Universitatea din Bucuresti
Facultatea de Stiinte Politice
Succeeding in global civil society. The case of Amnesty International
AI Amnesty International
CAT Campaign against Torture
GSC Global Civil Society
ICC International Criminal Court
ICJ International Commission of Jurists
ICRC International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies
NGO Non-Governmental Organisation
ONI Open Net Initiative
POC Prisoner of Conscience
PR Public Relations
UDHR Universal Declaration of Human Rights
UN United Nations
UN ECOSOC United Nations Economic and Social Council
USP Unique Selling Proposition
developments in the legislation regulating respect for human rights norms, the
number of human rights infringements has not decreased. Another worrisome fact
is that these infringements are not connected only to authoritarian regimes,
but also to the most democratic ones.
For example, Internet censorship is common practice in
The causes for this are manifold. One possible reason is represented by flaws in the monitoring and sanctioning mechanisms of the bodies which should oversee the implementation of human rights, namely UN bodies. This means that not only does the system overlook human rights breaches, but also that these breaches are not sanctioned accordingly. While the UN is the main legislator in the domain and the main norm-builder, its efficiency is low when it comes to assessing the results and making sure the norms are put into practice.
Another reason is that states put their national sovereignty and
security interests above human rights norms. For example, freedom of expression
and freedom of association are the first to be sacrificed for reasons of
national interest. According to a report from the OpenNet Initiative,
governments worldwide censor websites under the pretext of national security
reasons. While the
Under these circumstances, it seems that ensuring full compliance with and respect for human rights norms is highly problematic. However, a potential solution might lie in building a viable platform of mediation between governments’ interests and citizens’ interests. Currently, this role is played by civil society, which has taken up the task of being the “moral conscience” protecting citizens from narrow state interests by making “a balance between consensus and conflict”.
While civil society is on a case by case basis more or less successful in promoting and monitoring compliance with human rights at national level, its resources are limited when it comes to international lobby. Also, the growing tendency of internationalisation and inter-connectedness of issues makes it necessary to have a watch-dog for human rights at international level, a sort of “moral conscience without borders.” The recent years have brought about the development of a “global” - or “transnational” - civil society, which takes on the characteristics of national civil societies to a global level and militates for human rights internationally.
Unfortunately, not at all global civil society attempts of enforcing human rights are successful and have the desired result. Among the international NGO’s willing to impact in a positive way the movement for human rights compliance, only a few of them are successful. The starting point in my research is then the following question: out of the NGOs willing to have an impact in global civil society, which are the specific elements that contribute to the success of these NGOs in their global campaigns? My interest lies, therefore, in assessing what an NGO should do in order to be efficient in its work of promotion of human rights.
When an NGO starts a campaign it has a variety of tools which it can use. The distinction should be made here between direct and indirect lobbying. The former implies changing elite behaviour on a specific issue – in this case, on human rights – while the latter prefers to target the public in order to change the socio – political environment, i.e. the attitude of the electorate, so that the elites will act in a predetermined manner. My research will focus on indirect lobbying tactics. Therefore, my hypothesis is that the success of an NGO in global civil society is positively correlated to the degree of public mobilisation it creates.
The concept of human rights is a very broad one, rooted in the concepts of human dignity and respect for the individual. Another implication of the concept is that it defines legitimate entitlements of one human being over the others. Human rights are universal, held equally by any person, not dependant upon social, economic status or any other criteria and valid in front of any government or authority. As a result, human rights are associated to social expectations about the behaviour they engender and have been codified in legal instruments accordingly.
One of the landmark codifications of human rights is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) from 1948, which considers human rights to stand at the “foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world.” Human rights can be divided into two main categories. The first comprises civil and political rights, while the second refers to economic and social rights, also termed as “new rights”.
During the past decade, the terms “transnational civil society” and “global civil society” have become common places in the political vocabulary. However, the usage of one over the other is not clear cut and there are still issues when it comes to narrowing down their basic characteristics. Questions come not only about the types of events covered by the denomination, but there are also question marks in what regards legitimacy of these movements, mobilisation patterns , moral problems such as hate organisations and so on. In order to grasp their meaning, one first has to analyze the core concept from which they evolved, namely that of “civil society”.
According to the Oxford Dictionary of Politics, civil society is “the set of intermediate associations which are neither the state nor the (extended) family; [and it] includes voluntary associations and firms and other corporate bodies.” This means that civil society has to correspond to a third sphere of collective life , offering alternate means of association than those offered by the state or the market. Still, these definitions do not encompass the full complexity of the term.
The reason for this is the fact that it has “weak sociological roots,” meaning that its meaning is wrapped in ambiguity. However, if one draws its main characteristics, one can say that it is based on tolerance, avoiding despotism and living with difference. Also, contrary to popular belief, civil society does not rely solely upon conflict, but it is rather based on a fragile balance between consensus and conflict. Another characteristic of civil society is that, though it is a form of association, it does not imply uniformity, but rather strong individualism and societal differentiation. As a result, I embrace the definition according to which civil society “is a particular form of society, appreciating social diversity and able to limit the depredations of political power.”
All the ambiguities of the term are transferred to its derivates, namely transnational/global civil society. Both terms are used interchangeably to refer to the phenomenon characterised by a growing interconnectedness of citizens, an increase in trans-border and supranational associational forms of citizens, or what is termed as an “associational revolution”. Included here are events like Greenpeace campaigns, the World Social Forum or the formation of the NGO coalition which lobbied for the signature of the Rome Statute in 1998.
The difference between the two terms, however, is one of nuance. Indeed, the phenomenon is transnational, because it implies border-crossing and has a supranational character. This is the reason why many authors prefer to refer to it as “transnational civil society.” However, the present work embraces the view that the term “global civil society” is more suited. One reason for this is that “global” would expresses much better the magnitude of the phenomenon and its evolution during the past twenty years. However, it does overstate the phenomenon in the way that there are areas of the globe still neglected or weakly represented. But at the same time, just using “transnational” would be an understatement. Also, the term “global” includes an aspirational component, and thus reflects the desire of creating a global movement for the common values we share.
As mentioned before, the movement of global civil society (GSC) encompasses a variety of manifestations: from street marches or activists’ movements to summits. One can include here civil disobedience, signing pledges online, making public media campaigns or embarking on humanitarian operations. Also, the organisations included in the GSC movement are very diverse: civil society organisations, people’s organisations, grass-roots organisations, community-based associations, etc.
Still, global civil society is mostly associated to non-governmental organisations (NGOs). The general understanding of the term is that given by the United Nations in Regulation 1966/31, which defined NGOs “as any international organization which is not established by a governmental entity or international agreement.” Therefore, the term exhibits the same main characteristics that the idea of civil society has - non- state and non-profit seeking, thus being placed in that “third sphere” outside of the state and the market, which serves as an explanation for the fact that GSC is most of times identified with the activities of NGO’s. A caveat is required here: though the term has come unto an almost universalistic usage, it should however be borne in mind that it is an umbrella-term for a variety of organizations, ranging from community-based associations to grass-roots associations or people’s organizations. This differentiation will be borne in mind when treating NGO’s as unit of analysis for this thesis.
One of the main issues in the theories concerning global civil society is that of the efficiency of the movement. While it is acknowledged that NGOs are of paramount importance in the domain of human rights, in areas such as monitoring, enforcing and even norm-generating, establishing exactly how or how much their work makes a difference is a difficult endeavour.
One possible way of establishing the influence GSC has over the general framework of human rights it to see whether and in which way NGOs were involved in the norm-drafting process taking part at the UN. However, this model has several main limitations. First of all, this criterion would imply reducing the number of NGOs capable of influencing human rights norms to those which have consultative status at the UN. Secondly, the UN-drafting process is an intricate one, based on bargaining and negotiations, so that it is difficult to say which part of the final product was influenced by which actor. And last but not least, many states are reluctant to recognise that they have been influenced by external actors when signing documents at an international level.
