Amnesty International is a non-governmental organization focused on human rights. The organization claims to have over 7 million members and supporters around the world.
Amnesty International USA (AIUSA) is the American branch and the largest section of Amnesty International (AI), a London-based international advocacy organization. In its early years, AI was focused specifically on seeking to free “prisoners of conscience” incarcerated based on political and religious persecution. However, AI and AIUSA’s agendas have since expanded away from fighting for specifically named prisoners and towards broad left-of-center issue advocacy campaigns.
AIUSA’s advocacy campaigns seek to implement a host of left-of-center policy aims through media operations, direct lobbying, and activist mobilizations. In recent years, AIUSA has pushed for liberalized immigration and refugee policies, protections for extremist political demonstrators, the abolition of the death penalty, enactment of stringent gun control laws, and an end to “mass incarceration.”
AIUSA has petitioned the federal government to create a government-controlled single-payer healthcare system. The organization has similarly declared that poverty in America is a “human rights crisis” and called for strict regulation of businesses to help fight poverty.
AI and AIUSA have faced numerous criticisms that the two organizations disproportionately focus their attacks on the United States, Israel and other western countries while ignoring or down-playing more severe abuses committed by authoritarian countries. Moreover, the organizations have jointly faced criticism for bolstering terrorist supporters, and for taking up the banner of controversial issues such as legalized prostitution.
Creation and Background
Amnesty International (UK)
In May 1961 Peter Benenson, a lawyer and former Labour Party candidate for Parliament founded Amnesty International, Ltd. (AI), an international non-governmental organization (NGO), in 1961. Benenson claims to have created AI after reading of Portuguese students jailed for toasting to freedom in a bar. (At the time, Portugal was ruled by an authoritarian regime known as the Estado Novo.) Benenson subsequently wrote a full-page article “The Forgotten Prisoner” in the Observer’s weekend review, which marked the formal beginning of his “Appeal for Amnesty, 1961” campaign.
In September 1962, the informal and mostly volunteer-based Appeal for Amnesty organization held its second international conference where delegates adopted the name “Amnesty International” and began discussions for the organization’s long-term operations. 
University of Oxford professor Tom Buchanan wrote in 2002 that it was clear that “the founders of Amnesty were familiar” with the Communist Party of Great Britain’s similarly named “Appeal for Amnesty in Spain” campaign, and “that in certain respects it represented a model – if only in terms of how not to campaign for human rights.” According to Buchanan, in its early years, “local Amnesty groups consistently turned to it [the Communist Party of Great Britain’s ‘Appeal for Amnesty in Spain’ campaign] for expert advice.” 
In 1961 Labour Party Leader Hugh Gaitskell, whose support Benenson had solicited, agreed to help the Appeal for Amnesty campaign, but criticized Benenson for equating non-communist countries with communist regimes and for focusing too heavily on the non-communist countries’ activities. According to Buchanan:
“Firstly, he [Gaitskell] felt that too much attention had been paid in the Observer article to the non-communist world, when communist regimes ‘in their very nature’ did not allow the free expression of opinions Finally, he [Gaitskell] felt the ‘mere balancing’ of cases from the communist world and elsewhere did not ‘adequately reflect the true world situation […] To put France alongside the Soviet Union [as had been done in the circular] without further explanation is surely a little grotesque.’” 
Additionally, according to Buchanan, Gaitskell objected to Benenson’s use of the term “prisoners of conscience” for individuals imprisoned for legitimate national security concerns such as espionage. 
Amnesty International USA
The United States section of Amnesty International (known as Amnesty International of the USA, Incorporated or AIUSA) “was incorporated in 1966” and is the “largest” section in the entire international organization. In the 1970s and early 1980s, AIUSA expanded by establishing regional and program offices and professionalizing and decentralizing its operations.
Because AIUSA is the largest section in the organization its annual assessments finance a significant portion of the International Secretariat’s budget.
In 2016, AIUSA claimed to have “more than a million supporters in the U.S., including more than 200,000 dues-paying members” in all 50 states.
In 2016, Amnesty International USA spent a total of $37.6 million, of which $29.2 million was dedicated to programs. AIUSA’s programming budget was broken out across four categories of spending.
In 2016, AIUSA contributed $9.85 million in dues to Amnesty International Limited, which was used to further the goals of the international organization.
That same year, AIUSA spent $9.83 million on policy advocacy and mobilization; $5.57 million on strategic communications and digital initiatives; and $3.97 million on campaigns, programs, and research programs. 
