In the spring of 1961, two Portuguese students raised their glasses in a restaurant in a toast to freedom. Unfortunately for them, that act landed them in jail. At the time Portugal was under the dictatorship of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, whose regime did not tolerate dissent. A British lawyer, outraged by their arrest, wrote an article entitled "The Forgotten Prisoners" about the plight of many such people around the world and the need to do something about it. The London Observer newspaper published the article on its front page. The lawyer, Peter Benenson, made the case for fundamental rights. He urged readers to write letters of protest to the Portuguese government. The document used the term "prisoners of conscience" for the first time.
The article made a difference. It was quickly reprinted by newspapers around the world and launched the Appeal for Amnesty 1961, a global campaign calling for the release of those held for the peaceful expression of their beliefs.
And this is how Amnesty International was born. The organization focuses on essential principles outlined in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That document states that people have fundamental rights that transcend national, cultural, religious and ideological boundaries. Freedom of expression is one example. It keeps its focus on individuals rather than on political systems.
Every year at this time, Amnesty International releases its report on the state of the world's human rights. In a reference to U.S. President Roosevelt's depression era "New Deal" program, the 2009 report is calling for a "New Global Deal" on human rights. Amnesty International is worried about the growing gap between the rich and the poor. The plight of the poor and the marginalized has become even more acute as a result of the economic downturn that began in 2008. The secretary general of the organization, Irene Khan, says the world's economic problems are turning into a human rights crisis that requires rapid intervention: "The world is sitting on a social, political and economic time bomb," Khan writes.
The report outlines the condition of millions of people living in poverty and diminishing hope in countries around the world. It also points out the on-going struggles of Canada's indigenous peoples, especially the conditions of some aboriginal women. Every country can do better to address issues of inequity and the growing gap between the haves and have-nots.
In the first week of June, we mark the 20th anniversary of the Tienanmen Square protests in China.
The demonstrations by students and intellectuals calling for less authoritarianism and more economic and social freedoms in China began in May and ended seven weeks later on June 4th, when the Chinese government sent tanks into the square to put an end to the demonstrations. People died (the figures vary from about 240 to more than 2,000). Many others were arrested. The "June Fourth Incident," as it's referred to in China, is still the subject of intense debate in the Chinese community living in Canada.
The relationship between economic development and human rights is one that also engages many countries with China. Human rights also links people of other countries. Wherever one looks in the world, one sees the repercussions of events on human beings and their freedoms: just think about the struggles in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Burma, Zimbabwe, Haiti....the list seems endless.
Amnesty International is launching a new initiative this year aimed at empowering the poor. They're calling it "Demand Dignity." Amnesty says, "Protecting the rights of those living in poverty, the right to health, the right to education, the right to housing and the right to live to live without fear of persecution, repression and discrimination, is not just an option – it is an essential piece of any solution."
While the world has made progress in the improvement of the human condition on many fronts, economic recessions and political turmoil can cause much suffering. Information and personal awareness of the challenges facing humanity are important factors in ensuring social improvement remains on the agenda of the world's leaders.
You can read the full annual report on Amnesty International's web site and view the video summary here.
An abridged version of Peter Benenson's article, "The Forgotten Prisoners," is saved in The Guardian Observer archive here.
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