governments for access and advocacy and conducted side bargains with closed countries for access and reforms.

In one sense, the new evidence complicates the conventional wisdom that within its first five years, Amnesty, in the words of political scientist Ann Marie Clark, “cemented an unambiguous policy of refusal either to conduct private negotiations with governments or to take government funds” in order to preserve its moral capital. In another sense, the new data extends existing insights about INGO strategic action by revealing Amnesty’s pragmatic trade-offs when maintaining complex arms-length relations with governments, allowing for a more nuanced appreciation of the organization’s early challenges and accomplishments.

Leveraging Access through a Diplomatic Network

As Amnesty’s country reports gained attention in the late-1960s, it faced a serious curtailment in obtaining access for research missions. In 1971, the IEC “expressed concern at the number of countries that were refusing missions by Amnesty.” Gaining access to “closed countries” was vital for Amnesty so it did not appear to only select prisoners from more open countries. As Jan Eckel notes, access was such a problem that in 1979 “only six countries accounted for three quarters of all Amnesty prisoner of conscience adoption groups.” Amnesty sent agents covertly, but they would often be arrested.

To achieve a more sustainable solution, Amnesty built networks with friendly and unfriendly governments. Friendly governments were largely Western European countries who were early backers of Amnesty, such as the Scandinavians. Unfriendly governments were those whom Amnesty was investigating at the time, which changed frequently. Often a prior relationship did not predetermine the role a government would play in the network.

As I discovered in my research, Amnesty used this diplomatic network in many ways, including for obtaining visas and accessing government officials, passing information, securing help with research missions on the ground, and aiding Amnesty’s advocacy at the UN Commission on Human Rights.

For instance, in 1967, Amnesty was building a case against Greece in the Council of Europe based on reports of torture following the military coup. The Greek mission was important as it followed the organization’s serious 1966-67 scandals including the resignation of its founder, Peter Benenson. Amnesty sent its representative, Anthony Marreco, to Greece, who, according to a report, described “the extremely uncooperative attitude he had met with in Athens, both from Ministers and from contacts given to him by the International Secretariat.” Amnesty then sent a group of 11 parliamentarians from Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Finland to Greece. The parliamentarians “were granted interviews with all the chief Ministers in Athens. They were also allowed to visit [political prisoner] Andreas Papandreou and a prison in Athens where 12 men were held, six of them former Centre Union deputies. They were allowed to talk to these prisoners for more than two hours.”

In January 1968, Amnesty released a torture report, “Situation in Greece.” Following the parliamentarians, Amnesty was able to send Marreco on an official mission to Greece, after which the IEC perceived Amnesty “had reaffirmed its position and regained public confidence.” A second report followed in March, alleging that torture was official policy in Greece. In November, Amnesty met with the Human Rights Commission at the Council to provide additional reporting. In 1969, Greece withdrew from the Council under massive pressure, marking a momentous victory for Amnesty and its diplomatic network.

As Amnesty established itself as a government watchdog, its diplomatic network required nurturing friendly government contacts for access and information. But Amnesty did not shy away from exerting pressure against friendly governments in its network. For instance, the IEC asked National Sections to contact Brazilian ambassadors after the publication of the Brazil Torture Report and to approach American ambassadors to discuss Vietnamese prisoners before the Paris Peace Accord. In using governments for access while also shaming them, Amnesty engaged in what might be considered the art of foreign relations. In 1977, Amnesty would refer to these functions within the organization as “External Affairs.”

Bargaining for Reforms in Closed Countries

Amnesty’s external affairs strategy with closed countries consisted of making private bargains for access or reforms. After Amnesty concluded a research mission, it presented the government with its findings and gave an opportunity to make reforms before Amnesty went public. Amnesty referred to these as “high-level” missions as opposed to “low-level” research or trial observation missions.

By the mid-1970s, more Amnesty missions were approved for high-level government talks than for research or trial observation. Amnesty’s Research Department drew attention to this trend, pointing out in 1976 that “very few IEC-approved missions in the past year had been designated specifically and solely as research missions.” By fielding so many high-level missions, a large majority of the IEC’s time was spent on external relations. In recognition of this, the IEC created a sub-committee on “government relations” in 1975, renamed “strategy” in 1976.

Amnesty wielded international publicity as a weapon for continued country access and threatened additional publicity to make side bargains with closed countries for private reforms. Amnesty’s bargains invoked different levels of international publicity, ranging from publishing a report to sharing findings privately.

To offer one illustration from the archives, Amnesty’s external relations with the USSR for private reforms took many years to establish. Amnesty’s first mission to the Soviet Union to seek out research contacts was in 1969. Then, it organized a Scandinavian parliamentary delegation in 1970 “to try to obtain some form of recognition by the USSR of the function and value of Amnesty International.” Next, Amnesty Chairman Seán MacBride – former Irish Foreign Minister and Nobel Peace laureate  – led a delegation to Moscow during the World Congress of Peace Forces in October 1973 for “opening a regular dialogue between Amnesty and the USSR.” The visit received international attention because of the mention of human rights at the conference.

However, the international press did not report that MacBride also met the Soviet Minister of Justice and the Procurator General. According to an internal report, the Amnesty delegation concluded that “the Soviet authorities are prepared to continue discussions with Amnesty. The Chairman stressed that any accusations against the Soviet authorities should always be well-founded and backed by concrete evidence, although it was clear that Amnesty work in the Soviet Union must continue as before.” The IEC also agreed that maintaining a Soviet connection would positively “influence the attitude of other Eastern European countries and could form the basis for new approaches to Czechoslovakia and East Germany in particular.” Crucially, Amnesty decided a damning report on Soviet psychiatric hospitals would not “be for immediate release.” The report remained unpublished until two years later when the Soviet authorities detained Amnesty’s Soviet group members in 1975. Thus, Amnesty’s unpublished report prolonged the protection of its Soviet group for some time to ensure the organization’s continued operations and country access. But when the Soviet group’s security was threatened, Amnesty went public with the findings.

Amnesty’s high-level missions led to pragmatic trade-offs for building the human rights movement. In 1975, Amnesty had identified expanding National Sections in right-wing dictatorships as a high priority. In 1976, a year after General Franco’s death, Amnesty’s Spanish mission considered the dangers of creating a National Committee that was not accepted by the new government. When given the opportunity to expand its official presence in a post-Franco Spain that still carried out brutal tactics of the previous regime, Amnesty decided against authorizing establishing a group that would compromise its governmental relations.


This new archival research helps shed light on how a young Amnesty International shamed governments while also maintaining country access. The thirty-year moratorium on Amnesty Archives precludes extending the analysis to Amnesty’s contemporary operations. But the historical evidence contributes to scholarship on the strategic choices of INGOs and provides new data for future research on the agency of nonstate actors in global governance navigating complex government relations.

-Swati Srivastava

Swati Srivastava is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Purdue University. Her research on global​governance, corporate responsibility, NGOs, and constructivism has been published in International Studies Quarterly, International Studies Review and the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of International Studies.

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