In 2007, The Economist detailed how Amnesty International and its American chapter AIUSA had shifted their priorities away from the defense of “named individuals locked up by their government” and instead towards a large number of broad issue-based policy campaigns. The Economist’s article quoted then-AI secretary-general Irene Khan as she defended the organization’s shift away from focusing on individual cases and towards “systemic change.”
AIUSA is currently focused on two priority issues and six general issue campaigns that seek to implement left-of-center policies.
AIUSA’s priority “I Welcome” campaign supports refugees and illegal immigrants. In 2016, AIUSA argued that the U.S. was not doing enough to treat refugees and immigrants with “compassion” and claimed to have contributed to President Barack Obama’s decision to substantially increase refugee admissions.
AIUSA’s other priority issue campaign seeks to supports protesters and other individuals the organization identifies as being targeted by government officials. Under this campaign, AIUSA claims to have helped defend protesters trying to stop the construction of a domestic energy conduit known as the Dakota Access Pipeline by force.
Since 1978, AIUSA has run an on-going issue campaign seeking to abolish the death penalty. In 2016, AIUSA claimed to have helped abolish the death penalty in Delaware, helped build public opposition to the death penalty in several other states, and helped stop several executions from going forward. In 2015, AIUSA touted that it played a role in the vacating of Reggie Clemons’ Missouri death sentence for the 1991 murder of two sisters. In 2017, Clemons pleaded guilty to raping and murdering the two sisters, in exchange for a sentence of life imprisonment.
Under AIUSA’s Police Accountability campaign, In 2015 AIUSA issued a report claiming that every state had failed to comply with “international law” regulating local policing standards. The organization advocated for various state-based policing mandates related to lethal force and pushed the Justice Department to collect data on all arrest-related deaths across the country.
AIUSA argues that American private firearms rights constitute a “human rights crisis.” AIUSA in turn seeks to enact state and federal gun control legislation. In 2016 AIUSA joined the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA) to lobby for gun control legislation alongside the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence/Million Mom March and the States United to Prevent Gun Violence organization.
In 2015, then-AIUSA executive director, Steven W. Hawkins called upon the Obama administration to end mass incarceration and argued that sentencing laws, racial discrimination, immigration detention, and juvenile incarceration policies, were all in need of reform at the state and federal level.
In 2015, AIUSA, in partnership with the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch, petitioned the Justice Department to authorize an independent investigation into whether the CIA authorized the use of illegal torture after the September 11, 2001 attacks.
AI and AIUSA’s My Body, My Rights is an international program that seeks to end all governmental regulation over abortion. In 2016, AIUSA also held more than 20 trainings to teach people in the U.S. how to advocate for abortion rights, and AIUSA aided protests in the U.S. that sought to decriminalize abortion in Ireland and El Salvador. 
Since 2007 AIUSA has spent nearly $5.8 million on direct federal lobbying expenses.
AIUSA employs both state and federal lobbying efforts, and coordinates multiple lobbying related fly-in days where AIUSA activists push for the organization’s left-of-center policy agenda.
In 2017, AIUSA lobbied on issues related to asylum determinations and U.S. refugee acceptance numbers. The organization also lobbied on issues related to the Trump administration’s immigration plan, the DREAM Act, the border wall, and other immigration policies.
Direct federal lobbying expenditures are only one part of the organization’s lobbying and advocacy budget. In 2015, AIUSA spent almost $8 million on its policy, advocacy, and governmental relations efforts. That year the organization supported a number of left-of-center policies that would resume trade between the U.S. and Cuba, end El Salvador’s “total abortion ban,” and close the terrorist detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. It also sought to reform the use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons, and urged the U.S. Secretary of State to address what AIUSA labeled “Israeli violations of Palestinian children’s human rights.”
Support for Other Liberal Issues
AIUSA has declared, “health care is a human right” and petitioned the federal government to create a government-controlled universal healthcare system. In 2018, AIUSA called upon the U.S. Senate to consider a single-payer healthcare proposal.
AIUSA has also declared that poverty in America is a “human rights crisis” and urged Congress and the Obama Administration “to exercise more effective oversight over corporations and financial institutions, in order that basic human needs can be fulfilled in this time of economic austerity.”
Critics have accused AI and AIUSA of focusing to a greater extent on the human rights abuses of open and democratic governments rather than the more abusive developing or authoritative countries. The Economist wrote in 2007 America seemed “to have a strangely high priority, given the enormity of human-rights scandals elsewhere.” The article noted that AI “devotes more pages in its annual report to human-rights abuses in Britain and America than those in Belarus and Saudi Arabia.”