This is why it is more appropriate to say that GSC and the UN are complementary parties in the process of emergence of human rights norms. This means that while the UN has the legitimacy of introducing norms due to the fact that it is a body made of representatives of member states who vote on certain issues, it is however weak when it comes to direct action or monitoring compliance with human rights norms. And this is where GSC steps in and takes up the roles of consciousness raising, agenda setting, lobbying, monitoring and direct action.
Besides this, even in the cases when NGOs successfully have a direct impact on norm emergence, this is difficult to document. This is why the most efficient way for NGOs to participate in that stage of norm building is by influencing public opinion. This is to be understood in the terms of democratic practice, as influencing public opinion implies that the public will further go on to lobby the government on that specific issue. Therefore, “the whole movement rests on the idea that governments respond to public opinion.”
Public opinion is considered to be a very problematic concept as there is no consensus as to its exact definition. What is generally accepted, though, is that it is a collective phenomenon. In this study, public opinion is understood as a conglomerate of the individual opinions of the members of society at large or of any social group. Its main characteristics are that it is amorphous and that it is a platform for exchange of ideas, which makes it unstable and forever fluctuating. To this aim, by public mobilisation I refer here to the changes in public opinion and creation of public support for a cause as a result of PR strategies. It is these changes in public opinion which are particularly relevant for validating my hypothesis.
This is because the capacity to influence public opinion is deemed as essential in determining the success of an NGO campaign. And this means that a successful NGO has to know how to make the issues it is interested in appeal to the media in order to obtain a good public response. The idea of the importance of public relations (PR) is not a new one and it was anticipated as early as the 1930s by Barneys, who believed that the ability of building consensus in the public sphere will change forever the concept of politics. How is this possible? An explanation is that given by the ethics of trust , which is founded on the idea that in the modern era states interact with each other no longer according to patterns of power politics, but based on the assumption of trust. This builds a whole system of trust, formalised by the adoption of norms and treaties. When GSC steps in is when some states fail to abide by the rules and break the trust. Then, NGOs can apply the “shaming” technique, which means making public the breach of the norms, a perspective which states fear.
The theory pinpoints to the fact – no longer denied by anyone today – that we live in an era in which image is of paramount importance. This is what NGOs have understood and as a result incorporated PR techniques into their practices. An effective use of PR is that which implies making appeal to the main human instincts, such as fear or curiosity. This enables the creation of emotions, a catalyst for changes in public opinion.
To test my hypothesis, I will look at organisations which meet three criteria suggested in the literature. The first is to be of a non-governmental nature, the second to be international and the third to be permanent, as opposed to ad-hoc projects. From the several NGOs eligible for this, I chose Amnesty International. The main reason for this is that Amnesty is not only one of the oldest, but also one of the most well-known NGOs when it comes to human rights. If at the current moment there has been a boost in the number of active NGOs, it has to be said that AI was one of the first, which makes it a pioneer in the field.
first reason for choosing Amnesty International was its tradition and
longevity. The organisation was founded in 1961 by Peter Benenson, a British
barrister. The idea came to Benenson as he found out about the case of two
Portuguese students who had been imprisoned for having made a toast for
“freedom”. The case inspired Benenson, who gathered some friends and
like-minded individuals and put the basis of what was intended to be a
fixed-term project, called “Appeal for Amnesty, 1961”. The first project was a
world-wide appeal for the release of prisoners of conscience – a term which
will become iconic in the history of AI. It soon became obvious there was
potential for transforming the movement into something permanent. Consequently,
in September 1962, at a conference in
Only three years later from its founding, in 1964, AI received formal recognition by being granted consultative status in the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). However, it was only at the beginning of the ‘70s that AI intensified its work with the UN. In 1969, Amnesty was also granted consultative status by UNESCO. This coincided with a milestone in the organisations’ history: 2,000 prisoners of conscience from 63 countries had been released. Also, in 1971, the year of AI’s 10th anniversary, 700 prisoners were released. In 1975, AI knew another great achievement, as its efforts from the Campaign Against Torture (CAT) culminated in the UN adoption of the Declaration Against Torture. But perhaps one of the most important achievements of the period for AI was being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for “having contributed to securing the ground for freedom, for justice, and thereby also for peace in the world'. In 1978, AI won the United Nations Human Rights prize for its contributions in the field. In addition, AI was part of the coalition of NGO’s which lobbied at an international level for the establishment of an International Criminal Court (ICC). The success of the campaign came in 1998, with the adoption of the Rome Statute. In 2006, the UN started working on a treaty to regulate Arms Trade as a result of AI campaigning. Also, AI’s campaign against death penalty received a positive response when the UN General Assembly adopted resolution L29 calling for a moratorium on executions.
Besides having a rich history and tradition and having won prestigious prizes, AI elicits interests also by the fact that it has unique characteristics, which distinguish it from other similar organisations. Its uniqueness resides both in the tactics adopted and in the targets it chooses, impressing through the determination with which it sustains its causes. This implies that studying Amnesty International is instrumental for understanding both similar NGOs and the phenomenon of global civil society in its entirety.
Also, its qualities made Amnesty International a leader in the field of human rights NGOs. This is mostly due to the fact that Amnesty was the one to pave the way for many NGOs which now have a similar activity in the field of human rights. Despite opening the way for public criticism of governments – which was unthinkable before AI turned it into a practice – it was also at the core of the formation of the Conference of Non-Governmental Associations in Consultative Status at the UN (CONGO). Hence, it is not an overstatement to affirm that the human rights regime as we know it today has been to a large extended shaped by the efforts of Amnesty International, which thus become a true catalyst for change in the domain.
great contribution of Amnesty International to the current NGO strategies are
the techniques it used in order to reach its target groups and succeed in its
campaigns. One of the most famous was “the three rule”, which implied that each
AI member should adopt members from three ideologically distinct regions of the
world: the East, the West and the
to all these facts, Amnesty has assumed the role of a leader amongst NGOs of
the same kind. This implies that whatever AI would do it would be taken as a
model. For example, when at the 2001 AI conference in
Stephen Hopgood – credited to be the official biographer of AI – goes even further and asserts that Amnesty has become a moral authority in the field. His definition of authority is that “it is more than force and different from the capacity to prevail through rational persuasion.” This implies that the power of persuasion of an authority stands not in rational arguments, but in the power of persuasion stemming from its identity.
AI’s moral authority is composed of two elements. First there the privileged access Amnesty has to knowledge not available to the ordinary layman, this being a result of its unique membership base and the close contact with NGO networks. The second element is the power AI has to make people act in the name of some principles and beliefs, thus giving recipes for what people should do. It can therefore be said that AI is defining morality.
The time span for analysis is 2001 - 2009. The lower limit is an important year in AI’s history because it was then when AI decided to enlarge its scope of actions so as to include so-called “new human rights”, namely economic and social rights. The extension of the analysis to 2009 stems from the fact that campaigning for human rights is a cyclical process which does not end on the official day a specific campaign closes. Lobbying for human rights norms is a continuous effort, which builds upon past attempts, which means that present actions may be rooted in campaigns started as early as 2001.
Of a secondary importance in analysis is also the period before 2001, starting with 1961, the year in which Amnesty International was founded. There are two reasons for this. First, the majority of Amnesty’s campaign techniques date back since the 70’s, when Amnesty started its first global campaign, the Campaign Against Torture, which means that studying them might prove useful for understanding the mechanisms of present-day campaigns. Second, campaigning for human rights is a cyclical process, which means that, in order to understand present campaigns it is necessary to look at efforts which preceded them.
Spatial limits are more difficult to be established because we are dealing with a global phenomenon. Also, Amnesty International is an international organisation, with members in approximately 150 states and territories. However, the focus when analyzing AI campaigns will be on national sections. Still, this does not bring about any spatial confinements, firstly due to the good communication between AI sections which enables dissemination of results, and secondly to the fact that the campaigns make use of modern technology and the Internet, thus reaching people in distant places of the world.
