Amnesty International Is Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Amnesty International, an impartial and independent human rights organization, was awarded the 1977 Nobel Peace Prize for its effective defense of human rights against governmental abuse.

Summary of Event

Amnesty International has been an extraordinary success story since its founding by British lawyer Peter Benenson. Benenson created Amnesty International in 1961 out of frustration after reading of the imprisonment of two Portuguese students who had dared to offer a toast “to freedom” during the regime of António de Oliveira Salazar. Benenson’s idea was that if outraged citizens would band together, they could effectively demand that governments release people so unjustly imprisoned. Nobel Peace Prize;Amnesty International Amnesty International;Nobel Peace Prize Human rights activism [kw]Amnesty International Is Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (Dec. 10, 1977) [kw]Nobel Peace Prize, Amnesty International Is Awarded the (Dec. 10, 1977) [kw]Peace Prize, Amnesty International Is Awarded the Nobel (Dec. 10, 1977) [kw]Prize, Amnesty International Is Awarded the Nobel Peace (Dec. 10, 1977) Nobel Peace Prize;Amnesty International Amnesty International;Nobel Peace Prize Human rights activism [g]Europe;Dec. 10, 1977: Amnesty International Is Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize[03020] [g]Norway;Dec. 10, 1977: Amnesty International Is Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize[03020] [c]Organizations and institutions;Dec. 10, 1977: Amnesty International Is Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize[03020] [c]Human rights;Dec. 10, 1977: Amnesty International Is Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize[03020] Benenson, Peter MacBride, Seán Ennals, Martin Hammarberg, Thomas

Amnesty International grew phenomenally after its creation in 1961, becoming by 1977 an organization of 168,000 members based in more than one hundred countries. In its first sixteen years, Amnesty gained an international reputation as a unique international citizens’ lobby for human rights. Amnesty was organized around adoption groups that support prisoners of conscience (balanced between the East, the West, and Third World countries) imprisoned for the peaceful exercise of human rights. Its official mandate demands the immediate release of all prisoners of conscience, fair and prompt trials for all political prisoners, and an end to torture and the death penalty.

When the Nobel Peace Prize was announced on October 10, 1977, some considered it the second such recognition for Amnesty. Seán MacBride, a crucial participant as the chair of Amnesty’s executive committee at its founding, won the award in 1974 for an impressive career which prominently included his years at Amnesty. MacBride explained Amnesty’s technique to the press this way: Amnesty generates a letter campaign to a government on behalf of a prisoner of conscience until the issue is raised at the cabinet level as to whether the individual is worth the continued negative publicity. As MacBride stated, “The answer is frequently no.”

The Norwegian Nobel Committee’s choice of Amnesty was judged, almost without exception, as being appropriate and worthy. The Times of London claimed that the award was “thoroughly deserved.” It concluded that the proof of Amnesty’s freedom from bias was that “it is disliked equally by Chile and the Soviet Union, by the Philippines and South Africa.”

Time magazine also cited “impartiality” as an essential element of Amnesty’s worthiness. The New York Times emphasized Amnesty’s political neutrality by interviewing unimpressed United Nations representatives from Chile and Czechoslovakia, both nations that had been frequent targets of Amnesty reports. The Chilean claimed that Amnesty did not do enough about abuses in the Soviet bloc, and the Czechoslovakian criticized the Nobel Peace Prize as being too Western.

Newsweek praised Amnesty for shining a light into the world’s prison cells and torture chambers and called the organization the “World’s Conscience.” A previous winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Soviet physicist Andrei Sakharov, Sakharov, Andrei welcomed Amnesty’s recognition, citing the organization’s credibility as an international “authority” on human rights.

Amnesty’s secretary-general, Martin Ennals, stressed the organization’s commitment to prisoners of conscience and its bedrock conviction of the value of human life. In line with his reputation as a self-effacing administrator who emphasized the task at hand, Ennals did not go to Oslo to receive the award. Instead, he reconfirmed a previous commitment to Amnesty’s first international death penalty conference and asked others to represent Amnesty in Oslo.

Thomas Hammarberg, a Swedish journalist who chaired the executive committee (and later became secretary-general of Amnesty International) represented Amnesty at the award ceremony. Hammarberg noted the timing of the award’s announcement, which overlapped with “Amnesty Week,” during which the organization summarized and publicized its work on an annual basis. Moreover, he noted, December 10 would mark the last day of the Prisoners of Conscience Year campaign. He also noted that the monetary award of $146,000 would be used to promote Amnesty (disproportionately based in the West) in the Third World, especially Asia and Latin America.

