Diplomacy of Conscience: Amnesty International and Changing Human Rights Norms

Diplomacy of Conscience: Amnesty International and Changing Human Rights Norms

Diplomacy of Conscience: Amnesty International and Changing Human Rights Norms

Diplomacy of Conscience: Amnesty International and Changing Human Rights Norms


A small group founded Amnesty International in 1961 to translate human rights principles into action. "Diplomacy of Conscience provides a rich account of how the organization pioneered a combination of popular pressure and expert knowledge to advance global human rights. To an extent unmatched by predecessors and copied by successors, Amnesty International has employed worldwide publicity campaigns based on fact-finding and moral pressure to urge governments to improve human rights practices. Less well known is Amnesty International's significant impact on international law. It has helped forge the international community's repertoire of official responses to the most severe human rights violations, supplementing moral concern with expertise and conceptual vision.

"Diplomacy of Conscience traces Amnesty International's efforts to strengthen both popular human rights awareness and international law against torture, disappearances, and political killings. Drawing on primary interviews and archival research, Ann Marie Clark posits that Amnesty International's strenuously cultivated objectivity gave the group political independence and


In its first few years, Amnesty International sought relief and release for prisoners of conscience on a case-by-case basis through its volunteer adoption groups. However, for ai leaders and members, familiarity with individual cases of political imprisonment drove home the need for stronger, preventative international norms concerning prisoner treatment. the frequency of torture in such cases was particularly troubling. ai recognized the need to try to shape state behavior at a general level, through norms, as well as in specific cases. To that end, the organization devised a series of practical actions to promote the emergence of new norms to prohibit the use of torture by governments.

A study of those actions and events reveals a generalizable pattern in the emergence of global norms against torture that can be used as a template for understanding the development of norms on other human rights themes. the development started with Amnesty International's dissemination of contemporaneous reports on government use of torture. Those facts contrasted with official international principles of human rights, and ai deliberately brought attention to the disjuncture through public campaigning. ai helped to build a consensus about the need for norms, both among the public and among elites. the moral and political dissonance generated by the contrast between principles and practice motivated the construction of norms in the United Nations, where NGOs collaborated with and advised concerned governments who had official standing to articulate statements on torture that implied higher levels of obligation for states. the achievement of new norms provided new official procedures which ai could use for continued mobilization in a cycle of further fact finding and application of existing standards in light of the newly constructed norms.

The early prescriptive status of the
international prohibition of torture

As a benchmark for assessing Amnesty International's role and impact, it is important to describe the international legal status of prohibitions against torture prior to Amnesty's activity. in fact, the international pro-

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