The powerful are not generally fond of dissent. This maxim is as pertinent today as it has been throughout the centuries. For the totalitarians and authoritarians of today, as for the warlords and absolute monarchs of the past, muffling troublemakers often requires little more than a show of brute force. In such settings, detainment and execution are efficient tools of repression, used to silence the voices of opposition and discontent. 5
On the other hand, overtly explicit brutalism does not sit well with the citizenry of nation-states in which political elites are, in name, if not in practice, accountable to their constituents. Hence, the political, military, constabulary and intelligence authorities of most nation-states are (at the very least) practically obliged to maintain the appearance that their respective agencies act in accordance with national and international Law. As such, many governments regularly resort to holding dissidents hostage under the faux pretense of national security, often serving their institutional (rather than civic) interests.
To speak truth to those in power is a burdensome yet virtuous mantle to carry. For, were it not for conscientious dissidents challenging the status quo, the consolidation of democratic values would be stymied. It is therefore of cardinal importance that peaceful dissidents be protected from unjust imprisonment. Fortunately, a number of organizations have been established to hold governments accountable for their maltreatment of dutiful citizens. One such organization is Amnesty International.
In 1961, the English lawyer Peter Benenson wrote an article titled “The Forgotten Prisoners” in which he deemed gadflies “prisoners of conscience.” Specifically, Benenson argued that a prisoner of conscience is anyone “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.”3 Working with other academics, lawyers, and activists, Benenson initiated the Appeal for Amnesty 1961 campaign, which, come 1962, had received enough public support to become a permanent NGO: Amnesty International.
Since its formation, Amnesty international has done a great deal to help prisoners of conscience. While it cannot singlehandedly emancipate all prisoners of conscience, it focuses on cases that are particularly grave, those “emblematic of a problem we are trying to address, where success in one case will have resonance for many others and where we think we can make a difference. Elsewhere we try to offer advice and help others at risk get the support they need.” Amnesty International has its work cut out for it. In 2014/2015 a staggering 62 of 160 surveyed countries were deemed to hold prisoners of conscience (including geo-politico-economic giants like India, Israel, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the United States)4 The statistics for 2015/2016 are equally abhorrent. Peaceful protestors were harassed and detained the world over: [in Africa] Angola, Burundi, Cameroon, Chad, Eritrea, the Republic of Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, Gambia, Kenya, Lesotho, Mauritania, Niger, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Swaziland, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe; [in the Americas] Brazil, Cuba, and Venezuela; [in Asia] Cambodia, China, Lanka, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Thailand; [in Europe] Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Russia; and [in the Middle East] Algeria and Morocco.2
This foregoing list is not exhaustive. It would be amiss not to mention the immoral captivity of whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning [US],7 Julian Assange (who’s a de facto prisoner in the UK’s Ecuador embassy, on pain of extradition to the US),1 and the wholly illegal containment of Mohamedou Ould Slahi in Guantanamo Bay,8 to name but a few.
As the existence of Amnesty International testifies (along with the multitude of crises it combats), we no longer live in a world emancipated from the trappings of the past. Ours is a world of sociopolitical, economic, and technological interdependence, in which nation-states, transnational institutions, and corporations make, break, and remake the power dynamics that affect all humanity. It is a world of information and misinformation, where facts are left to sink beneath the capricious currents of mass media, into static, and then silence. When such facts are forgotten, so too are prisoners of conscience and the causes for which they sacrificed their freedom. For this reason, it is not enough that citizens of the world offer emotional and monetary support for those in need. We must first and foremost keep one another informed about the crimes committed against political expression and common decency. We ourselves must speak truth to power.
- Alexander, Harriet (2016). “Why is Julian Assange still inside the embassy of Ecuador?” The Telegraph. Retrieved 27, Nov. 2016.
- Amnesty International. (2015). The Amnesty International report. London, England: Amnesty International Publications. Web. Retrieved 28, Nov. 2016
- Benenson, P. Peter Berenson (28 May 1961). “The Forgotten Prisoners”. The Observer. Web. Retrieved 27 Nov. 2016. Web.
- Amnesty International. “Cases.” Amnesty International.org. Web. Retrieved 28, Nov. 2016.
- de Mesquita, B.B. & Smith, (2011) A. Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics. Public Affairs. Print.
- Prisoner of conscience. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Web. Retrieved 27 Nov, 2016.
- Timm, T. (2013) “Don’t punish Chelsea Manning – release her”. The Guardian. Retrieved 28 Nov, 2016.
- Ould Slah, M. (2015) Guantánamo Diary. Siems, L. (ed.). Back Bay Books. Print.
Stephen Sanders, Blog Writer
Stefanos Argyros, Blog Editor