In 2005, AI included the United States in its list of “human rights offenders” and then-AI Secretary General Irene Khan, referred to the Guantánamo Bay prison as “the gulag of our times.” Then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and President George W. Bush both sharply opposed the “gulag” reference as inappropriate. Meanwhile, Pavel Litvinov, a human rights activist and former Soviet-era “gulag” prisoner, criticized Amnesty International for this comparison, writing:
By any standard, Guantanamo and similar American-run prisons elsewhere do not resemble, in their conditions of detention or their scale, the concentration camp system that was at the core of a totalitarian communist system […] But by using hyperbole and muddling the difference between repressive regimes and the imperfections of democracy, Amnesty’s spokesmen put its authority at risk. 
Also see Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (Movement)
Amnesty International’s agenda has often been criticized for demonstrating a “consistent institutionalized bias against Israel through double-standards” while at the same ignoring or forgiving the acts of Islamists.
For instance, AI ran a campaign titled “Israel’s Occupation: 50 Years of Dispossession” in which the organization called for international sanctions against products from the West Bank and an arms embargo on Israel. Meanwhile, “Amnesty sponsored a rally in Brussels, where Islamist speakers celebrated the 9/11 attacks, denied the Holocaust and demonized gays and Jews.”
Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz has extensively critiqued Amnesty International for its anti-Israel bias. In 2006, he wrote, “Amnesty International’s biased definition of war crimes” is “whatever Israel does to defend its citizens.” He also condemned AI for incorrectly claiming that honor killings by Arab men had increased under Israeli occupation, when in fact they had significantly decreased. In 2014, Dershowitz wrote that he was disinvited from an AIUSA sponsored speaking engagement because he is “a Zionist who supports Israel’s right to exist as the nation-state of the Jewish people.”
Similarly, professor Gerald Steinberg of the pro-Israel NGO Monitor, argues that AI has “singled out Israel for condemnation of human rights to a far greater extent than Iran, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Syria, Egypt, and other chronic abusers of human rights.” Steinberg notes that in 2006, “Amnesty issued 48 publications critical of Israel, compared to 35 for Iran, 2 for Saudi Arabia, and only 7 for Syria.”
In 2010, Gita Sahgal, then-head of Amnesty International’s gender unit was suspended from her position at AI for complaining via email that that the organization was committing a “gross error” for associating with a famous terrorist sympathizer. Sahgal wrote that AI’s decision to provide a public platform to Moazzam Begg, described as “Britain’s most famous supporter of the Taliban,” and his group Cageprisoners undermined AI’s campaign for women’s rights and provided support for the misogynistic Taliban regime.
A number of global women’s rights organizations including Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, Women Human Rights Defenders Coalition, and Women Living Under Muslim Law, and Inform came to Sahgal’s defense, offering to cut ties or withdraw donations from AI over this incident.
After her suspension Sahgal chose to leave AI and blasted the organization’s leadership for “ideological bankruptcy” and as deeply misogynistic. She also claimed that the leadership had created an “atmosphere of terror” inside the organization.
The policy was sharply criticized by a number of American expert organizations and celebrities alike.
In 2015, numerous survivors of commercial sexual exploitation condemned AIUSA’s policy. Ne’Cole Daniels, a survivor of human trafficking, said that AIUSA’s policy position was “horrible” and “horrific.”
The National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE) denounced AI’s policy “as one that ignores the brutal experiences of prostituted persons and empowers pimps, sex buyers, and sex traffickers.”
According to NCOSE’s executive director Dawn hawkins “a 2012 study published in World Development found that countries with legalized prostitution are associated with higher human trafficking inflows than countries where prostitution is prohibited.”
The largest proportion of AIUSA’s funding comes from individuals.
However, according to Foundation Center data, left-of-center foundations have contributed large amounts of money to AIUSA for specific projects and campaigns. The Ford Foundation has contributed over $300,000 from 1999 through 2006, the MacArthur Foundation gave over $325,000, and the Tides Foundation contributed nearly $180,000.
Margaret Huang is Amnesty International USA’s current executive director. Huang “previously served as Chief of Staff and as Deputy Executive Director for Campaigns and Programs at Amnesty International USA. Earlier in her career, she served as Executive Director of the Rights Working Group, a coalition of civil liberties groups formed in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks.” 
Njambi Good currently serves the Deputy Executive Director for Campaigns and Membership at Amnesty International USA. Prior to working at AIUSA, Good worked for Greenpeace, the San Francisco-based Save the Bay, and Nature Conservancy.
Aniket Shah currently chairs AIUSA’s board of directors. Shah also serves as the program leader of the Financing for Sustainable Development Initiative at the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN).