Amnesty International and the Cultural Politics of Suffering

Monday, January 5, 2009: 9:50 AM
Lenox Ballroom (Sheraton New York)
Mark Philip Bradley , University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Amnesty International (AI), perhaps the quintessential late twentieth century human rights non-governmental organization, focused its grassroots efforts at suasion on what it called “prisoners of conscience.” Amnesty from its inception in 1961 sought to engage its local and national chapters in letter writing campaigns on behalf of individual victims of human rights abuses to secure their release from prison.  With the bipolar Cold War international system hovering over its activities and intent on demonstrating its own impartiality, AI urged its membership to work in “threes”—adopting three prisoners simultaneously, one from each of what it termed the First, Second and Third Worlds.  Both men and women were among the thousands of AI’s adopted prisoners but the organization framed its human rights concerns almost exclusively around political and civil rights rather than social and economic rights or issues of gender and sexuality, a choice that prompted sharp internal debates within the organization itself in the 1970s and beyond.  My presentation will draw upon archival materials from AI-USA to explore a single case of prisoner adoption in the early 1970s –an Indonesian woman and doctor adopted by a local chapter and the discussions the adoption process produced among members over the scale and scope of AI’s efforts– to ground a broader set of observations about writing histories of the potentialities, and limits, of an emergent global human rights imagination.
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