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Chapter 3


The Mandate

Many organizations are guided by “mandates” that help them limit and define their work and focus their energies. AI's mandate has four main parts.

These are the specific demands that AI makes of governments everywhere. They express the task the movement has set for itself.

  • release all prisoners of conscience _ people confined because of their beliefs or because of their ethnic origin, sex, colour, or language, who have not used or called for violence
  • give all prisoners whose cases have a political aspect a fair trial within a reasonable time
  • abolish the death penalty, torture, and other cruel treatment of all prisoners
  • end all extrajudicial executions and “disappearances”

Even though it supports all the articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, AI mobilizes its worldwide resources for active campaigning in defence of only a limited number of rights.

AI is not an all-purpose human rights movement. It contributes to the overall protection of human rights by defending certain fundamental rights _ rights that people must enjoy.

These are the rights to freedom of conscience and expression, the right to be free from discrimination by reason of ethnic origin, sex, colour, or language, and the right to physical and mental integrity. AI works to stop the gravest violations of these rights _ the use of extreme force such as torture and killings, and the denial of liberty.

Even though four statements express these fundamental rights in a simple manner, it is important to note that AI's mandate, while limited, is fairly complex.

All AI members must understand clearly which human rights the movement struggles to uphold. When introducing the organization to others, they must always make it plain exactly what AI does.

This chapter presents the AI mandate in some detail, but it does not try to answer every question. To carry out their own work or to respond to inquiries from the public, members may need more information than is given here. When this is the case, they should consult their coordination group or section office, or when there is no section, the International Secretariat.

Later chapters present information and advice about the practical campaigning work that members and groups can carry out to help achieve these mandate goals.

What AI does

Here are the specific goals that AI works to achieve _ the people for whom the organization campaigns, and the demands it makes of governments:

AI seeks the immediate and unconditional release of people detained or otherwise physically restricted anywhere for their beliefs or for their ethnic origin, sex, colour, or language _ provided they have not used or advocated violence. These people are “prisoners of conscience”.

AI does not demand the release of political prisoners who may have used violence, or the release of people held for “ordinary” or “common” crimes that do not have a political aspect.

AI advocates fair trials within a reasonable time for all political prisoners and works on behalf of such people detained without charge or trial.

AI insists on a fair and prompt trial for every person in custody whose detention has a political element. Such cases include those of people who may be prisoners of conscience _ and fair trial work is a principal way in which this can be established. AI works for fair trial in political cases even when the person may have used violence.

If it has been established that the person is a prisoner of conscience (that is, is imprisoned for his or her beliefs or identity), AI's focus will not be to demand a fair trial, but rather to insist on unconditional release.

If, on the other hand, the person is accused of an ordinary crime, this falls outside AI's mandate _ unless the accusation of having committed an “ordinary” crime is seen as a pretext. Fair trial standards, however, are highlighted in AI's campaigning against torture and the death penalty without restriction to political cases.

AI opposes the death penalty and torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment of all prisoners without reservation.

AI's opposition to these abuses is unconditional. It does not depend on whether the victim is a prisoner of conscience, a political prisoner who may have used violence, or an ordinary criminal.

AI opposes all extrajudicial executions and “disappearances”.

Just as AI opposes the “judicial” death penalty, it opposes executions in all their forms.

It opposes extrajudicial executions _ deliberate and unlawful killings by governments which result from a policy at any level of government to eliminate or permit the elimination of specific individuals or groups.

It opposes “disappearance” _ the taking of a person into custody by or with the approval of the authorities who then deny that the victim is held. “Disappeared” people are often at risk of torture or extrajudicial execution.

Again, AI's opposition is unconditional. It does not depend on whether the victim is a prisoner of conscience, a political prisoner who may have used violence, or an ordinary criminal, or even on whether the victim is formally held in custody.

AI opposes torture and deliberate and arbitrary killings by opposition groups _ political bodies that sometimes have many of the attributes of governments. AI condemns the torture or killing of prisoners by such groups, as well as other deliberate killings by them that are similar to extrajudicial executions carried out by government agents. AI also opposes the taking or holding of hostages by opposition groups.

AI's mandate is complex and far-reaching. A comprehensive statement cannot easily be compressed into a few lines. This sentence covers the main areas of the AI mandate:

AI is the worldwide movement that works for the release of prisoners of conscience, fair trials for political prisoners, an end to torture, and an end to executions in all their forms.

The people for whom AI works

During most of its history, AI's campaigning has been focused on prisoners. Its mandate has often been described as “prisoner-oriented”.

The people for whom AI works are men, women, and children forcibly confined by governments: in prisons or jails, in interrogation centres, in reformatories, in internment camps, labour camps, or re-education camps, in police stations or army barracks _ or in official custody on their way to any of these places of detention.

AI works also on behalf of those restrained by being held under house arrest, or confined to a village, or sent into internal exile in a remote place.

At the same time, the movement has responded to the changing patterns of human rights violations in the world. Increasingly, AI has taken action on behalf of people who are not prisoners, and it has devoted more of its energies to working for:

  • asylum-seekers who are at risk of being returned to a country where they might be held as prisoners of conscience, “disappear”, or suffer torture or execution
  • people who are singled out for killing on the spot by government “death squads” or for abduction so that they “disappear” indefinitely or can be secretly “extrajudicially” executed
  • people who, because of the non-violent expression of their beliefs, or by reason of their ethnic origin, sex, colour, or language, are forcibly exiled from their country

AI defends the activists, not their cause

Occasionally, some people form the mistaken impression that AI takes a stand on a range of social and political questions.

