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Thursday, Oct 21, 2021

Amnesty International: 60 years of fighting impunity and championing humanity

Amnesty International: 60 years of fighting impunity and championing humanity

Amnesty International on Friday celebrates 60 years since its foundation by lawyer Peter Benenson back in 1961. Over the past six decades, the rights organisation has worked to empower people to take action towards making the world a better place. RFI spoke to the head of Amnesty France about the NGO's achievements.

Amnesty International was founded in 1961 on the idea that ordinary citizens could change the world by joining forces.

Today, Amnesty is a global human rights movement that draws on the collective strength of over 10 million people - each committed to the struggle for justice, equality and freedom around the world.

Underlining the importance of being a grass-roots movement, Amnesty has brought people together from around the world to demand that the rights of every human being be respected and protected.

Born into protest in the 60s

Having been founded in the 1960s - a volatile period of protest, equal rights activism and anti-war sentiment - how did Amnesty International make a name for itself?

During the Cold War it was very complicated, says Cécile Coudriou, Head of Amnesty International France, as the world was composed of the two blocks - the East and the West.

"Our first impulse was to defend prisoners of conscience. We were very keen on not making any difference between East and West because of impartiality.

"So at the time, the first action was to defend prisoners of opinion that were jailed. And it was Peter Benenson, the lawyer, who first decided to found the movement based on this feeling of indignation, based on law," says Coudriou.

Amnesty as an organisation quickly evolved to tackle the issues of torture and the death penalty. And over the past six decades, the organisation's mission has expanded to dealing with armed conflict, but also with refugees and migrants.

2001 was a big turning point for Amnesty International, says Coudriou: "We decided to change our approach and include economic and social and cultural rights. This was not understood by everybody [in the beginning], but to my mind it's very logical, because of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights."

For the head of Amnesty's French chapters, the Universal Declaration of Human rights remains the NGO's constant reference. "These rights are totally interdependent and interconnected. It makes perfect sense that our mission over 60 years has gradually included violations of all these rights," she adds.

Abolition of the death penalty

With France being recognised as the birthplace of the human rights charter, how instrumental was Amnesty in getting France to abolish the death penalty back in 1981?

Coudriou muses that it was a very interesting campaign, as President François Mitterrand had the political courage to tackle the issue, although opinion polls showed that most French people were in favour of the guillotine.

"We had an impact - we had a double the impact - to show that it was France's duty, being supposedly the country of human rights, to set an example to start the domino effect in a positive sense towards the abolition of the death penalty," she says.

"But at the same time, our work has always been accompanied with an education in human rights, or sensitisation. It's a constant mission that we try to accomplish in parallel with advocacy work and mobilisation in the streets."

The International Criminal Court in the spotlight

Amnesty was also instrumental in lobbying for the establishment of the International Criminal Court in The Hague before its inception in 2002. However, critics say it is bogged down by bureaucracy and overly targets African suspects. Several countries, including the United States of America, refuse to recognise the ICC's authority.

Coudriou defends the institution, but understands its critics.

"Creating a tool does not solve all the problems. So I understand the detractors because it is true that it has given too often the impression of targeting the same countries.

"I think it is true that some criticisms can be expressed and are justified. But on the other hand, the danger would be to criticise the tool itself and be tempted to get rid of it. Every time I have doubts about how long the procedures can be, how heavy the whole process can be, how underfunded it is - you can tell me 'justice has no cost'. Every time I have this criticism in mind, I think about the victims, and about so many cases where justice, only justice, can bring peace and the possibility of a new life."

Macron in Rwanda "step in the right direction"

On Thursday, French President Emmanuel Macron was in Kigali, 27 years after the genocide in which at least 800,000 people were massacred. Relations between France and Rwanda have been strained amid allegation of French complicity in aiding the genocidal government in 1994.

Speaking on the podium on Thursday, Macron didn't accept France was complicit in the massacres, but recognised France's responsibility in failing the Rwandan people.

Although it may not turn the page for relations between Paris and Kigali, for Coudriou, the French president's statement has been braver than his predecessors.

"It's been a very tricky issue. Macron has opened the access to archives, and he seems to be ready to accept some new research. There is a huge need for justice.

"Victims and the families of victims are waiting for more. And admitting that France had some a form of responsibility could be seen as a first step.

"It is not an apology. It's not a recognition of direct responsibility. But I think we can also see some progress. We can see the beginning of the possibility of finding the truth and one day maybe France will be obliged to really recognise its responsibilities, apologise officially and also offer reparations to families."


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