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25 Feb 2021 / human rights Print

Amnesty loses sharp focus on prisoners of conscience

The term ‘Unique Selling Proposition’ or USP was invented by Rosser Reeves, a pioneer of television advertising in the United States in the 1940s. It refers to the unique characteristics of a product or service that distinguish it from its competitors, writes Professor Ronan McCrea of the University of London.

Although its aims were much more noble and important than selling consumer goods, when I was first inspired to join Amnesty International as a teenager in the 1990s, it had a very strong USP.

Amnesty was THE organisation for prisoners of conscience. 

As its founders had written in a newspaper article that led to its founding in 1961, Amnesty campaigned for those who were "imprisoned, tortured or executed because [their] opinions or religion are unacceptable to [their] government".

Principled stand

Amnesty took a principled stand against punishment of people for their views. It did not matter whether you agreed or disagreed with someone’s views, the important thing was that people should not be punished because of their opinions.

Amnesty was as energetic in its defence of those locked up by right-wing regimes in 1960s Spain and Portugal as it was in its advocacy of dissidents imprisoned in the Soviet Union.

This principled position allowed Amnesty to refute allegations that its campaign for prisoners of conscience was simply a disguised form of partisan politics, and gave it a unique authority.

It was therefore with great sadness that I read the news that Amnesty had decided that it would no longer consider Alexy Navalny to be a prisoner of conscience.

Amnesty took this decision on the basis that Navalny, who has been poisoned and then imprisoned for his opposition to the Putin regime, had in 2007 expressed anti-immigration and nationalistic opinions that, in Amnesty’s view, amounted to advocacy of hatred.

Peacefully-expressed views

Amnesty’s position is that if a person peacefully expresses views that it considers amount to advocacy of hatred, that person cannot be a prisoner of conscience, even if their imprisonment is on the basis of entirely separate views they hold that have placed them in opposition to their government.

In the interests of fairness, it should be pointed out that Amnesty still believes that, although he is not a prisoner of conscience, Navalny should be released (a distinction that unsurprisingly seemed lost on the Kremlin’s online fans who have rushed to highlight Amnesty’s denunciation of Vladimir Putin’s most famous political prisoner).

In some ways this is the endpoint of a longer story. Amnesty’s mission has been steadily changing over recent decades.

As its own website puts it: “Amnesty has grown from seeking the release of political prisoners to upholding the whole spectrum of human rights”. 

Amnesty has broadened its focus to campaign on a whole range of broader human rights issues such as poverty, gay rights, abortion, trans rights and migrant rights amongst others.


Although I usually supported the goals in favour of which Amnesty campaigned, I confess that this change made me uneasy.

I feared that the disciplined, principled USP that allowed Amnesty to make such a particular contribution on the question of prisoners of conscience would be undermined by a broader focus.

There are organisations campaigning on all of the broader issues that Amnesty began to engage with, so the opportunity to add value seemed less.

In addition, the term ‘human rights’ covers such a range of policy questions that I feared that the difference between Amnesty and a more generally left-wing pressure group might become difficult to see.

What I did not foresee was that the new broader focus would end up not merely diluting focus, but would destroy the ability of Amnesty to campaign effectively on the issue that it was founded to fight for, the rights of prisoners of conscience.

Key distinction

Amnesty’s current position undermines the key distinction that made its advocacy on the issue of prisoners of conscience so effective in the past.

The organisation used to argue that it did not matter what the substance of a person’s views was, the important thing was that people should not be imprisoned for peacefully holding and expressing them.

Concept creep

Now the position is that if someone is guilty of advocating ‘hatred’ (itself a concept notoriously susceptible to concept creep), a person cannot be a prisoner of conscience. In other words: express views that Amnesty finds abhorrent and you cannot be a prisoner of conscience. 

Perhaps this was inevitable. It is hard to be an effective advocate on the issue of prisoners of conscience at the same time as taking substantive positions on a range of other politically sensitive issues.

Perhaps Amnesty has a successful future in store for it as a left-wing campaigning group. 

Vacant position

But its current position, that a person imprisoned for their views is not a prisoner of conscience if they have expressed views that Amnesty finds abhorrent, means that Amnesty’s old role, as the principal advocate for the rights of prisoners of conscience, is now vacant.

Ronan McCrea is professor of constitutional and European law at University College London and a member of the Bar of Ireland and the Bar of England and Wales.


Professor Ronan McCrea
Professor Ronan McCrea
Ronan McCrea is professor of constitutional and European law at University College London, and a member of the Bar of Ireland and the Bar of England and Wales