Hunger and poverty, peace and disarmament, development, the environment, land ownership, racism _ these are just a few of the issues about which some people believe that AI takes a formal position.

In its efforts to stop the imprisonment of prisoners of conscience, torture, and state killing, AI often defends activists who are directly involved in many causes. In fact, individual members of AI _ in their non-AI capacities _ often join in work related to compelling social issues.

The movement itself, however, takes no position whatsoever on any of those causes, or on any other issues falling outside its specific focus.

Likewise, individual members of AI _ when acting as members _ must take no position on any cause outside the mandate.

The only cause that AI fights for is the one defined by its mandate.

AI will work closely with activists whose goals fall within this mandate, such as organizations that support the families of “disappeared” people or that campaign for the abolition of the death penalty.

AI will work also with other human rights defenders whose mandate may be far wider in scope than AI's own, and will campaign for their rights to freedom of association and expression.

Prisoners of conscience

AI demands that all prisoners of conscience be set free immediately and unconditionally.

Under the headline “The Forgotten Prisoners”, a 1961 newspaper article by British lawyer Peter Benenson asked readers to join a struggle for human rights.

It invited them to take part in an “appeal for amnesty” on behalf of people jailed for their opinions. The article pointed out that this imprisonment was a violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It called the detainees “prisoners of conscience”.

Thousands volunteered to help, and soon AI was established and growing.

Since 1961, the movement has taken up the fight against a somewhat wider range of human rights abuses. The plight of prisoners of conscience, however, is still a major concern of the organization. As long as governments continue to imprison people because of their beliefs or their identity, AI will continue to “adopt” these prisoners and to demand their freedom.

The face of the prisoner

No one can know for certain how many prisoners of conscience are locked up in the jail cells of the world. They are held by governments in all regions, in countries with diverse political and social systems. What is certain is this: for each name that is known, for each case that becomes news, there are many more that are unknown.

Some prisoners of conscience are prominent individuals, active and well-known in public life. Many of these are artists, lawyers, politicians, or trade unionists. Because they often challenge the official view, such people are likely to bring themselves into conflict with the authorities.

Most prisoners of conscience, however, are ordinary women, men, even children. They come from all walks of life. They frequently are not political dissidents, and they generally are unknown. They are imprisoned simply for the peaceful exercise of their human rights.

Some prisoners of conscience have acted in direct opposition to the entire system of government, while others have worked within the legal framework of a country's political system but been imprisoned nonetheless. People can become prisoners of conscience for all sorts of reasons:

  • because of their involvement in non-violent political activities, such as taking part in community development work
  • for belonging to a minority group that is struggling for autonomy
  • after insisting on observing religious practices of which the state does not approve
  • because of their trade union activities such as taking part in strikes or demonstrations
  • on the pretext that they committed a crime while in fact they have only criticized the authorities
  • because they wrote newspaper articles that raised the alarm about human rights violations taking place within their own countries
  • after they refused to perform military service on grounds of conscience
  • when they have resisted using a country's official language
  • simply because they happened to live in a certain village
  • because a family member is an outspoken opponent of the government

AI's aim is to give attention to all the forgotten prisoners, to ensure that they remain a public concern, and to work to set them free.

AI's demand

AI insists that all prisoners of conscience be set free at once and without conditions.

Under international law, governments have no right to hold these people.

AI does not accept that releases can be negotiated _ it does not make deals.

These detainees are held because of their beliefs or because of their identity, not for any crime they may have committed.

They should not be in jail at all, and they must be set free at once.

Who decides

AI's interpretation of the definition of “prisoner of conscience” is detailed and specific. The decision whether a particular detainee falls into this category often demands careful analysis of the facts.

Researchers at the International Secretariat are responsible for making this decision. They rely upon information gathered from many sources, information that is painstakingly cross-checked for accuracy.

The researchers assess the information in light of the movement's definition of prisoner of conscience. In difficult cases, the researchers may call for the help of an international group of volunteer members known as the Mandate Committee (formerly the Borderline Committee).

To campaign effectively on behalf of prisoners of conscience, it is important for members to understand and to be able to explain the basic definition, especially the so-called “violence clause”.

AI and violence

AI will not demand the release of anyone imprisoned for using or for advocating violence.

A vital part of AI's mandate is the so-called “violence clause”. It sets prisoners of conscience apart from the other categories of prisoners on whose behalf the movement works. Here is the rule:

If a prisoner is serving a sentence imposed, after a fair trial, for activities involving violence, AI will not ask the government to release the prisoner.

Violence means the use or threat of physical force against a person. Violence may also mean damage to objects.

This rule is crucial in demonstrating AI's impartiality.

Were AI to call for the release of violent opponents of governments, the organization might be accused of being politically biased _ even of supporting “terrorists”.

It would be a hopeless task for AI to demand of any government that it release such prisoners without conditions. Were AI to make such appeals, it would risk damaging its credibility and harming its effectiveness overall.

AI embraces as members people of all political colours, from pacifists to people who believe that in some circumstances it is acceptable to resort to arms in political conflicts. The violence clause is a “necessary limitation” that makes it possible for all these people to work together.

There are two other reasons for this rule:

  • were AI to support the release of violent prisoners, this demand would compromise AI's work on behalf of humane treatment generally. Clearly, AI would be applying a double standard to insist that police and prison authorities abstain from acts of brutality, while at the same time maintaining that other violent acts should go unpunished
  • it would introduce the practical problem of sorting violent political actions from violent criminal actions. Members would become deadlocked in political argument over what violent acts are justified and which prisoners are deserving of AI's support. Under the current rule, the political beliefs of members are irrelevant to their work with the organization

AI's violence clause is sometimes misunderstood on the following points:

  • it is sometimes said that “AI has no view on violence”

        In fact, AI condemns all torture, ill-treatment, and executions, and it works generally for the humane treatment of prisoners. What AI takes no position on is the resort to arms in the context of political disputes.

  • it is sometimes said that “AI ignores the fate of prisoners convicted of violence”

        In fact, AI will demand a fair and prompt trial for political prisoners who may have used or advocated violence. It will insist that all prisoners _ including people who may have been convicted of crimes such as assault or murder _ not be tortured or executed. If, however, AI were to demand the release of prisoners convicted of violence, the impact of its work on behalf of all prisoners would be damaged.

  • it is sometimes said that, “once convicted fairly of a violent act, a person can never be considered a prisoner of conscience”

        In fact, AI might ask for release if, for example, the detainee committed violence in the past but is now in jail for some other charge, or if the person is kept in detention for political reasons after a sentence for a violent act has been completed, or in clear and unambiguous instances of individual, proportionate self-defence.

        It may be said that the violence test applies to the detention rather than to the detainee. The question is not: “Has this prisoner ever used or advocated violence?” but rather: “In AI's view, can this period of imprisonment be linked with the use or advocacy of violence?”

  • it is sometimes said that “all members of groups that advocate or use violence are denied any chance of being considered prisoners of conscience”

        In fact, some members of such groups may have distanced themselves from violent methods. AI assesses all such cases individually.

    AI has found that members of opposition groups will accept the movement's position on violence when it is explained to them and will recognize that the rule is necessary so that AI can be effective.

AI always makes its own judgment whether a prisoner has used or advocated violence. Governments sometimes lay false charges as an excuse for holding people, and AI does not automatically accept what the authorities say. Nor does AI always accept the judgment of a court or the word of the prisoner. The burden of proof rests with the organization.

A practical stand, not a moral position.

AI, as a non-political organization, does not judge whether recourse to violence is justified or not. Nor does AI oppose the political use of violence in itself. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in its preamble, foresees situations in which people could “be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression”.

AI neither supports nor condemns the resort to violence by political opposition groups in itself, just as AI neither supports nor condemns a government policy of using military force in fighting against armed opposition movements. (AI does support minimum humane standards that should be respected by governments and armed opposition groups alike.)

Nor does AI take a position on the question of the morality of war between states. AI is not a pacifist organization.

The broad issue of whether “insurgency” or “war” is morally justified has no bearing upon AI's central task, which is to bring relief to individual victims of injustice.

When an opposition group tortures or kills its captives, takes hostages, or commits deliberate and arbitrary killings within AI's scope for action, AI condemns these abuses. If AI feels that direct appeals to such a group would be effective, AI may make them. AI can base its position on the minimum standards set out in humanitarian law (the “laws of war”), which can apply to governments and to opposition groups alike.

When a government commits similar acts, AI demands that the government keep the promises it may have made under international law to observe and respect human rights. A context of violence never justifies taking prisoners of conscience, or torture, or executions.

Political prisoners

AI demands that political prisoners receive a fair trial within a reasonable time, in accordance with the internationally-recognized right of all prisoners to a fair trial within a reasonable time.

AI uses the term “political prisoner” broadly. It does not use it, as some others do, to imply that all such prisoners have a special status or should be released. It uses the term only to define a category of prisoners for whom AI demands a fair and prompt trial.

In AI's usage, the term includes any prisoner whose case has a significant political element: whether the motivation of the prisoner's acts, the acts in themselves, or the motivation of the authorities.

“Political” is used by AI to refer to aspects of human relations related to “politics”: the mechanisms of society and civil order, the principles, organization, or conduct of government or public affairs, and the relation of all these to questions of language, ethnic origin, sex or religion, status or influence (among other factors).

The category of political prisoners embraces the category of prisoners of conscience _ the only prisoners who AI demands should be immediately and unconditionally released _ as well as people who resort to criminal violence for a political motive.

In AI's use of the term, here are some examples of political prisoners:

  • a person accused or convicted of an ordinary crime carried out for political motives, such as murder or robbery carried out to support the objectives of an opposition group
  • a person accused or convicted of an ordinary crime committed in a political context, such as at a demonstration by a trade union or a peasants' organization
  • a member or suspected member of an armed opposition group who has been charged with treason or “subversion”

Governments often say they have no political prisoners, only prisoners held under the normal criminal law. AI however describes cases like the examples given above as “political” and uses the terms “political trial” and “political imprisonment” when referring to them. But by doing so AI does not oppose the imprisonment, except where it further maintains that the prisoner is a prisoner of conscience, or condemn the trial, except where it concludes that it was unfair.

It is also important to understand that:

  • by calling for a fair trial, AI does not condone the use of violence by political prisoners. Once again, AI takes no position on the resort to arms in political conflicts
  • by using the term political prisoners, AI does not take a stand on these prisoners' political goals. AI does not support or oppose the views of the people for whom it campaigns
  • by using the term, AI does not suggest that these people should enjoy any special status or special conditions while imprisoned. For example, AI does not hold that they should be exempt from wearing prison clothing. AI maintains only that political prisoners, like all prisoners, must be treated humanely

The basic criteria for fair trial are set out in international standards. These criteria include such norms as the right:

  • to be presumed innocent until proved guilty
  • to be able to present a legal defence
  • to be present at your own trial
  • to not be compelled to testify against yourself or to confess guilt
  • to be tried before an independent and impartial tribunal

AI's work on behalf of fair trial on a case-by-case basis must take into account differences in judicial systems around the world, such as, for example, whether a jury system is used. It must also take into account the prisoner's best interest _ AI may decide not to press for a fair trial within a reasonable time if it appears, for example, that the outcome would be the imposition of a death sentence.

In many countries, political prisoners are convicted in trials that violate internationally agreed standards. These trials use secret hearings, prohibit defence lawyers or the chance to consult with them, refuse to allow defence witnesses, deny the right of cross-examination, and admit evidence taken under duress or torture.

In other countries, political prisoners may be held for years, sometimes decades, without any trial or judicial hearing at all. AI's fundamental position in all such cases is that prisoners should be afforded a fair trial within a reasonable time, or released.

AI works not only on behalf of individual prisoners, but it calls on governments to end systematic procedures, such as administrative detention, when they allow for prolonged political detention without legal safeguards.

Torture and ill-treatment

AI condemns torture in all cases.

As defined by the United Nations, torture is the purposeful infliction of severe pain or suffering on a detainee by public officials or with their acquiescence.

Torture does not happen simply because individual torturers are sadistic, or because legal restraints happen to lapse in isolated incidents. Torture often is an integral part of a government's security strategy, a component of the state's machinery for suppressing dissent. Torture of common criminal suspects may also be a routine aspect of a government's justice system.

Torture is used to gain information, to obtain a confession, to punish, to intimidate, and to terrorize. Whatever its immediate purpose, torture degrades the victims and at the same time it dehumanizes the torturer.

Torture happens every day. Despite the international agreements that forbid it and despite the denials from governments that use it, torture is common and systematic. It is reported in many countries, regardless of political ideologies or economic systems.

The list of torture techniques used today includes not only archaic instruments like whips, clubs, and thumbscrews, but also the modern technology of electricity, sophisticated methods of psychological assault, and drugs that can cause dread, hallucinations, muscle spasms, and paralysis. Victims are beaten, burned, raped, suffocated, and subjected to mock executions.

The victims of torture include members of all social classes, groups, ages, and professions. Criminal suspects as well as political detainees may be tortured. Women often face sexual degradation at the hands of their male torturers. In some countries, even children have been tortured or have been forced to watch the torture of their parents.

This part of AI's mandate is plain and direct: AI opposes the torture of all prisoners without exception.

When individuals are threatened with torture, AI acts urgently and on a massive global scale to try to rescue them.

To stop torture before it happens, the organization lobbies governments to implement international standards. It has launched its own 12-Point Program for the Prevention of Torture that calls for immediate, active measures on the part of governments.

AI also supports the medical and psychological rehabilitation of torture victims, although the movement does not become directly involved in carrying out this humanitarian work.

AI condemns other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.

The term “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment” refers generally to any harsh treatment that could damage a prisoner's physical or mental health, or any punishment meant to cause suffering. All such treatments and punishments are clearly prohibited in international law.

AI uses the term to describe both acts and omissions that cause prisoners to suffer in violation of international standards. These include:

  • deliberate measures to cause suffering, such as confinement in a dark punishment cell
  • painful measures in which suffering may not be the object, such as the use of manacles as a restraint
  • treatment that is a consequence of neglect, where the conditions of confinement and denial of basic needs cause prisoners acute misery

“Torture” is distinguished from “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment” only by the severity of the pain or suffering inflicted by torture, and by the fact that the suffering caused by torture is always deliberate.

Whatever the state's reason for detention or restriction _ whether political or non-political, criminal or administrative, psychiatric or related to immigration _ AI opposes torture and ill-treatment unconditionally.

Where there is torture, AI takes urgent action in all individual cases. Where there is cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, AI generally intervenes only when there seems to be a pattern of such treatment. The organization does not have the resources to act in every case.

If prisoners of conscience suffer ill-treatment, however, AI will act on individual cases, as a general consequence of its stand that these people should not be in prison at all. AI may ask for prisoners to be allowed to see a doctor or a lawyer, to have visits from relatives, or to take exercise.

It is important to note that AI is not a penal reform movement. It is not the organization's mission to try to improve prison conditions generally. AI does not duplicate the work of other organizations, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, that undertake broader programs of visits to prisons.

The death penalty

AI opposes the death penalty in all cases without exception.

The death penalty is the ultimate denial of human rights. It violates the right to life as proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is the ultimate cruel, inhuman, and degrading punishment.

The death penalty has no special power to reduce crime or political violence. It has never been shown to deter crime more effectively than other punishments.

The death penalty is discriminatory. It has often been used disproportionately against the poor, against minorities, and against members of racial, ethnic, and religious communities.

The death penalty is an instrument of political repression. It has been used by those in power to eliminate their political opponents.

The death penalty is irreversible. Inevitably, it will claim innocent victims. As long as human justice remains fallible, the risk of executing the innocent can never be eliminated.

The death penalty is brutalizing to everyone involved. Execution is an act of violence, and violence tends to provoke violence.

The death penalty differs from other categories of human rights abuses, such as torture, in that it is usually not hidden or denied but is part of the law of the land. Although more and more governments are abolishing the death penalty, this form of punishment is still retained in the laws of over half of the countries of the world. In these countries, men and women _ and in some jurisdictions, even children _ can be put to death by the state.

Governments execute their citizens by various methods: hanging, shooting, electrocution, injection of poison, gas, stoning, or beheading.

The offences punishable by death range from violent crimes such as murder, rape, and armed robbery, to non-violent crimes such as black marketeering, bribe-taking, and prostitution.

The death penalty, however, is arbitrary. Whether an accused person is sentenced to death is often determined not only by the nature of the crime, but by the defendant's ethnic and social background, financial means, or political opinions.

No matter what reason a government gives for executing prisoners or what method of execution is used, the death penalty cannot be defined purely as a criminal justice issue. The death penalty is a human rights issue.

The idea that a government can justify the punishment of death contradicts the very notion of human rights. The significance of human rights is precisely this: that some means may never be used to protect society because their use violates the values that make society worth protecting.

The death penalty is wrong in all cases.

Like AI's condemnation of torture, this part of AI's mandate is straightforward and absolute: AI opposes the death penalty totally and unconditionally, and it demands the worldwide abolition of this form of punishment.

AI takes action to prevent condemned prisoners from being executed, and it campaigns to persuade governments to abolish the death penalty in law.

International law and the death penalty

Major international human rights standards state broadly that everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person.

When AI began opposing executions, there was no binding international instrument that explicitly called for an end to the death penalty. This meant that AI's campaign for abolition was a departure from its usual reliance on international law. While AI believed it was on solid moral grounds, it had no legal basis for this part of its mandate.

A step forward was taken in 1966 when the United Nations General Assembly adopted the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Article 6 of the covenant established restrictions and safeguards on the death penalty “in countries which have not abolished it”. In a general comment, the Human Rights Committee that was set up under the covenant found the terms of Article 6 to “strongly suggest.that abolition is desirable”.

In 1971 the General Assembly affirmed that in order fully to guarantee the right to life, “the main objective to be pursued is that of progressively restricting the number of offences for which capital punishment may be imposed, with a view to the desirability of abolishing this punishment in all countries”. This resolution was reaffirmed by the General Assembly in 1977.

In 1984, the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) adopted the “Safeguards Guaranteeing Protection of the Rights of Those Facing the Death Penalty”. Endorsed by the General Assembly the same year, the “ECOSOC safeguards” list the most important restrictions and safeguards on the death penalty. Among other things, they forbid its application to certain categories of offenders _ including people less than 18 years old at the time of the commission of the crime. They provide that anyone sentenced to death should have the right to appeal to a higher court and to petition for pardon or commutation of the sentence.

Now, there is an important new world standard giving strength to AI's demand. In 1989 the General Assembly adopted the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Aiming at the Abolition of the Death Penalty. It binds the states that are parties to it not to carry out executions and to abolish the death penalty. Similar treaties on a regional basis have been adopted in Europe and the Americas.

Extrajudicial executions

AI condemns all executions, including those carried out without any pretence of legality.

The organization uses the term “extrajudicial executions” to describe deliberate and unlawful killings by state agents acting outside the framework of the judicial or legal system.

Extrajudicial executions usually occur within a government's own territory. Commonly, the victims are its own people _ those whose safety the government is sworn to protect.

Such killings are carried out by regular military or police forces, by special units created to function without normal supervision, or by civilian agents working with government forces or operating with government complicity. Such government forces, units, or agents are often called “death squads”.

Sometimes, extrajudicial executions are carried out across international borders: the work of assassins whose victims are selected targets, usually government opponents, living abroad.

Because “death squads” sometimes carry out their killings without taking people into detention _ executing them on the spot _ this is an area of AI's mandate that concerns people who may not be prisoners.

The organization takes action against all extrajudicial executions. Such killings are characterized by evidence that they are the result of official policy, when, for example, it appears the government has singled out individuals or groups for death, or when it has chosen to turn a blind eye to excesses by the security forces. Another way to put it is to say that AI opposes murder by the state.

The term “extrajudicial executions” distinguishes such killings from the judicial death penalty _ a sentence imposed by a court after a prisoner has been convicted of a crime for which this penalty is provided in law. AI opposes the judicial death penalty in every instance.

The term also distinguishes such deliberate and unlawful killings from other categories of killings by state agents where specific individuals are not marked out, arbitrarily, for death. On these, AI takes no position.

Some examples are:

  • deaths caused by the use of reasonable police force
  • deaths caused by accident or as a consequence of panic by security officials
  • killings carried out by renegade agents in violation of enforced official policy
  • killings in war that are the by-product of government attempts to achieve military objectives

In opposing the judicial death penalty, AI makes no distinction between political and non-political victims, and it makes no distinction here. AI will condemn, for example, the state killing of individuals regarded by governments as “undesirable”, such as poor people or street children.

During recent decades, hundreds of thousands of people around the world have been the victims of such murders. Some governments are using “death squads” to eliminate their opponents by illegal execution rather than by arrest and imprisonment. AI has found that, as a consequence, there may be few prisoners of conscience in some of the countries where patterns of such killings are reported.

Those who give orders for an official policy of state killing will seldom admit that they have done so. Therefore, it is often difficult to establish that the murders are linked to the state or that they are intentional.

Governments often deny that the killings have taken place at all or that their agents were involved. They may blame the deaths on opposition groups. They may try to pass them off as the result of accidents or of armed encounters with government forces. They may say that the victims were killed while trying to escape from custody.

Under national and international law, governments are responsible for the lives of their citizens. They have the duty not to commit political killings or to condone them.