The unit of analysis of this thesis is Amnesty International. Therefore, the first part of the paper will be dedicated to analyzing its brand attributes. The reason for this is that the brand makes the identity of an organisation and thus contributes to the effect of influencing public opinion. Bearing in mind that the brand as a concept is a compound of values, thoughts and attitudes, I will analyze it according to the following elements: vision of the organisation, its mission and strategy, the brand name, the logo, its unique selling proposition (USP), the main values attached to it, the brand architecture, its ability to persuade, brand experience and communication techniques. Also, due to the growing awareness of the importance of internal branding , I will make a brief analysis of the values AI carries as a brand inside AI.
The second element of analysis is represented by the short-term, campaign-specific PR techniques. Analysis of this element will be done according to the following elements: name of the campaign, its main message and goal, mix of media and PR techniques.
The analysis of the dependent variable poses some issues, as there is no precise tool for measuring public mobilisation. In addition, it is tightly linked to the issues of the efficiency of NGOs and of whether or not their impact in international politics can be quantifiable. Since direct impact at the level of UN decision-making bodies cannot be evaluated properly, one has to rely in analyzing NGO efficiency on their own internal evaluation procedures. Another tool which can be used in the case of AI – due to the nature of its campaigns – is the number of letters sent in a collective letter-writing effort, the number of people showing up at a concert or the number of signatures of the petition. What I would like to stress out is that, due to the fluidity of the concepts of public opinion and public mobilisation, analysis of efficiency will be done on a case by case basis.
The first in-depth campaign study features AI’s traditional focus: prisoners of conscience. This is the letter-writing marathon, an annual campaign founded in 2001 and taking place in one designated weekend in December, in order to commemorate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Also, it is a global campaign, meaning that it is organised at the same time in more AI national sections. The concept is the following: people gather and for 24h they write letters for selected cases of POCs. Then, these letters are sent to heads of state, ministers and the prisoners themselves. This action is followed by follow-up, in which people can find out what happened with the prisoners they were writing for.
The second case was chosen for the sake of diversity. While the letter-writing marathon is a traditional AI campaign, having as focus prisoners of conscience, the second campaign I chose reflects AI’s new orientations after 2001. The campaign is named Irrepressible.info and it is a web-based campaign addressing the issue of Internet repression and censorship. The traditional focus on prisoners of conscience is replaced by cyber dissidents. Also, the campaign targets not only governments, as AI used to, but also multinational corporations. Irrepressible.info was launched in 2006 by the AI UK national section.
The sources employed for this research are a mix between primary and secondary sources. The primary sources are mostly official documents from Amnesty International, such as reports and newsletters, and presentations on the organisation’s website, as well as on the websites for individual campaigns. The literature, mostly in English, but also Romanian and French, consists of monographies and comparative studies on AI campaigns or in the fields of international relations, global civil society, PR and branding.
The study is structured in two chapters. The first chapter is entirely dedicated to the analysis of AI as a brand. Based on branding theories, I analyse the main characteristics of the brand called Amnesty International, its main values and associations that come with it. In order to have a 360o approach, I also analyse the part of internal branding.
The second chapter is dedicated to in-depth campaign studies. To this aim, the chapter is divided into smaller section, according to the particular cases chosen. In order to underline the link between the PR techniques and the mobilisation of public opinion, I did not make a separate section for analysis of the dependent variable, but this will be done at the end of each campaign study case.
For those actors willing to have a long-term impact, isolated PR campaigns are not enough. To this end, they go – some voluntary, some not – into the process of branding. The brand is the identity of the company, or, in our case, the NGO. When we talk about a brand, we talk about values. It represents the mental inventory associated to an entity, “the totality of thoughts, feelings, associations and expectations that come to mind when a prospect or consumer is exposed to an entity’s name, logo, product, services, events, or any design or symbol representing them.” As in the case of PR, branding also implies appeal to emotions, but this time as a continued effort, which on the long term generates loyalty and identification with the values of the brand.
The main reason for which an organisation needs branding is because emotions and values attached to its identity are the only ones which can differentiate it nowadays from similar organisations. In turn, these emotional links generate loyalty in time. And in the end it can help an organisation position itself better in front of its audience and claim premium value.
Before it became an international movement, Amnesty started as a small group centred around the personality of Peter Benenson. When Amnesty was formed, in the beginning of the 60’s, there was no similar movement. Both the International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (ICRC) and the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) were functioning and well-established NGOs, but they did not have the same type of membership base. Also, AI was a pioneer in many fields at the time, including adoption of prisoners of conscience (POCs) and direct, public criticism of governments, which was no easy task. Therefore, it was Benenson’s vision to make AI more than just an organisation and give it an inspirational meaning.
At an ideological
level, Amnesty was the alternative from the polarised universe and thinking of
the Cold War era.
In a time when everything was either about the east or the west, Amnesty came
up with the “three rule”, which divided the international arena into three main
areas: the Soviet east, the capitalised West and the
An important element in the construction of Amnesty’s future brand was the personality and vision of Benenson. What he intended when creating Amnesty was to have not only a movement for the liberation of prisoners, but also to create an organisation which would inspire its members and change their lives. In his account of the beginning of AI, Buchanan quotes Benenson, who says that his main aim was that of finding “a common base upon which the idealists of the world can co-operate.” Amnesty was supposed to be a place where people could feel they were belonging to something greater than themselves.
Therefore, one of the key elements in AI’s success was its novelty. On the realm of politics, it enabled an alternative to the bipolar model. In the field of NGOs, it came up with a new approach. And internally, it was made up of people deeply inspired by the movement, to whom being part of Amnesty meant being able to participate in something with a high moral value.
element in brand construction is the story, the “legend has it..” about the
beginning of an organisation.
Benson’s virtuosity in usage of symbols is also evident in his own account
about the beginning of Amnesty. The official story – also to be found on AI’s
website – tells how Benenson was inspired to create Amnesty by reading, while
in the tube, an article about two Portuguese students having been imprisoned
for the mere reason of holding a toast for liberty in a restaurant in
Though this account is of a high symbolic importance, the facts do no stand when confronted to historical evidence. It seems that the article about the Portuguese students is untraceable and there is no evidence whatsoever with what happened to them after that. Also, the emphasis on the propitious moment in time and on the inspiration Benenson had in the spur of a moment are not historically-accurate, but rather elements which form a sort of mythology around AI’s beginnings and thus enhance its symbolic value for its members and public.
According to AI’s official website, the organisation defines itself as a “worldwide movement of people” who campaign for human rights, with the aim of achieving full protection and respect thereof. Their mission expresses the same attachment to human rights norms:
“We believe human rights abuses anywhere are the concern of people everywhere. So, outraged by human rights abuses but inspired by hope for a better world, we work to improve people’s lives through campaigning and international solidarity.”
In this way, the organization defines not only its main concern – human rights abuses – but also their main methods for fighting against them, which are campaigning and achieving solidarity for this cause at an international level. The tools are then better defined in the mission statement:
“Our mission is to conduct research and generate action to prevent and end grave abuses of human rights and to demand justice for those whose rights have been violated.”
When it comes to the tactics adopted, the strategy includes both direct and indirect lobby, which is also my focus:
This is instrumental in understanding why AI’s campaigns focus so much on depicting harsh realities. The explanation lies in the fact that AI has as its main aim public mobilization and public pressure, which the organisation deems as efficient ways of pressuring governments and the international community.
“Amnesty” is a noun designating “a situation in which a government agrees not to punish, or to no longer punish, people who have committed a particular crime.” It is more or less similar to pardon and is thus linked to the idea of hope. And indeed, Amnesty International has become the hope of those imprisoned for freely expressing their beliefs in an authoritarian environment.
The noun was chosen for Benenson’s project since the beginning, when it was just “Appeal for Amnesty 1961”. The name of Amnesty International was adopted one year later. However, this was not done without some misgivings. The initial idea was to use the word “armistice”, but it was abandoned because it was felt it was antagonising the British Legion. The word “amnesty”, on the other hand, was related on the continent to right-wing terrorist groups. Nonetheless, it was chosen because it conveyed very well the idea of putting an end to the Cold War and its meaning was intimately linked to AI’s main cause, prisoners of conscience.
