Background of Amnesty’s Work on Death Penalty Abolition Worldwide

Amnesty International’s inception began in 1961 with our founder Peter Benenson, who launched a worldwide campaign, “Appeal for Amnesty 1961” with his article in The Observer newspaper titled “The Forgotten Prisoners” that tells of two Portuguese students who were jailed for raised a toast to freedom. The campaign article generated an incredible response and was reprinted in newspapers worldwide. The first international meeting was held in July 1961, with delegates from Belgium, the UK, France, Germany, Ireland, Switzerland, and the USA; they decided to establish “a permanent international movement in defence of freedom of opinion and religion.” 

Throughout the 1960’s, Amnesty International’s campaigns focused on “prisoners of conscience” who are those who have been imprisoned simply for exercising their right to freedom of speech. Their first annual report in 1962 gives details of activities so far: 210 prisoners of conscience have been adopted by 70 groups in seven countries; 1,200 cases are documented in the Prisoners of Conscience Library. In 1963, the Amnesty was able to aid in the first ever release of a prisoner of conscience, Ukrainian Archbishop Josyf Slipyi, who was sent 7,000 cards by Amnesty International members worldwide. In 1968, Amnesty announced its opposition to the death penalty for political prisoners. By the end of the 60’s, Amnesty International had managed to aid in the release of 2,000 prisoners of conscience. 

The 1970’s saw further expansion for the organisation as well as its campaigns; in 1970 and 1971, 520 and 700 prisoners of conscience were released respectively thanks to Amnesty’s efforts. Furthermore, Amnesty also launched its first campaign against torture in 1971, which has since become a focal point of its campaigning. The first full Urgent Action was issued in 1973 on behalf of Professor Luiz Basilio Rossi whose arrest was made on political grounds. The international attention his case received spurned the authorities into eventually releasing him. It was a monumental decade for Amnesty International, as it was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977 for “having contributed to securing the ground for freedom, for justice, and thereby also for peace in the world”, and then the United Nations Human Rights Prize the following year in 1978. 

In 1980, Amnesty International started its campaign for death penalty abolition, advancing further than the previous campaign against death penalty for political prisoners; this has now also become one of the cornerstones of the organisation’s campaigns. Those formative years were instrumental in shaping the core of Amnesty’s campaigns: death penalty abolition, freedom of expression and from arbitrary detention, and against torture. The following decades saw Amnesty venture into other fields of advocacy.

For example:

1985 – the International Council meeting in Helsinki, Finland, decides to broaden Amnesty International’s Statute to include work for refugees. 

1991 – on Amnesty International’s 30th anniversary it broadens its scope to cover work on abuses by armed groups, hostage-taking and people imprisoned for their sexual orientation. 1992 – called for an end to centuries of human rights abuses against Indigenous people. 

1994 – launched a major campaign on women’s rights, Human Rights are Women’s Rights

Besides awareness-raising, Amnesty International’s campaigns also serve to lobby for political and legal change, complemented by research that the organisation compiles in its reports. An international report on the death penalty is launched yearly, reporting figures and analysing trends for each country. Amnesty’s latest report, Death Sentences and Executions 2018, was released in April 2019. The actions that follow, such as strengthening national and international standards against the use of death penalties, and applying pressure on cases that face imminent execution, are supported by the report. 

Aside from the death penalty, reports are also researched on and published in other fields of advocacy. Amnesty International’s report, Don’t mine us out of existence was published in 2010; it reported on the threats that the Dongria Kondh and other Indigenous communities faced as a result of the proposed plans by the Indian government to grant multinational corporation Vedanta to mine bauxite in the Niyamgiri Hills, eastern India. The damning report formed the eventual basis of the Indian government’s rejection of the plan, a huge success for Amnesty International. 

Amnesty International’s activities and campaigns depend on the continued support and participation of its members worldwide. The organisation currently enjoys more than 2 million members and supporters who drive forward our fight for rights, and more than 5 million activists who strengthen our calls for justice.