Mümtaz Soysal, Soysal, Mümtaz the Turkish vice-chair of Amnesty’s executive committee, joined Hammarberg in Oslo. In giving the formal address, Soysal noted that Amnesty was formed out of the creative outrage of one individual who invited others to join him in “rous[ing] international public opinion, to do something concrete, and, where human beings are at stake, to break down all barriers.” As a testimony to Amnesty’s priorities, Soysal read the words of released prisoners from the podium.

In addition to the vital qualities of nonpartisanship and accuracy, it was the concrete achievements of two programs—the adoption campaign for prisoners of conscience and the campaign against torture—that drew the attention of the Norwegian Nobel Committee to Amnesty.

The format of the prisoners of conscience campaign has been at the heart of Amnesty since the “Appeal for Amnesty 1961” focused on eight “Forgotten Prisoners.” An essential feature of the campaign’s wide appeal is that those classified as prisoners of conscience by Amnesty have neither used nor advocated violence. Aase Lionæs noted in her presentation speech that of 6,000 such prisoners for whom Amnesty had worked between 1972 and 1975, more than 3,000 had been released. Of the 16,000 prisoners officially sponsored by Amnesty during its sixteen-year history, more than 10,600 had been released. According to Ennals, Amnesty never claimed a direct link between its work and such prisoner releases because there may well be other significant factors, and governments would respond negatively to such claims in any case.

Amnesty instigated its Campaign for the Abolition of Torture in December, 1972, with the public release of evidence documenting its use in more than sixty countries (although torture had nearly disappeared prior to the twentieth century). Torture;Amnesty International campaign Amnesty gained more than one million signatures on petitions in thirty languages from countries all over the world “to outlaw immediately the torture of prisoners throughout the world.” These were presented to the General Assembly of the United Nations and helped build the momentum that led to the unanimous passage in 1975 of the Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Being Subjected to Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Being Subjected to Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, U.N. (1975)

Amnesty initiated a second phase of the campaign against torture from 1984 to 1986. Amnesty representatives actively participated in the drafting of a treaty to prohibit torture, although without always prevailing on the issues. The U.N. General Assembly adopted the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, U.N. (1984) on December 10, 1984. The treaty was in force by 1986. These two programs illustrate Amnesty’s effectiveness in mobilizing public opinion and involving its experts on the cutting edge of the developing legal status of human rights.

Amnesty has received some criticism since the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded in 1977. In 1978, Amnesty began a controversial campaign focused on ending the death penalty, which had been part of Amnesty’s own mandate since the beginning. This was especially divisive in the U.S. branch of Amnesty International (AI:USA), as the United States was the only Western constitutional democracy to retain use of the death penalty. Some disagreed that the death penalty was an equivalent evil to torture and unjust imprisonment.

Amnesty has also given more prominence to specific campaigns of several months’ duration that identify the worst human rights offenders. For example, Amnesty began a China campaign within a matter of days after the military attack on peaceful prodemocracy students at Tiananmen Square in June, 1989. To the government targeted (and other critics), this looked selective compared with the Amnesty International Reports format in which each country is profiled individually without rankings.

Since the Human Rights Now! worldwide concert tour in 1988 celebrating the fortieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Amnesty has publicized the support of rock stars, to the dismay of some supporters. Such criticism is based on the presumption that most young people would attend only to hear the music and remain oblivious to the serious message intended.

Nevertheless, Amnesty’s effectiveness is impressive and universally acknowledged. More than forty years after Peter Benenson’s commitment led him to found Amnesty International, the organization claimed an international membership of more than 1.8 million in more than 150 countries. Amnesty International has attained worldwide recognition, as indicated by its official status before the United Nations, the Council of Europe, the African Union, and the Organization of American States.


The prestige of the Nobel Peace Prize is unsurpassed in the international community. The impact of awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Amnesty International was to enhance its credentials and stature as an international citizens’ lobby for human rights and thereby its effectiveness in promoting human rights.

The Nobel Peace Prize recipient is chosen separately from other Nobel Prize winners. The date of the official presentation, December 10, was originally chosen because it was the anniversary of the death of Alfred Nobel, founder of the awards. By a wonderful coincidence, December 10 has also become internationally recognized as Human Rights Day because the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights was passed on December 10, 1948.