The responsibility of governments is not eased by considerations of national security. It is not lessened by the fact that opposition groups may commit similar abuses.

AI's response to extrajudicial executions is to take steps to try to prevent further such killings being committed in the future.

The movement:

  • publicizes the killings
  • calls for independent investigations
  • demands that those responsible be brought to justice

In cases where an individual is not killed but has received death threats, AI urgently demands that the government take immediate steps to ensure the person's protection.


AI condemns “disappearances”, a form of state kidnapping.

The term “disappearance” is used when people are arrested or kidnapped _ and often, tortured or killed _ by government agents, but the authorities deny that these people are being detained.

The word is placed in inverted commas to indicate that AI does not accept the official explanation usually provided _ that the victims have indeed vanished (the more general use of the term). In AI's opinion, the authorities likely know precisely the whereabouts and the fate of the victims.

Like extrajudicial executions, “disappearances” are a tactic of repression that governments find to be swift and convenient. Rather than deal with their opponents through the elaborate process of arrest, trial, and long-term imprisonment, some governments may prefer simply to abduct them.

Similarly, while it is difficult to evade responsibility for political prisoners held in visible custody, governments can more readily deny accountability for “disappeared” people.

“Disappearances”, like extrajudicial executions, often take place in the context of violent opposition to a government. The victims frequently are suspected members, supporters, or potential sympathizers of opposition groups.

AI considers “disappearances” a gross violation of fundamental human rights. The abuse serves to disguise other abuses. Not only are its victims obviously detained without charge or trial, but they often are at great risk of being tortured and of being killed while in the secret custody of state agents.

When AI receives a report of a “disappearance” it acts urgently to demand an investigation and to let the authorities know that they will be held responsible for the fate of the victim.

“Disappearances” are shrouded in mystery. Families, friends, lawyers, and human rights activists who try to collect information or to obtain remedies are met with denials or intimidation _ or, sometimes, themselves “disappear”.

A terrible effect of a “disappearance” is the pain and anxiety that the uncertainty inflicts upon the victim's family, who suffer the trauma of abandonment, loneliness, insecurity, and a permanent sense of fear.

In recent decades, this abuse has become so widespread that the English language word “disappeared” has come to mean not only the victim but also what the state did to the victim _ it “disappeared” the person.


AI opposes the sending of individuals from one country to another where they are at risk of becoming victims of the human rights violations that are of concern to the movement.

In the 1990s, in different parts of the globe, there are millions of people seeking refuge outside their own countries. These people have fled their own countries for a variety of reasons. Among the most common are war, famine, ecological disaster, or persecution.

Many are in flight from the threat of human rights violations on account of their opinions or beliefs, race or sex, or from the threat of torture, “disappearance”, or execution.

The persecution they are fleeing is not confined to any region or to any political system. Refugees have crossed almost every territorial boundary in the world in search of safety.

Refugees are cut off from family and friends, their lives completely disrupted. They are often the victims of abuse and exploitation. Frequently, they live in camps where food and medical supplies are scarce, and where there is no way to earn a living.

AI does not work on behalf of all refugees, but only those who are at risk of being held as prisoners of conscience, of “disappearance”, or of suffering torture or execution. International law prohibits the return of any person to a country where there is any such risk.

Some governments have rejected asylum-seekers' applications for refuge, suggesting that their fears of persecution are exaggerated. They have threatened to return these people to their home countries.

Just as AI does what it can to help actual victims of human rights abuses, it does what it can to help people in flight from the risk of suffering these abuses. AI can help such asylum-seekers in the following ways:

  • AI can demonstrate that asylum-seekers' fears are justified by providing information on human rights abuses in the countries they have fled
  • n the organization can intercede with government officials on behalf of persons threatened with being returned to countries where they risk serious human rights violations
  • to ensure that those at risk are identified and given protection, AI calls on governments to establish fair and adequate procedures for the determination of refugee claims, and it works to ensure that asylum-seekers have effective access to these procedures
  • n AI works to ensure that asylum-seekers are not detained in a way that contravenes international standards

It is important to understand that AI's work for refugees is limited by its mandate and its resources. It can not, for example, protect and care for people who live in the thousands of refugee camps around the world.

Its work focuses on asylum-seekers who are threatened with being forcibly returned to countries where they risk becoming prisoners of conscience, or being “disappeared”, or tortured, or executed.


While AI is not an aid organization, in some instances it can provide limited funds to prisoners of conscience, former prisoners of conscience, victims of torture, refugees, and the dependants of these people including the dependants of “disappeared” persons and of victims of political killings.

The assistance is meant to help these people deal with the effects of the situation they suffer from. It is not intended to compensate them for the human rights violations they have suffered or for loss of income, nor to provide for their total needs.

Decisions about relief are often sensitive and are therefore made on a case-by-case basis. Relief can be provided by an AI group, or from relief funds held by a section or at the International Secretariat.

For reasons of security, relief activities call for a low public profile. Detailed guidelines are available from relief officers in sections or from the International Secretariat.

Military, security, and police transfers

Just as AI tries to prevent governments from contributing to human rights violations elsewhere by appealing to them not to return refugees to dangerous situations, so it takes a stand against international transfers of equipment and expertise to governments that use them to detain prisoners of conscience, inflict torture, or carry out executions.

AI condemns, for example, the international sale of devices meant for use in torture or execution. It opposes the teaching of torture techniques by one country's security agents to those of another country. AI calls for an immediate halt to all such links.