One of the main elements used for identification with a brand is its logo, which represents in a graphic form the persona of the association. Amnesty’s early propensity towards using strong symbols was also manifested in the choice of its logo. This represents a candle in barbed wire. The idea came from the Chinese proverb “Better light a candle than curse the darkness.” Of course, Benenson also insisted on the catholic symbol of the candle. The significance is that when a situation is wrong, instead of complaining, you should better take action and try to change the situation. Also, in the Catholic understanding, the darkness represents the period of ignorance preceding the realization of faith. In AI’s specific context, lighting the candle meant bringing to light the situation of political prisoners and fight against it.
It is rather peculiar that a European organization, founded by a fervent Catholic, used symbols inspired by oriental thought in the choice of its logo. However, this is to be understood in connection to the specific moment in time when AI appeared, namely the 60’s, a time when the old establishment was heavily critiqued and new and fresh influences were beginning to be felt in all walks of life. Therefore, the logo once again reinforces the idea that AI was representative of the changing social climate, which helped the organisation in its revolutionary, ground-breaking work.
The term comes from the realm of commercial marketing and refers to the statement of uniqueness a product makes, to its intrinsic qualities which make it unique on the market. Moving on from consumer goods on to the civil society arena, the USP becomes linked to the mission statement and main target of an NGO. It is that particular focus which makes the distinction between the ICRC and Greenpeace so clear-cut.
Though in 2001 Amnesty modified its statute so as to incorporate new human rights , the organisation remains deeply linked with the cause of prisoners of conscience. Firstly, this is because POCs were AI’s first focus and the reason for which Amnesty was founded. Even though the story about the Portuguese students is poorly documented, it is indicative of AI’s initial attachment to freedom of speech. This is viewed also in the techniques AI developed, which included adoption of prisoners and extensive letter-writing campaigns. Secondly, the ideological development of AI stemmed from this main concern with POCs. AI’s first global campaign, the Campaign for the Abolition of Torture (CAT), stemmed from realisation of the fact that, until and if POCs were granted amnesty and were released, the organisation had to make sure that at least they received humane treatment while in prison. CAT was therefore the result of becoming very well-acquainted with the problems POCs were facing and the desire to put an end to these degrading treatments.
The term of prisoner of conscience was defined in the very first article about AI in The Observer. POC was “any person who is physically restrained (by imprisonment or otherwise) from expressing (in any form of words or symbols) any opinion which he honestly holds and which does not advocate or condone personal violence”. Even before that, Benenson had his own personal definition of the term: “a person denied full freedom of movement for a cause the substance of which is the advocacy of any course except violence either orally at a meeting or in writing, or without any cause being assigned.” Thus, AI defined very precisely the cause they were fighting for (any person retained for exercising freedom of speech and which excluded use of violence) which later on helped their identification of this specific cause and helped the process of brand building.
Another element of definition for a brand is brand architecture. According to Olins’ typology, AI falls into the category of monolithic brands. This means that AI’s image is kept constant in all of the countries where it is operating. Besides having the same name and the same logo, AI also has the same strategies and even if national sections can have their own, independent campaigns, they still are connected to the centre and follow the same rules.
Also, the campaigns lead by Amnesty’s central section are also taken over by the national sections, so that the effort is multiplied all over the world, in all AI countries and territories. Besides efficiency of work, having a monolithic brand helps in the process of identification with the brand, an important asset in AI’s brand building strategy. AI thus has a coherent image all over the world, which helps its identification with the universal values it is fighting for.
The definition of branding identifies image and values as the most important elements in defining it and creating its identity. Related to my focus, AI as a brand is made up of its image and the values people associate to it. These are the following: attachment to human rights, activism, being close to people, impartiality, expertise and representing moral values. Together, they create the mix which defines a successful brand: that between notoriety and the ability to persuade.
First of all, Amnesty is associated to human rights. If at the beginning AI was only focused on releasing prisoners of conscience, later on it developed and included among its causes abolition of torture, disappearances, the rights of women, arms control, and so on. This is also evident from its vision and mission statement, which talk about the organisation’s commitment to human rights. In 2001, Amnesty also included into its advocacy work economic and social rights.
AI’s attachment to
human rights was actually stated since the first year of campaign. “Appeal for
Amnesty 1961” was launched in the same day with two important commemorations in
the history of the development of human rights. The first was the emancipation
of the serfs in
Amnesty’s attachment to human rights – which in the 60’s did not enjoy the attention they do now – and to lost causes made it be similar to hope and to encouragement of activism. In a time when public criticism of governments was deemed inconceivable, Amnesty was breaking the rules by encouraging citizens to stand up and take action against government infringements upon human rights. What was also unique about AI is that the form of political activism it was promoting was not based on civil disobedience, but rather on a positive approach and a “can-do” attitude, based on the shaming-technique.
As mentioned before, Amnesty was meant to become a life-changer for its members, by giving them the feeling they belonged to something greater than themselves. Instrumental in doing that and achieving a high level of personal involvement and attachment to the cause was the practice of adoption. When an Amnesty member received a POC case to deal with, the person was not just a name on the paper. The member adopted the prisoner, which entailed direct contact with him/herself and with the victims’ family and friends. Also, this meant that the respective member did not just fight for an abstract cause, but for the cause of the particular X individual, by writing letters to governments and responsible authorities for that particular case. In this manner, Amnesty constructed its image of being “close to people”.
Another important attribute of Amnesty is its impartiality. This means that Amnesty is credited as a neutral, non-interested, third-party actor. The main reason for this is the fact that public criticism of governments has always been a constant in Amnesty’s strategy. Not only this, but another important principle in AI’s work is “the three rule”, which implies that criticism is directed not only towards a certain type of regime or a specific area on the globe. The three rule means that AI is always taking a balanced approach so that it cannot be considered biased by associating it with a specific country/political doctrine. This rule is seconded by the Work On Own Country (WOOC) rule, which represents the prohibition for a member to deal with cases from his/her own geographical space.
However, despite all these steps taken by AI so as to secure its impartiality, there have always been allegations according to which Amnesty was biased or was serving vested interests. Usually, the authors of these accusations where governments which were being critiqued in AI reports. In order to cope with this, AI decided to publish these claims on their website, so as to prove once more that it has nothing to hide. By doing this, it once again proved that it does not serve any government’s interest. As an official recognition of this, AI country reports enjoy special privileges at the UN: if the report of an individual country over its internal state of affairs varies considerably from the AI country report, the latter has precedence.
Yet another important element for securing AI’s independence refers to financial aspects. AI has very strict funding and sponsorship rules, established from its inception. These imply that it does not accept any form of support from governments and political parties, so as to avoid accusations of being biased.
Of equal importance is the fact that it has expertise and it has become a source of information in its field. The expertise is the result of AI’s long experience in human rights advocacy and has been recognized officially by the awards and prizes it received, amongst which a Nobel prize for peace in the 70’s. Besides that, thanks to its network of volunteers and transnational membership, AI has access to information to which other interested parties do not. Therefore, Amnesty is deemed as a source of reliable information.
Also, Amnesty stands for moral values. This is linked to its loyalty to principles, which make it a transparent and trustworthy organisation. As proof of that stands AI’s history. Perhaps the most eloquent example is that Benenson himself – the founder of the movement – had to resign following a scandal related to suspicions of government support and funding. Also, WOOC and the “three rule” play an important role in portraying Amnesty as an organisation abiding by moral values.
Hopgood goes even further in asserting that not only is Amnesty a model for alike NGOs, but it has become a moral authority. The explanation for this dates back to the 60s, when the organisation was founded. That was the time when the Church was beginning to lose its influence in prescribing what is good and what is bad for individuals. In this context, as a newly founded and increasingly notorious organisation, Amnesty became a referee for moral values in the public space. This fact also incorporates a paradox, because Amnesty became, at the same time, a reference point for both those who believed in traditions – due to its support for moral values – and for those who believed in the force of the new social movements.
All these attributes made AI gain notoriety among specialised NGOs and the general public alike. The identification of Amnesty with the cause of prisoners and human rights respect have actually become part of mass culture, as proven by the fact that AI is even quoted in Hollywood productions. For instance, both the Oscar movie Slumdog Millionaire and the much-acclaimed Rendition talk about Amnesty International in contexts relating to the humane treatment of prisoners.
. Therefore, AI as a brand manages to have both ability to persuade (due to its being a moral authority) and notoriety. Together, these attributes define a successful brand. More than this, they give a measure of its success and contribute to the shaping of public opinion.
A brand analysis cannot be complete without an investigation of the dimensions of brand experience and communication techniques, which are essential elements in brand construction. The choice of analyzing them together is explained by the fact that they are deeply linked with each other. Though brand experience is not the equivalent of communication techniques, it however relies on them to a high degree and cannot therefore be conceived as apart. Therefore, analyzing these last two dimensions helps one get a better grasp of the whole array of interactions of the consumer with the brand.
First of all, Amnesty as a brand is very close to people. As underlined in the previous section, this comes both from the interior – the way AI is “sold” to its personnel – and the exterior, from the experience unaffiliated members have with Amnesty. What makes Amnesty so close to people is, of course, its concern for human rights. By appealing to these universal, non-deniable values, Amnesty became a movement of everyone for everyone.
Second of all, Amnesty pioneered a new lobby technique in international relations. This was done by the tactic of letter-writing. The old approach of civil disobedience or mass protests against some abstract government infringements was transformed by Amnesty in a very concrete, based on the facts and personal approach. An AI activist does not fight only for the cause of, for example, torture practice by governments in general, but for the cause of prisoner X, whose story he knows in through detail, and who was imprisoned by government Y. Also, when he or she writes a letter, this has as a recipient a particular individual in the state apparatus, whose name and office address are well-known.
In addition, this personal approach in advocating for human rights has as a side effect empowering people. Not only those whose liberties are at peril, but also those who want to do something about it. Amnesty constantly keeps in touch with its members and with their adopted prisoners and gives constant news about the progress made. Also, it successfully uses testimonials from released prisoners so as to show its members that they can make a difference.
Also, there is more than just one possibility for becoming involved in AI’s causes. The first one and the most difficult one to reach is to be part of AI’s permanent staff at one if its national sections. Second, you can become an AI member and work as a volunteer in helping run AI campaigns. Third, if you do not have a national section in your country, you can still become an international member and have briefs for specific actions mailed to you on a regular basis. If none of this suits you, you can still become involved by subscribing to the newsletter, signing petitions on campaign websites or write letters for freeing prisoners of conscience.
As regards communication, AI is an organisation which, since the beginning, knew how to use mass media in order to maximise its impact. The very first Amnesty campaign had the British newspaper The Observer as a media partner, which then helped it disseminate its message in a number of important newspapers around the world. Also, by choosing to have events in important days like the commemoration of UDHR and by using symbols, AI’s campaigns were sure not to get unnoticed.
Also, AI gets into the lives of people by using non-conventional communication techniques and approaches and thus bringing human rights problems into the daily lives of people. An example in this case is the well-known campaign developed by Amnesty International Switzerland, It’s not happening here, but it’s happening now. The concept of the campaign was to place billboards and posters depicting human rights abuses all over the world in public spaces such as bus stops or shopping centres. The impact of the campaign amongst the general public can be measured just by the numbers of bloggers writing about it.
Another important characteristic of the communication strategy of Amnesty is innovation. When AI started campaigning, its techniques of adoption of prisoners and direct letter-writing were pioneering the way in social campaigns. Now that these techniques became common for many NGOs, Amnesty is developing new techniques and incorporating cutting-edge strategies and tools so as to maximise the impact of their campaigns and be consistent with the image it has been building for itself up to now. Examples include campaigns which are led exclusively online and make use of the new social media , the creation of Facebook accounts for the national AI sections or employing new marketing techniques.
To sum up, an individual’s brand experience with Amnesty International is taking place following two coordinates. The first one comprises those willing to become involved in the movement. For them, Amnesty offers not only a variety of manners in which to do this, but also, once attachment to the cause is formalised, this becomes a very personal experience for those involved. The second coordinate targets the general public, who does not have a particular interest in Amnesty’s work. For them, Amnesty develops innovative campaigns, based on the latest communication trends so as to promote activism and make them unite with the cause.
To sum up, Amnesty’s brand building is a clear example of how to add emotion to the image of an organisation. For those exposed to AI’s campaigns, AI is a more than just a human rights NGO, it is the NGO which is close to people, which has a rich history in fighting human rights abuses and which, in doing so, becomes a referee for moral values in the public space. Out of these emerge the two main characteristics of a successful brand, namely notoriety and the ability to persuade. History has shown AI has acquired them both. The importance of these attributes and of AI’s strength as a brand influences the success of its short-term campaigns and helps it make a difference in the application of human rights norms worldwide.
Having established the main characteristics of Amnesty International as a brand, it is time to move on to make a more in-depth study on campaign tactics employed by AI so as to generate support on a specific issue. The reason why I chose to make this second wave analysis is that branding alone cannot account for the success of short-term campaigns on very narrow issues. Similarly, the success chances of a campaign are increased if they are backed by a strong brand.
My main assumption in conducting this research is that once consensus on a particular issue has been reached – consensus manifested by an agreement at the level of public opinion – there will be a smooth transition towards the next step in norm building. This implies codification of this consensus in the form of international treaties, covenants or UN resolutions. This is because representing general interests or public opinion is a legitimising factor for NGOs, which guarantees their success in global civil society.
The Letter Writing Marathon is an annual and global event of Amnesty International. This means that it takes place every year in December, so as to commemorate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Also, it is happening at the same time in as many as possible national AI sections. It is what we could term as a “traditional campaign”, not only because of its repetitive nature, but also because it targets a traditional area of interest – POCs – and it is based on a traditional technique – letter –writing.
Prisoners of conscience have become a trademark of Amnesty. The account of the organisation’s beginning is linked to the story of two Portuguese prisoners of conscience, which inspired Benenson to found the organisation. Also, AI’s next campaigns came as a consequence of its interest in POCs. Both the campaign against torture and the campaign against extrajudicial killings were developed out of the understanding of the issues the prisoners were facing under police arrest and the desire to put an end to these practices. However, it should be noted that the choice to have an annual campaign dedicated to POCs also has a strategic importance. This is linked to the critiques Amnesty received after having decided to modify its statute so as to include support for “new” human rights. In view of this, having an annual campaign dedicated to AI’s traditional cause is a way of reassuring that Amnesty will not lose its focus and that campaigning for new human rights will not affect the attention directed towards traditional areas of interest of the organisation.
The same link with the organisation’s past is seen in the choice of techniques used: letter-writing. While this does not mean that the annual marathons exclude other techniques and tools, letter-writing remains their core concept. This is also to be traced back to AI’s beginnings, when letter-writing was used for the first time and it was a very innovative thing to do at the time. In addition, writing letters expressed very well AI’s values, especially its being close to people. Letter-writing created a bond not only between the POCs and the volunteers, but also between the volunteers and AI’s cause. Doing this on a regular basis amounts to an annual recognition of the tie with Amnesty and the causes it fights for and represents.
The concept is the same every year and in every country. In a designated weekend in December, people gather in specific locations and for 24 hours write letters with the aim of freeing POCs. Each year a small number of cases are brought into public attention. Before the marathon literally starts, the stories are made public so that people become acquainted to them. Following the event, the good news are published, so that the people who were writing letters find out how they managed to change the fate of those imprisoned. In many cases, even though the letters might not have had a direct positive impact on the spot, they still helped making POCs feel that they were not alone.
In order to
exemplify the techniques AI uses for publicizing this campaign and maximising
its impact, I chose as an example the 2006 letter writing marathon in
The main reason for my choice was the fact that the 2006 campaign in
The objective of the campaign was clear: to get as many people as possible come and write letters for the release of prisoners of conscience. There were two ways to do this. The first was to create awareness on the issue of POCs and the need to do something about it. Second, the campaign had to be publicized so that people knew where the special letter-writing places were and how to get there.
Spreading information about the fact that the marathon was happening and offering details about where people could write letters was the easier task. However, it was challenging due to the fact that the marathon was taking place concomitantly in 18 Polish cities. This was done through a mix of media which included radio, written press and the Internet. Among these, the online dimension was very important in that it offered live news about the marathon via its blog.
On this blog, those
interested could find a link leading to a page with the list of places where
they could go and write letters. More than this, based on Amnesty’s core value
of activism, a particularly important section of the website was “How you can
promote the marathon.” The idea was not only to inform people, but also to
encourage them to pass on the torch and inform others. There were more suggested
ways to do this. The first was to use instant messaging programmes like msn,
yahoo messenger or the Polish Gadu-Gadu and post the link to the website on the
status message or upload AI’s logo as an avatar picture. Also, a special
application enabled those willing to add the
In addition, AI
provided everyone with a guide for writing letters, which they could study
beforehand, so as to come prepared.
Under the slogan “Your letter can save someone’s life”, the guide gave
information about AI’s work, both internationally and in
The campaign for
promoting the marathon was largely based on the notoriety of the concept of prisoner
of conscience. Apart from its relevance when related to the history of AI, this
was particularly salient in
In addition, these messages were broadcast on radio. Dissemination of the message through more channels is important as it increases the rate of response by the fact that it manages to reach more people, with different backgrounds. Also on radio, people could hear an ad with Draginja Nadażdin, the director of AI Poland, asking people to come to the marathon and underlining the importance of their individual actions. This idea was emphasized through the slogan of the campaign: “This could be the most important letter in your life.”
If all these techniques were instrumental in creating awareness about the event and the places where it was happening, something more was needed in order to convince more people of the necessity and importance of their actions. In order to achieve this objective, the organisers of the campaign had a through-the-line (TTL) approach. Also, they used a mix of media channels.
TTL refers to an integrated approach to campaigning, combining two traditional approaches: above-the-line (ATL) and below-the-line (BTL). ATL refers to advertising or publicity which employs any of the five traditional media: written press, TV, radio, cinema and posters. BTL, on the other hand, refers to a non-conventional approach. While not assuming the supremacy of either BTL or ATL techniques, a TTL strategy combines both so as to achieve a full experience for customers.
All of the techniques I discussed above were ATL: radio messages, the movie with the former Polish prisoners of conscience, the website of the event. Also, this was doubled by classic PR, conducted by the PR persons of AI Poland and by the regional coordinators. As a result, until the 13th of December, there were a number of 61 press releases in the press, among which 8 articles in the national press. Besides that, there were 50 broadcasts on radio about the event, 14 TV materials and 11 publications in Polish news portals.
This was supplemented by non-conventional, BTL tactics. The efficiency of BTL strategies stems from the fact that they create emotions and exploit people’s instincts. In a world where the average person is exposed daily to thousands of commercials, it is important to create an impact. And this is done by appeal to emotions.
The first example of a
non-conventional tool was the creation of a viral game, called “The Prisoner”. The
concept is the following: the player is given the role of guard who has to
obtain, in the shortest time, information from a prisoner. The tools he/she can
use are well-known torture techniques: sleep or food deprivation, refusal to
call a doctor, etc. The player will then use this in order to obtain the
information and win the game. But, after a minute of playing, an information
board appears on the screen which lets the player know about the true objective
of the campaign. Also, there is a link towards the website of the
This is a clear example of how the designers of the campaign used viral marketing so as to create word-of-mouth (or, more specifically here, word-of-web) by using the emotions and instincts of people. The first step was provoking curiosity, which prompted Internet users to play the game. The second step is appealing to shame, upon realisation of the fact that they were acting as torturers. In this context, the creators of the game introduced the call for action: come to the marathon. Also, they included in the information box a form for telling a friend, so as to further spread the information and attract more people.
A second non-conventional element – also a viral marketing tool – was the spread on the Web, using YouTube, of an Amnesty International spot. This was an adaptation of the spot called “Blowing dictators.” The concept was the following: the video depicted a series of dictators in official scenes (in their office, at military parades, etc) which all of a sudden start to blow air. The characters were dictators well-known for the human rights abuses happening under their rule: Saddam Hussein, Sese Seko Mobutu, Augusto Pinochet, Kim Jong II, Moamar Khadafi, Idi Amin Dada, Ayatollah Khomeini and Fidel Castro. The short film did not make sense from the beginning, thus creating curiosity. The end came with the explanation: they were all trying to extinguish the flame lighting the candle in barbed wire, Amnesty’s symbol. A voice in the background made this explanation and invited people to the letter-writing marathon.
This video is interesting to the extent that it is only connected to the idea of the marathon towards the end. But otherwise, throughout the film, there is no reference whatsoever to the issue of prisoners of conscience. What the video actually does is to make an appeal to support Amnesty International. This is a great example of how the brand comes to support the short term campaign. The appeal is done based on Amnesty’s values: respect for human rights and morality, the fight between good (AI) and bad (the dictators). Also, it is important to note here the use of symbols, incorporated in the candle in barbed wire. Through this spot, the idea is conveyed that the marathon is important not only per se, but also, seen in the bigger picture, it is an important element in the fight for human rights. The success of the spot can be measured by the times it was viewed, i.e. 4200 times a week.
The third important non-conventional element in AI’s promotion campaign for the letter-writing marathon was a web-based questionnaire. Though at first view this might not seem an unconventional approach, the way the questionnaire was designed made it be out of the ordinary. The warning about this was actually given in the title, “Not an usual study.” At a first view, though, it began like an ordinary questionnaire. The first question sounded like this: “Do you think private e-mail should be censored?” The person filling in the questionnaire had to choose between three possible answers: a) rather yes; b) yes; c) definitely yes. Those who wanted to choose “no” had no choice whatsoever, thus introducing the element of surprise. The second question followed on the same line: “Is there anything you would like to change in you life?” This time, the answers given were variations of “no”. The third question went even further by asking for a specific political opinion: “Do you think Byelorussians are free?” The three variants were all “yes”, no variations this time.
At this point, the questionnaire was connected to a banner. This expressed the following statement: “Imagine that you have no freedom to choose and expressing your own opinion is punished. Help prisoners of conscience. Your opinion counts.” The banner was linked to the website of the marathon. This slogan is important first of all because it has a call for action included. It is not only descriptive, but it also encourages activism. Second of all, it reiterates one of the campaign’s main ideas, namely that each individual counts and that individual action can contribute to the general good. This idea can also be found in the official slogan of the campaign (“This could be the most important letter in your life”), thus respecting the principle of consistency in communication. This ensures that the message transmitted is unitary and does not suffer alterations in meaning when it is sent via one channel or the other, thus increasing its chances for success.
This tool, together with “The Prisoner” game, forms what is termed as brand experience and which I have analysed in the previous chapter. This is because they involve the end user and make him interact with the brand in an active, non-static way. The shame after playing the game and the frustration when filling in the questionnaire are strong emotions, and thus have a strong impact on the users, eventually creating a memorable brand experience.
This brand experience was then extended in the offline mode by taking the concept of the questionnaire out on the street. AI volunteers played the role of surveyors asking passers-by to answer their brief questionnaire. They then applied the same tactic of not taking into account people’s real answers and noting down imposed answers. When the person answering the survey expressed their frustration and anger, the “surveyors” revealed what the campaign was all about and transmitted to people the message of the marathon, encouraging them to attend the event.
The most important of all these elements making up the campaign were included in the newsletter sent to AI subscribers. The information was organised into four editions, each of them focusing on one particular feature. In order to be as efficient as possible, the text was minimalised so that there would be not need for scrolling down the text. At the same time, the text had as many call for actions as possible, thus emphasizing activism. A distinctive feature was that the call for action was incorporated in the subject field of the newsletters, at the same time triggering curiosity. The subjects had titles like “See which dictator blows strongest” – with reference to the shot film – or “See the faces of the convicts”. The success of the newsletter component of the campaign was confirmed by an open rate of 25%.
Throughout the marathon weekend, the blog continued to transmit live news concerning the campaign. And even after the marathon ended, those interested could check the website so as to find out the latest news about the number of letters written and the fate of individual prisoners. Also, an official Amnesty International Poland press release was posted on the blog, which thanked everyone for taking part in the event. In addition, the press release was an encouragement towards future action, by stressing out once again the importance of writing letters and the efficiency of this tool throughout AI history.
Before passing on to further analyzing the results, I think it is essential to review once again the main channels and techniques AI Poland used for the letter writing marathon in 2006. This is important in view of the fact that the current case study is supposed to have a comparative value, so that its findings can be then applied to other NGOs willing to have a positive impact on global civil society.
there was the usage of traditional media in the traditional way: writing press
releases, sending them to journalists, making spots on the radio. What was
unique about this approach was the fact that AI used as spokespeople former
Polish prisoners of conscience. This choice was important because it stressed
out that censorship and political repression are realities which can take part
everywhere, not only in far-away, mostly unknown countries. Moreover, the
appeal to national history made the campaign have a personal touch, by
recalling in the collective memory the human rights infringements which took
The second important component in the campaign was the unconventional one. While the previous techniques also created emotions within the public, by appealing to the national past, the unconventional approach created a more intense and long-lasting emotional impact by targeting individuals in a very surprising and direct way. The web game applied the shaming technique to individuals, by making them aware of the fact that they were behaving in an immoral way. The strength of the feeling was then used and channelled in a proactive approach, by encouraging people to spread the news and come to the event. Similarly, both the online and offline questionnaires created an impact on people by making them – for a very short time – the target of censorship and of limitations in freedom of speech. This action had a demonstrative value, with the aim of making people feel how it is like to have your opinions neglected. Again, the emotions achieved were channelled in a call for action.
regards the impact of the campaign and the validation of my hypothesis, it is
important to establish whether or not the campaign achieved the effect of
mobilizing public opinion. A first way to do this is to look at the presence of
the marathon in the media. According to the data gathered, the campaign had a
very good presence both in the written press, TV, radio and internet. A second indicator
is the turnout in the marathon weekend. According to official data available on
the campaigns’ website, there were 21,897 sent letters during marathon weekend.
This also represented an increase with 60% when compared to the previous year
of the marathon. To understand the impact of this number, it should be compared
to the statistics at global level:
established that the campaign did manage to mobilise public opinion, it is
important to see in which way this mobilisation helped achieve the ultimate
goal of the campaign, releasing prisoners of conscience. According to official
data, the campaign positively impacted 8 of the cases which received public
attention. For example, a human rights lawyer from
These cases come to prove how the marathon did succeed in its goal of improving the lives of prisoners of conscience. Though these cases might seem isolated, it should be emphasized they are just a few from the multitude of causes AI supports. Also, there is the power of example to be considered. If in 2006, at global level, people wrote 114,617 letters, during the 2008 letter writing marathon, 323,105 letters were written. This means that success in one case encourages people to do more and thus achieve even greater results.
The second campaign I chose for in-depth study is very much different from the first one, the letter writing marathon. This is because I wanted to take a look at both traditional and “new” campaigns, in order to come up with a pattern which will help validate my hypothesis and answer the research question. The main sources of differentiation between the two campaigns are the target and the way this is addressed.
While the letter writing marathon was focusing on prisoners of conscience, people who were imprisoned for their beliefs, Irrepressible.info has a more modern, up-dated approach: it is meant to support cyber-dissidents. While the issue at stake remains freedom of conscience, the approach is totally different, which prompted AI experts, such as Hopgood , to put this campaign into the series of “new” campaigns AI adopted after its change of statute in 2001. The main difference here is that, in most of the cases presented in this campaign, we do not talk about political imprisonment, but rather about lack of access to certain websites and the impossibility to set up a blog. This is due to the fact that Irrepressible.info is focusing on Internet censorship, which is mostly manifested by restricting access to certain sources of information rather than violent repression.
Also, the target of the campaign represents a shift from Amnesty’s old interest: governments. While public criticism of governments is still an important component of Irrepressible, this is doubled by public criticism of corporations. In designing this campaign, AI targeted not only governments, but also those corporations which collaborate with governments and thus help them censor information. The main actors here are Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft.
The main assumption and core idea from which the campaign started was that the Internet is a great tool for sharing information, a tool which should be and remain free. However, the Internet is subjected to constant monitoring and surveillance from oppressive governments. The aim of the campaign is to stop Internet repression.
The first step was choosing the campaign’s name and logo so as to convey the idea intended. Irrepressible is an adjective denominating something or someone which is very confident and cannot be controlled or contained. Following the same line of thinking, the logo of the campaign is a loudspeaker. Combined, they both come to symbolize the power of individual opinion, which cannot and should not be censored. The loudspeaker thus makes a clear reference to the importance of disseminating ideas, irrespective of censorship.
An important element of AI’s campaigns has always been educating the public, before proceeding unto the next step, which is engendering support. In this case, education of the public was done in two ways. First, information was given about what internet repression is. Second, by means of country reports and other documents, those interested could find out more about the magnitude of the phenomenon and where it was more acute.
Among examples of
internet repression tactics are: censoring blogs, restricting access to certain
websites or filtering search engines. In an article in The Observer, Kate Allen, the director of AI
The article also
serves the function of painting a picture of internet-related human rights
abuses in the world.
Based on this, the campaign made a simple call for action: help us fight this phenomenon and end Internet censorship. For the individuals willing to get involved, there were three ways to do this. This possibility of choice between ways of getting involved made sure that the campaign will attract as many people as possible, based on their varying interest in the issue.
A first step was to sign a pledge directed at governments and IT companies, urging them to keep the Internet politically-free:
“I believe the Internet should be a force for political freedom, not repression. People have the right to seek and receive information and to express their peaceful beliefs online without fear or interference. I call on governments to stop the unwarranted restriction of freedom of expression on the Internet – and on companies to stop helping them do it.”
The aim was to gather as many signatures as possible and to present the pledge in November 2006 to a UN Internet Governance Forum, in a clear attempt to pressure governments by using the force of public opinion.
The second step represents the innovative aspect of this campaign. For those who wanted to get involved in a deeper way, the website offered the possibility of posting on one’s own website or blog an Irrepressible button/widget. Once posted there, the button displayed messages taken from censored websites. For each new page load, a new message appeared, so as that as many messages as possible got to be seen on the same webpage. The slogan was: “Someone doesn’t want people to read this”, with a direct suggestion towards the censorship activities of governments and companies alike.
This strategy is specific to Amnesty in that it lays emphasis on the capacity of individuals for becoming sources of information, not just end receivers. Also, by asking people to post on their website fragments from censored materials, it made appeal to their emotions and to the idea of solidarity between people. By contributing to the campaign in such a way, one felt he/she got to be part of the process, much more than by simply signing the petition.
In a similar way, those interested had the possibility of posting on the campaign website their own news related to Internet repression. These pieces of news could be posted into two sections: good news and bad news. There was also the possibility of moderation by AI in case someone had doubts about the veracity of the news. But this was rather the exception and, generally, everyone could post anything, without any intervention from the website administrators.
The third step is
a traditional AI technique: letter-writing for the case of a Chinese prisoner
of conscience. His story was made public in the article in The Observer which launched the campaign. The case was also
included in the country report on
Since this campaign was a total novelty for Amnesty, this also meant that expertise in the case was more difficult to attain. Therefore, in order to make up for their lack of experience in the field of Internet censorship, AI made strategic partnerships. This was also important from a publicity point of view and it made the campaign even more legitimate.
The main partner was the Open Net Initiative (ONI). ONI is a loose organisation of research institutes and NGOs whose primary aim is to investigate and document Internet repression and filtering. Based on their research, ONI came up with 11 country reports regarding Internet censorship, as well as a map of global filtering of information. The partnership with AI was made possible not only by the fact that they both had the same concern, but also because they were agreeing on the manner to do this: in a non-partisan and credible way.
The internet was the most used channel for transmitting information
about the campaign and for encouraging people to take part. And this is only
natural, if we take into account the fact that the target problem was also
web-based. Therefore, online promotion of the campaign was of utmost importance.
To this aim, more information about the fate of POCs, as well as developments
from the campaign, were published on the campaign’s blog,
hosted on AI
However, the internet was not the only channel for promoting the campaign. Very important in this process was also The Observer, AI’s long-time media partner. Actually, it was an article in this newspaper that officially launched the campaign. More than being a channel for transmitting information, the newspaper also allowed its readers to sign the petition by filling in a form in a leaflet attached to it.
Having media partners has always been one of AI’s main assets, which
helped it publicize its campaigns. Media partnerships have also been important
for the second stage of Irrepressible, taking place in 2007. Based on the model
used in the Campaign Against Torture, AI organised, in June 2007, at the
one-year anniversary of the campaign, a technical conference on the topic of
Internet repression. This was a global event which brought together important
figures in IT, journalism, law and blogging. Those who could not attend the
The conference was cast via web and people could download video or audio files with the speeches from the conference. Among those attending were Jimmy Wales from Wikipedia, Ethan Zuckerman from Global Voices, Dan Gilmour from Citizen Media, and many others. The videos were also cast on You Tube. Their speeches touched on issues such as the link between technology and freedom and stressed the importance of a free flow of information on the web, both for guaranteeing democracy and for encouraging political activism.
Technical conferences are particularly important when it comes to new issues in the field of human rights, like it was the case with CAT in the 70s. This is because they are still not very well defined, which makes punishing infringements particularly difficult. The role of such conferences is that of helping build consensus about the type of infringement and the desired types of regulations regarding it. Once consensus has been reached, there is a bigger pressure towards dealing with these breaches in a consistent way.
The conference also marked a new stage in the unfolding of the Irrepressible.info
campaign. With this occasion, more causes were added, in which individuals
could become involved. The causes were presented on AI
The joint action for freeing Shi Tao continued, with sending letters
to both the Chinese government and Yahoo. Also, people were encouraged to send
letters to Google and Microsoft in which they expressed their concern towards
the companies’ involvement in Internet censorship in countries like
Though most of the actions to be taken in support for this campaign have now ended, the fight against Internet repression still continues. The online pledge is still open for signatures, and most cases of censorship and political repression are ongoing. This is mostly due to the nature of the issue and its novelty. While the letter-writing marathon and its success built on actions in previous years and the fact that the issue of POCs was deeply connected to the image of AI, Internet censorship is still a new issue and which had remained unregulated in many respects. This is why the campaign was longer, stretching for more than 2 years, as well as the causes it was fighting for. However, there are some tangible results.
First, the campaign achieved public mobilisation. The best indicator for this is the number of people who signed the online pledge. According to the website, up to now there are 82,920 registered signatures. Other examples are people setting up MySpace fan pages for Amnesty or making their own videos on You Tube in which they express their support for the Irrepressible.info campaign and ask people to cast their signature for the pledge. This is a clear example of how AI uses people’s energy so as to mobilise them and make them assume the role of sources of information, instead of being just passive end-receivers. Also, the campaign was the subject of blog posts worldwide and people downloaded the widget and thus spread censored information on their websites .
Secondly, the campaign managed to have a positive impact in the specific cases it promoted. Such was the release, on the 9th of June 2007, of the Vietnamese dissident Nguyen Vu Binh after five years in prison. He was an Amnesty prisoner of conscience and his release marked a triumph for Amnesty. However, this was considered just a beginning and Kate Allen took advantage of the occasion to a launch a new appeal for the fight against Internet repression.
a result of an intensive letter-writing action, another AI prisoner of
conscience, Mohammed Abbou from
What was most important about this campaign, though, was that it created a precedent. Building consensus over a specific category of human rights abuses is a lengthy process, which cannot be tackled with one campaign only. Irrpressible.info should be granted credit for the ground-breaking work it has done in introducing a new concept in the fight for human rights and mobilising public opinion about this. The fight against the “Great Firewall of China” and for the individual cases of people like Shi Tao still continues and it is thanks to Amnesty that it began in the first place.
Amnesty International is a clear example of how to do human rights campaigns in order obtain good results and have a positive impact in the worldwide movement for human rights. The importance of studying AI’s history, its brand building process, as well as two of its campaigns was to narrow down those elements that could be replicated by other NGO’s so that they too can be successful in their endeavours.
My hypothesis was that the success of an NGO in global civil society is positively correlated to the degree of public mobilisation it creates. The in-depth studies showed how AI managed to obtain media attention and mobilise the public and how this was used as a force in fighting against human rights abuses on specific cases. The number of people taking part in the 2006 letter writing marathon in Poland and the number of signatures for the online pledge against Internet censorship in the Irrepressible.info campaign are viable tools for measuring the degree of public mobilisation AI’s campaigns engendered. The success of these campaigns is given by factual data, when prisoners of conscience have been released, when companies like Yahoo publicly recognised their guilt or when important names in IT, journalism and blogging came to a conference to talk about AI’s campaign main issue and ways to deal with it. I therefore consider my hypothesis was validated.
As for the elements an NGO should acquire as a way to have similar results to that of Amnesty, the first one is a strong brand. This implies having a vision and certain core values which are promoted both internally and externally. Also, in order to for it to be credible to the masses, the NGO should remain loyal to its principles, even if this may mean, as it was the case with Amnesty, to force the resignation of its founder. Besides this, a strong brand should generate a remarkable and memorable brand experience, which will make it unique to its audience.
The brand then has to be sustained by making extensive use of PR and marketing practices. A first way to do this is keep a good relationship with the media, which can help it by publicizing its events. A second element would be addressing people directly, surprising them and being close to them in order to create a lasting relationship in time. One way to do this, which worked very well in the case of Amnesty, was to incorporate non-conventional campaign tactics. And last but not least, it is important for an NGO to have a network of possible viable partners, which can help it by bringing an input of legitimacy and knowledge in specific issues. This was again the case with Amnesty and ONI in the Irrepressible.info campaign, in which the two partners supported each other based on their sharing common values and fighting for the same cause.
What should also be noted as an important element is the consistency in communication. This implies that the brand supports the short-term campaign and the other way round. In time, this has as an effect strengthening the brand and, implicitly, its ability to persuade. The best example here is using the clip Blowing dictators in the letter writing marathon, where the brand came to support the campaign and the campaign mirrored the values of the brand.
However, a caveat is required here and namely that there is no universal recipe. What might have worked for Amnesty may not work for others. However, it is my belief that there are certain ingredients which, though they cannot guarantee success, they can at least approximate it. And having a strong brand and a good PR are definitely some of those elements.
Though I consider my hypothesis to be validated, I do admit to shortcomings in this research. The first one was scarcity of available information on the evaluation phase of the campaigns, because of lack of access to internal sources and because of the fact that many cases related to prisoners of conscience are still ongoing and have not come to the end. The second one was the fact that I only analysed national campaigns, while a global view would have reduced the possibility of errors in my analysis.
The findings could be a starting point for a more in-depth research on the issue. A possible direction of investigation would be to analyse patterns of involvement of the general public in these campaigns and ways to maximise it. Another approach would be to take the research to the next level and establish with empirical data the way in which public mobilisation as result of an NGO campaigning influences the negotiations for new human rights norms at the UN level. The relevance of these approaches would be that they could come up with a replicable model of NGO strategy in order to empower global civil society in such a way as to make human rights practice equivalent to the norms formally endorsed at the international level.
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