The Story Inside: How Amnesty Does Its Work

Torture takes place in secret. Television crews don't have access to police interrogation centres. Witnesses of arrests and abductions are intimidated to prevent their telling others what they have seen.

So how does Amnesty International compile its detailed reports on political imprisonment, torture and killings?

And how does it verify its information? How does the organization pick its way through opposition propaganda, rumors, and potentially biased accounts by refugees?

Fact finding and analysis is the responsibility of the Research Department at the International Secretariat, Amnesty International's headquarters in London, England. Organized into five regional units, the Research Department has a staff of nearly 130 people, spanning a wide range of nationalities. The regional units are organized into several teams, comprising a researcher, an executive assistant and a research team assistant. Planning the research and policy at the regional level is a Head of Region, responsible in turn to the Head of Research.

The department assesses a constant stream of information about human rights abuses. It aims to take account of abuses occurring all over the world.

That goal has by no means been met, but the Amnesty International Report 1988 includes entries on 135 countries -- more than in any previous year.

The information comes from a variety of sources, including hundreds of newspapers and journals. The Secretariat's Information Services Department subscribes to more than 800 from around the world. It also subscribes to government bulletins and transcripts of radio broadcasts. Reports come from lawyers, public and private institutions and humanitarian organizations. Frequently there are letters from prisoners and their families.

An important source of firsthand information is generated by the many delegations Amnesty International sends to countries each year for on-the-spot investigations and to observe trials, meet prisoners and talk to government officials. In the first few months of 1988, the organization sent 18 mission to 15 countries from Yugoslavia to Singapore, Jamaica to Israel.

The fact that Amnesty International is a world movement with an active membership also contributes to the permanent research effort. Each group involved in adopting or investigating a prisoner case is a potential source of new information; it can receive news about the family, a reply from a government or information from someone who has recently been in the country.

The barrage of information also derives from interviews with former prisoners and refugees, meetings with representatives of local human rights groups, and testimony from victims of torture.

The researchers have the responsibility of putting all the available information together and making sense of it. It's little like a jigsaw puzzle.

First they construct an overview, the historical and political background, the constitution, the laws and judicial process in a country. This framework is a matter of public record and the specialized knowledge that Amnesty International needs in these areas has been built up over its more than 27 years of work.

Then, working in from this outer frame, they must determine what social, political or legal patterns affect human rights issues. What groups in the society are most at risk -- religious and ethnic minorities? trade unions? Is there legislation that provides for political arrest and imprisonment? What procedures are followed in political cases? What agencies are regularly implicated in reports of torture? Is the death penalty in force?

Much of this information also can be obtained by normal research methods, although there are often considerable obstacles. Sometimes it takes a prolonged effort just to get a copy of the exact text of a new law decreed in a distant country and then find a specialist to translate and accurately interpret the legal terminology. But the detail is important and may later prove essential in determining the status of a person affected by the new law.

While trying to establish the overall pattern (and, in Amnesty International's work, that too may have developed over years of experience with many cases), the research must also piece together the individual portraits of prisoners. What is the exact name? What was the date of arrest? What were the circumstances? Where was he or she last seen?

Detailed questionnaires, with dozens of questions, are used not only by researchers, but are given to people around the world who say they have information on prisoners.

Amassing details about individual victims is a major preoccupation. A great deal of time is spent seeking corroboration.. At this stage, the work is closest to responsible journalism: trying to get confirmation from independent sources, trying to assess the reliability of everything you have been told.

Then comes the question: “Is it a case for Amnesty International?” The information has to be measured against a common standard is the movement's Statute, whose first article forms the basis for what is usually called “the mandate”.

It is the responsibility of researchers and their colleagues to establish, for example, whether there is a solid basis for determining that a prisoner has been arrested solely for the nonviolent exercise of his or her human rights. In that case he or she could quality for adoption as a prisoner of conscience. All the available information and the whole of the jigsaw puzzle, the country's laws and patterns of human rights abuses, must be taken into account. Where there is doubt, further research may be needed. Or the case may be allocated to a group for investigation. (The group's letters to the appropriate government authorities will stop short of calling for the prisoner's immediate and unconditional release and will seek instead to determine whether the prisoner is in fact a prisoner of conscience.) A case may require consultation involving the Head of Research and the Secretariat's Legal Office. The relevant issues may be referred to a mandate sub-committee of the International Executive Committee to assess whether a given prisoner case falls within the ambit of the mandate.

But the point here is not that Amnesty International “chooses” its prisoners, as it is sometimes said mistakenly. Governments decide who the prisoners will be. Amnesty International's job is to get the facts, determine what action to take on the basis of the movement's statute and then get down to the work of helping the victims.

Human rights have become an increasingly sensitive and controversial field. Amnesty International reports have a high profile. They are subjected to scrutiny by sympathetic experts and hostile officials alike. One mistake can be used to undermine Amnesty International's credibility and consequently the worth of its entire endeavor.

Because of this risk, there is far more information in research files than is ever made public. Much of it may well be correct. But where there is any doubt or where there is scant corroboration, caution dictates that it not be published.

The organization's caution is further reflected in the clear distinction it makes between allegations and facts. Frequently only allegations are available. This is usually true of torture claims.

Sometimes it is possible for Amnesty International to arrange for medical examinations of people who allege that they have been tortured. This may help to form an opinion as to whether the medical evidence is consistent with the injuries to which the individual claims to have been subjected. Such evidence helps Amnesty International not only to assess the allegations, but also to arouse public interest in the case.
But in many cases there is no source against which to crosscheck prisoner's testimony, and the organization has a responsibility, even when calling for a government inquiry, not to present such testimony as confirmed fact.

Just as tenacity is the watchword of Amnesty International in action, so caution is the touchstone of the research and reporting that precede action.

Reprinted from Amnesty International Bulletin, October-November 1988. The English-Speaking Branch of Amnesty is at 130 Slater Street, Suite 900, Ottawa, Ontario K1P 6E2, (416) 563-1891. The Francophone Branch is at 3516 avenue du Parc, Montreal, Quebec H2X 2H7, (514) 288-1141.



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