More generally, AI supports the introduction of laws in all countries that would regulate the export of other equipment, such as weapons, on human rights grounds. In particular cases, AI might question or campaign against such exports when there are grounds to believe that they would be used to infringe human rights (AI groups may undertake such actions only after mutual agreement between the governing body of their section and the International Secretariat, and, in some cases, only with the approval of the International Executive Committee).

This policy has a particular intention. It is to prevent governments with a bad record in this area receiving specific types of equipment or training that they may then use to further violate human rights. It is also to hold supplying governments accountable for measures that could contribute to gross human rights abuse.

This is not a policy in favour of general arms embargoes or economic boycotts. AI neither supports nor opposes sanctions _ whether economic, cultural, or diplomatic _ against governments guilty of human rights violations.

Abuses by opposition groups

AI condemns as a matter of principle the torture and execution of prisoners by anyone, including opposition groups. AI often refers to these groups as “political non-governmental entities”.

Based on criteria much like those that apply to extrajudicial executions by governments, AI also condemns other deliberate and arbitrary killings by opposition groups.

AI opposes hostage taking by opposition groups.

In opposing these abuses, the movement makes its protest known through its own publications and the news media. The organization may take further actions when it believes they would be effective, taking into account the extent of the perpetrator's control over the population and its ability to exercise authority over its own forces.

In its work on human rights violations by governments, AI applies the norms of international human rights law. It uses the human rights machinery of the United Nations and other international bodies that was devised expressly to protect people from the violation of their rights by governments.

It is governments that are bound by international human rights law, and it is governments that have the duty to enforce these standards. AI continues to regard the practical application of human rights norms as concerning the individual's rights in relation to government authority.

In its work on abuses by oppositiongroups, however, AI is guided by the norms of the international standards that concern humane behaviour during armed conflict. This is humanitarian law (or, the “laws of war”).

Humanitarian law sets out the standards by which all parties to an armed conflict _ governments and opposition groups alike _ must act. AI's own policy on abuses by opposition groups is guided by these standards, much as its work on the actions of government is guided by international human rights law.

While AI may condemn an opposition group for committing an abuse, or take other actions, AI's stand does not constitute recognition of any special legal status of such non-governmental groups.

Nor does AI's criticism of non-governmental groups change AI's primary focus on government responsibilities: governments have a legal responsibility to observe international human rights law and to protect those under their formal authority.

AI continues to focus its work on human rights violations by governments. Its work to hold opposition groups as well as governments accountable for acts that contravene fundamental humanitarian principles is a distinct area integral to AI's overall work relating to armed conflict.

On practical grounds, AI does not refer to atrocities by opposition groups as “human rights violations”.

The aim is:

  • to avoid confusing such abuses with violations by governments
  • to avoid appearing to place such groups on an equal plane with governments
  • to avoid diluting international efforts expressly to hold governments accountable for their actions

Nor does AI, by extending its work beyond a traditional focus on governments, wish to undermine the local human rights groups all over the world that work expressly and exclusively to combat violations of human rights by governments. AI continues to support this traditional emphasis on government obligations under international human rights law _ and to make work on governmental abuses its own primary focus.

A dynamic movement

AI's mandate has been developing continuously. The categories of people for whom the movement works and the demands it makes on their behalf have never been static, and they are unlikely to become so in the future.

AI responds to changes in the patterns of human rights abuses around the world by adapting its work.

In the 1990s, governments that want to silence their opponents are less inclined to lay formal charges, hold trials, and sentence prisoners of conscience to lengthy jail terms. They are more likely to use measures such as administrative detention without charge or trial, or “disappearance”, or extrajudicial execution.

Just as people in power are finding new ways to abuse human rights, AI must find new ways to oppose them.

The AI Statute (reproduced in full in the Appendix) can be amended by a two-thirds vote of delegates attending the biennial meeting of the International Council, the movement's supreme governing body. This is the principal means whereby AI members can together set the organization's objectives.

The Statute is only a small part of the picture. The mandate is interpreted by non-statutory resolutions of the International Council. It is molded also by decisions of the International Executive Committee, the movement's elected board of directors.

The day-to-day decisions of the staff at the International Secretariat apply the mandate in practice. The staff are guided by the Mandate Committee, acting in its interpretative role.

As a separate and no less important role, the Mandate Committee also considers possible changes in the mandate and makes recommendations in this regard. In recent years the movement has periodically established a formal mandate review process; the Mandate Committee will now guide this process on a permanent basis.

AI's complex and evolving mandate signifies that the movement is vibrant and aware. It is quick to confront new abuses of human rights as they arise. It responds to new patterns of repression as they make themselves apparent.

AI's dynamic mandate demonstrates that the organization is actively involved in the real world, a practical force working effectively to help achieve justice and human dignity.

Commonly asked questions

What is AI's stand on conscientious objectors?

AI believes that every person has the right to refuse to perform military service on the grounds of conscience or personal conviction, without suffering any legal or physical penalty.

Generally, AI will adopt as a prisoner of conscience anyone imprisoned for exercising this right, provided the person has not rejected an alternative service outside the war machine that is not punitive in length.

AI works for conscientious objectors who refuse compulsory military service, as well as for people who, while serving in the military, develop a conscientious objection to such service or to taking part in a particular conflict.

Even though AI demands the release of conscientious objectors, AI is not an anti-war organization. The movement takes no position on armed conflict, on military service as such, or on conscription.

What is AI's stand on civil disobedience?

People are said to take part in “civil disobedience” when they commit a non-violent but unlawful act (such as trespassing or obstructing roads) in order to make a political protest.

When people are imprisoned following these acts, AI deals with such cases in the same way it does all others. It will adopt these people as prisoners of conscience if it finds that they are imprisoned because of their beliefs or their identity, and they have not used or advocated violence.

If the punishment for the unlawful act does not exceed what is normal for the type of offence, AI will not adopt the person.

If, however, the punishment exceeds what is normal for the type of offence, AI may adopt the person as a prisoner of conscience on the grounds that the sentence is imposed not to punish the offence itself, but on account of the person's beliefs or identity.

What is AI's stand on imprisoned homosexuals?

AI has traditionally worked on behalf of prisoners of conscience detained because of the exercise of their right to freedom of expression and opinion, including those imprisoned for advocating homosexual equality. It has worked also on behalf of those detained solely because of discriminatory treatment on account of their identity _ their ethnic origin, sex, colour, or language.

Since 1991, AI has extended its work on behalf of people imprisoned by reason of their identity to work for the release of people who are detained solely because they are or are believed to be homosexual. These include people imprisoned for their private and personal conduct between freely consenting adults.

Why does AI campaign for fair and prompt trials for political prisoners, but not for all prisoners?

While the Universal Declaration of Human Rights calls for fair trial for every accused person, AI's concerns are more limited.

If a person is imprisoned solely for criminal acts _ such as traffic offences, theft, or murder _ and if there is no basis for believing that either the crime or the imprisonment was politically motivated, AI will not take action.

The movement cannot work effectively on behalf of every prisoner who may be a victim of a miscarriage of justice. AI does not have the resources or the expertise to do so _ there are literally millions of criminal cases in progress at any one time.

Through its practical focus on political cases, however, AI promotes fair trial standards that are applicable to all prisoners.

Furthermore, in the context of its work toward the observance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, AI supports the right of everyone to a fair trial.

The organization will, of course, take action on behalf of any prisoner facing torture or the death penalty, and fair trial elements, among other methods, can be a part of this action.

What is AI's stand on hunger-strikes?

It is common for prisoners to go on hunger-strike as a non-violent means of pressuring the authorities or of attracting public attention. The prisoners involved may be prisoners of conscience, political prisoners, or detainees whose cases have no political aspect.

AI takes urgent steps to assist prisoners on hunger-strike when their action is clearly caused by a concern that falls within AI's mandate. If a prisoner refuses to take food because, for example, he or she is suffering ill-treatment or is threatened with torture, AI will act.

AI avoids acting in such a way as to urge the prisoner on in the hunger-strike. The organization's aim is to bring an end to the human rights violations, not to achieve the “success” of the hunger strike.

AI does not mediate or negotiate in hunger-strikes.

AI takes no position on forcible feeding of prisoners, unless this is done to deliberately cause suffering. In this case, AI could intercede to complain of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.

Are there circumstances in which torture or executions are justified?

There is no excuse for torture, and there is no excuse for the death penalty. Both are cruel, inhuman, and degrading punishments.

Those who justify torture sometimes argue that a lesser evil can be used to combat a greater. The following example is often given: a terrorist must be tortured to force a confession revealing the location of a bomb that threatens innocent civilians.

Torture seldom extracts reliable information that can help combat a “greater evil”. Most torture victims have no security information to give away. Furthermore, prisoners in torment will confess to any allegation _ even to acts they have not committed.

Likewise, those who argue for the death penalty claim that executions will make the world safer.

The death penalty is an ineffective punishment. It has never been shown to have any unique deterrent effect on any of the crimes for which it has been applied, including terrorism, murder, and drug trafficking. Executions are discriminatory, irreversible, and so brutalizing to the society in general that there is evidence they may actually foster an increased atmosphere of violence.

The United Nations has declared an absolute ban on torture, and it has recognized the desirability of abolishing the death penalty.

In opposing the cruel treatment of prisoners, AI does not condone any crimes they may have committed. It does not take a position on their politics or their behaviour. It does not hold that criminals should not be punished. It only insists that their punishment be in line with the fundamental principles of human rights.


In its efforts to free people jailed for their political or religious beliefs or opinions, AI takes no stand on these views. Unless they happen to echo the AI mandate, AI does not share or support these beliefs. The organization simply defends the right of the individuals to hold them and to express them.

The term “prisoner of conscience” does not mean the same as “innocently” or “wrongly” or “unjustly” imprisoned.

For example, a person wrongly detained for a crime would not necessarily fall within AI's mandate as a prisoner of conscience _ unless the detention was the result of persecution because of the person's beliefs or identity.

In political cases, AI may take action through its work for fair trial on behalf of victims of wrongful arrest, miscarriage of justice, or failures in the legal system.

“The purpose of torture is not only the extortion of confessions, of betrayal: the victim must disgrace himself, by his screams and his submissions, like a human animal. In the eyes of everybody and in his own eyes. He who yields under torture is not only to be made to talk, but is also to be marked as subhuman.”

_ Jean-Paul Sartre

Prevention and promotion

Much of AI's energy goes into direct work for individuals who are victims of human rights abuses; however, AI would like to see a world where such victimization does not take place. Its efforts to prevent human rights abuses from happening and to promote a general awareness of human rights are an important aspect of “what AI does”.

Prevention is pursued through encouraging the ratification of human rights treaties and the development of national law and practice in conformity with them.

Promotion is achieved through helping to carry out human rights education programs and other human rights awareness campaigning.