The choice of Amnesty for the 1977 Nobel Peace Prize indicated a recognition by the Norwegian Nobel Committee of the role human rights play in achieving genuine peace. Lionæs noted in her ceremonial remarks on behalf of the Norwegian Nobel Committee that the “defense of human dignity against torture, violence and degradation” is a direct contribution “to the peace of this world.” Ennals also endorsed the vital connection between human rights and peace. Soysal stated in his formal response for Amnesty that peace “must be constructed upon foundations of justice.”

Among the first steps in achieving such a world of peace is surely the elimination of the state’s prerogative to inflict gross human rights violations on its citizens. States hold a monopoly on tangible power by virtue of their military might, tax wealth, and nationalistic loyalty of their citizens. Amnesty’s battle to “civilize” state power is based on the perception of its moral authority by the states and the people of the world.

Amnesty International’s ability to hasten the arrival of a day when the routine acceptance of the use of torture and the death penalty by the state is regarded as part of humankind’s dark past is directly related to its prestige as a Nobel Peace Prize recipient. Undoubtedly, Amnesty benefited from this prestige in its participation in the drafting and promotion of the U.N. Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. This status is no less vital in getting advocates of the death penalty to consider Amnesty’s information and arguments on the issue. If true peace is the creation of a world society that upholds the dignity and permits the fulfillment of the potential of each person, the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s choice of Amnesty International as recipient of its Peace Prize marked an important step toward the achievement of genuine peace. Nobel Peace Prize;Amnesty International Amnesty International;Nobel Peace Prize Human rights activism

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Amnesty International. Torture in the Eighties. London: Author, 1984. A horrific yet scholarly account of the use of torture. A country-by-country survey listing ninety-seven countries that use torture. This is part of Amnesty’s campaign begun in 1972, and renewed from 1984 to 1986, to end the use of torture.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. When the State Kills: The Death Penalty. London: Author, 1989. A comprehensive and compelling rebuttal of the utility and morality of the death penalty. Describes various forms of execution and details its status in all countries. Excellent appendix containing a summary of international legal references.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Clark, Ann Marie. Diplomacy of Conscience: Amnesty International and Changing Human Rights Norms. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001. An account of Amnesty International’s efforts to raise popular conscience and to influence international law regarding human rights.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Drinan, Robert. Cry of the Oppressed: The History and Hope of the Human Rights Revolution. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987. Comprehensive, general introduction to human rights, including the Nuremberg Trials, U.N. human rights efforts, and American foreign policy and human rights. The chapter on “Non-governmental Human Rights Organizations” highlights Amnesty. The author was part of an Amnesty mission to Argentina in 1976.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hertzberg, Hendrik. “Vox Pox.” The New Republic, October 10, 1988, 14-15. Description of Human Rights Now! rock tour sponsored by Amnesty on the fortieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Interviews with Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Peter Gabriel, Tracy Chapman, and Youssou N’Dour invite the reader to judge these artists’ sincerity, knowledge, and effectiveness as human rights advocates.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Larsen, Egon. A Flame in Barbed Wire: The Story of Amnesty International. New York: W. W. Norton, 1979. An accessible, anecdotal presentation of the history of Amnesty International including its origins, torture in various countries, the death penalty debate, and numerous individual prisoners. General background information and evaluations of Amnesty’s work. Index, no bibliography, many illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Miller, Stephen. “Politics and Anmesty International.” Commentary 65 (March, 1978): 57-60. The author considers Amnesty to have abandoned its neutrality by putting the death penalty on the same level as torture and by judging (right-wing) authoritarian regimes more harshly than (left-wing) totalitarian regimes. A conservative critique.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Power, Jonathan. Amnesty International: The Human Rights Story. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981. Excellent coverage of the founding and development of Amnesty, including its attainment of the Nobel Peace Prize. Examines Amnesty’s mandate, organizational arrangements, and campaigns on torture, the death penalty, and children. The human rights records of the Soviet Union, China, Nicaragua, and Guatemala also receive attention. Controversies and personalities are frankly discussed. Numerous illustrations, but no index or bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Like Water on Stone: The Story of Amnesty International. New York: Allen Lane, 2001. An overview of the Amnesty International’s human rights efforts in countries such as Guatemala, Chile, China, and the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stephenson, Thomas. “Working for Human Rights.” Bulletin of Atomic Scientists 37 (August/September, 1987): 54-56. Good overall explanation of Amnesty. Excellent picture of the work of the author’s own adoption group (AI:USA #18, based in Hyde Park-University of Chicago) and its work for prisoners in Guatemala and Romania.

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Categories: History