Amnesty International unites 10 million people worldwide around the same belief: all men, women and children have rights that should be ours to enjoy. By working together we must, and we can, protect these rights and ensure they are respected. These human rights are defined and enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations on 10 December 1948.
Amnesty International was created following the publication on 28 May 1961 of an article, “The forgotten prisoners”, that appeared in the weekly paper The Observer. Its author, London attorney Peter Benenson, called for an amnesty for all prisoners of conscience throughout the world. This set the direction for our founding principle: collectively, we can reduce injustice and defend freedoms.
Amnesty International implements this principle by constantly adapting to the new challenges in our contemporary world. Initially founded to defend prisoners of conscience, Amnesty International was quick to focus on other major issues, from the abolition of the death penalty to the protection of sexual and reproductive rights, from the fight against discrimination to the defence of the rights of refugees and migrants.
Its mandate and modes of action have effectively evolved to ensure that human rights abuses are exposed, that the public is informed and that pressure is put on the relevant authorities. From its beginnings, Amnesty International has collaborated with photographers who share its involvement in different fields and issues, and whose images provide visible evidence of the injustices revealed in its reports.
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For an end to impunity
On the right, Adolf Eichmann in a bullet-proof glass booth during his trial in Jerusalem, and in the foreground, Robert Servatius, his defence lawyer. Israel, 1961.
In the wake of World War II, the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials passed judgment on war criminals: they marked the birth of international criminal justice. Adolf Eichmann was tried for his crimes in Jerusalem in 1961. The purpose of international criminal justice is to make those who violate human rights accountable for their actions: on the one hand, to allow victims and their families to obtain justice, and on the other, to prevent such violations being repeated. This fight against impunity is an inherent part of Amnesty International’s history. To try war crimes, international tribunals are set up based on the tragedy in question: for example, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. In 2002, the International Criminal Court – the creation of which Amnesty International had actively supported – became the first permanent forum to try the perpetrators of the most heinous crimes, such as crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes of genocide. These crimes have no statute of limitation.
The fight for civil rights in the United States
Martin Luther speaking to the crowd in Washington D.C. at the “Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom”. United States, 17 May 1957.
Amnesty International was born in 1961, while Martin Luther King was leading the fight of millions of people who, since the 1950s, had been dreaming of an end to racial segregation in the country. Among these was Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man in Alabama (1955); James Meredith, the first African American to attend the University of Mississippi (1962); Ashton Jones, a Quaker minister imprisoned for having been “the negroes’ friend”. Ashton Jones was in fact one of the first six forgotten prisoners named by Peter Benenson in his call for amnesty in 1961. From the March on Washington for the right to work and freedom (1963) and the marches from Selma to Montgomery (Alabama 1965) to the Memphis sanitation strike (Tennessee, 1968) – during which Martin Luther King was assassinated – the struggle for civil rights was marked by historic mobilizations. The black population finally obtained the rights enjoyed by the rest of Americans thanks to the adoption of two major pieces of legislation: the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965).
“Racism is a grown-up disease. We adults must stop using you, our kids, to spread it.”
– Ruby Bridges –
A civil rights trailblazer in the United States, Ruby Bridges had to be escorted by federal agents to enter an all-white elementary school in Louisiana in 1960, when she was just six years old.
Maya massacres in Guatemala
A demonstration by the GAM (Grupo de Apoyo Mutuo) during Army Day. Guatemala City, Guatemala, 1987.
Between 1960 and 1996, the civil war in Guatemala caused the death or disappearance of more than 200,000 people, 80% of whom were Maya. Those who attempted to investigate these massacres and protect human rights suffered harassment, torture, death threats and extrajudicial executions. In 1993, Amnesty International documented several cases of intimidation, including the case of Rigoberta Menchú, a human rights defender who, the year before, had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her struggle to obtain national reconciliation and respect for indigenous peoples’ rights. Seen as an icon for thousands of people seeking justice, Rigoberta Menchú filed a lawsuit for genocide against former Guatemalan officials, including General Efraín Ríos Montt, with the Spanish judicial authorities in 1999. However, General Efraín Ríos Montt was protected by parliamentary immunity and his crimes continued to go unpunished. It was finally the court of Guatemala City that tried the former general and sentenced him in 2013 to 80 years in prison for the assassination of 1,771 Maya. It was the first time a head of state was sentenced by a court in his own country for a mass crime.
Enforced disappearances in Argentina
Entrance to a basement where tortures took place. El Museo Sitio de Memoria, Buenos Aires, Argentina, 2008.
In 1976, the military coup d’état by Jorge Rafael Videla plunged Argentina into a dictatorship. Arbitrary detention, clandestine torture centres and systematic elimination of opponents of the régime became the daily lot of the Argentine population. Three years later, Amnesty International reported the disappearance of 2,665 people in the country. It decided therefore to broaden its mandate to take action against political assassination. At the same time, members of Amnesty International decided to organize the exile of certain Argentine dissidents to Europe, offering them lodging and protection. With a major campaign launched in 1981, the men and women of Amnesty International called for enforced disappearances to be recognized as a violation of fundamental rights. This mobilization added its voice to the demands of the “Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo”, who every week in Buenos Aires demonstrate to demand to know what happened to their children. The International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance was only adopted by the United Nations in 2006. As for Jorge Rafael Videla, he received a life sentence in 2010 for the execution of opponents and for crimes against humanity.
“Truth is the only thing that can bring peace and freedom”
– Emilio Mignone –
An Argentine lawyer and civil rights defender, Emilio Mignone never saw his 24-year-old daughter again. She was one of 30,000 people who disappeared during the dictatorship of Jorge Rafael Videla (1976-1983).
Czechoslovakia’s “Velvet Revolution”
Alexander Dubček and Václav Havel in a Civic Forum at the Magic Lantern theatre. Prague, Czechoslovakia, 24 November 1989.
In former Czechoslovakia, protests against the abuses of the old Communist guard began in the early 1960s. In January 1968, Alexander Dubček came to power, promoting “socialism with a human face”, offering the prospect of greater freedom and a multi-party system. By August, the USSR’s leaders, fearing the political situation was getting out of hand, decided to invade Prague by military force. The population reacted with a show of passive resistance. This was the start of the “Prague Spring”, during which 70 to 90 people were killed and several hundreds injured. The country’s emancipation from Moscow eventually came 20 years later, with the “Velvet Revolution” of 1989, led in large part by Václav Havel. As leader of the opposition, Václav Havel constantly fought to defend human rights. For this he was imprisoned on multiple occasions by the Communist government. Amnesty International designated him as a prisoner of conscience and in 2003 chose him to receive its first Ambassador of Conscience Award.
Fall of the Berlin wall
Guy Le Querrec
Celebrating the New Year on the Berlin wall, close to the Brandenburg Gate. Germany, 31 December 1989.
At the close of the 1980s, the iron curtain dividing the European continent between the Western bloc (Western influence) and the Eastern bloc (Soviet influence) since the end of World War II, was gradually weakening. One after another the satellite states of Moscow regained their independence. The fall of the Berlin wall on 9 November 1989 was the high point of this movement and marked the end of a cold war that had lasted over forty years. While the Berlin wall had traditionally symbolized a divided population, its fall heralded the opening of borders and the capacity to circulate freely again in a nation ready to reconcile and re-unify. This re-unification became effective a year later, in October 1990. Immediately after the fall of the wall, citizens from all over Central and Eastern Europe wrote to Amnesty International to obtain information and participate in the organization’s work.
Courage of a man on Tiananmen Square
“The Tank Man” stopping the column of T59 tanks on Tiananmen Square. Beijing, China, 4 June 1989.
The occupation of Tiananmen Square was the main protest movement against Chinese power in recent years. Calling for greater openness, reforms, rights and freedoms, some 100,000 students and intellectuals gathered peacefully on Beijing’s vast Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989. But the régime remained deaf to the aspirations of these young people and quickly resorted to armed force. In the night of 3 to 4 June 1989, almost 200,000 soldiers were deployed to scatter demonstrators, causing death and bloodshed. From its research, Amnesty International estimates that 1,000 people were killed during these events. The courage of an unknown man facing a column of tanks is etched in our memories. The image of this act of resistance has become a symbol for freedom of expression all over the world, except in China, where any reference to these demonstrations is formally forbidden.
The end of apartheid in South Africa
Nelson Mandela. Johannesburg, South Africa, 1993.
In South Africa, the apartheid régime institutionalized racism from 1948 to 1991, systematically discriminating against the country’s black people. They were segregated in townships – crowded ghettoes on city outskirts. A figurehead in the anti-apartheid uprising, Nelson Mandela first chose non-violent action before resorting to armed struggle to defend his ideas. Prosecuted and sentenced to life imprisonment, Nelson Mandela’s recognition as a prisoner of conscience was a major subject for debate at Amnesty International. Certain members called for his unconditional release based on his unquestionable fight for human rights, while others claimed that the organization’s mission should be confined to prisoners who had never resorted to violence. However, Amnesty International remained firmly opposed to apartheid laws and practices, constantly denouncing them and urging South African parliamentarians to end them. Nelson Mandela was finally released in 1990, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 and became president of South Africa a year later.
“To deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity”
– Nelson Mandela –
A South-African civil rights activist, Nelson Mandela received the Amnesty International Ambassador of Conscience Award in 2006.
Pinochet’s régime of torture
The torture and interrogation chamber of the Pinochet régime in Villa Grimaldi, José Domingo Cañas. Santiago, Chile, 1998
In 1973, the year when the United Nations adopted a resolution against torture inspired by the recommendations of Amnesty International, Augusto Pinochet set up a military dictatorship in Chile (1973-1990) and used torture to silence anyone critical of his régime. During this period, tens of thousands of people were arrested, imprisoned, tortured and killed in the country. Following on the work led by Amnesty International, in 1984 the United Nations adopted the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. At the same time, the families of Chilean disappeared detainees joined forces to demand that General Augusto Pinochet be brought to justice. Arrested in London in 1998 and extradited to Chile, his parliamentary immunity and failing health delayed the trial that would judge his crimes. He died in 2006 during the legal proceeding and was never convicted.
Free elections in Afghanistan
Voting during the Afghan presidential elections. Afghanistan, 2004.
“The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government” (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948). The free choice of its political representatives is therefore essential and necessary in any State governed by the rule of law. Universal suffrage ensures the best representation for a country’s citizens. After years of political upheaval following the Soviet invasion (1979 to 1989), the Talibans’ rise to power during the 1990s and the American military intervention of 2001, the Afghan population enjoyed a more stable electoral climate with the organization of presidential elections in 2004. For the first time, voting in Afghanistan was by direct ballot. Men and women came to the polls to determine which of the 18 presidential candidates would be elected. Amnesty International calls for respect of the right to vote in all countries where it exists and campaigns actively wherever people are deprived of the right to freely choose their representatives. On 15 October 2021, the Talibans seized power in Afghanistan and the spectre of severely reduced freedom, particularly for women, again looms large.
Guantánamo, a lawless zone
A soldier showing how detainees had to place their hands for handcuffing before leaving their cell in Camp X-Ray, the first detention centre in Guantánamo, in 2001. Guantánamo Bay Camp, Cuba, March 2006.
Established by the United States following the attacks of 11 September 2001 to detain persons without limitation or legal charges, Guantánamo Bay Camp on the south-east coast of Cuba is the most secure and least regulated American detention centre, a factor leading to generalized human rights abuse. Starting in 2002, Amnesty International began its campaign against the practice of torture in the context of the so-called war on terrorism by alerting on illegal detentions in Guantánamo Bay Camp and by campaigning worldwide for the camp’s closure. With the years, Guantánamo has become a symbol for a government’s non-respect of its international obligations in the matter of human rights. In 2020, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that the due process clause of the Constitution’s fifth amendment – “no person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property, without due process of law” did not apply to Guantánamo. Twenty years after its creation, at the start of 2021, 40 persons were still detained there, for the most part without charge or access to a fair trial.
The “Arab Spring” uprisings
Anti-Mubarak demonstrators holding up their shoes in front of the State television headquarters. Cairo, Egypt, February 2011.
At the close of 2010, hopes of greater openness swept through several parts of the Arab world. In countries where oppression is often the rule, men and women took to the streets to demand political reform and greater social justice. It was the start of the Arab Spring. After the first movements in Tunisia, by early 2011 these demands for greater freedom gradually spread to Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria. Those who opposed the prevailing régime, who voiced criticism or simply claimed their rights were arrested and imprisoned in harsh conditions. In some countries repression became increasingly violent, with protests often ending in bloodshed. In this contest, Amnesty International deplored the use of French military equipment to repress the Egyptian population, calling on Paris to cease arms sales to Egypt. Other countries plunged into civil war. Amnesty International played a major role in documenting and exposing the extermination policy of the Syrian régime towards its opponents.
« We must never say there’s no hope. Hope disappears when we say there isn’t any”
– Asmaa Mahfouz –
An Egyptian human rights activist, Asmaa Mahfouz – with four other figures of the Arab Spring uprisings – in 2011 received the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought awarded by the European Parliament.
Prisons in the Democratic Republic of the Congo
Carl De Keyzer
Inside a prison. Beni, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 2007.
In countries marked by armed conflict or extreme poverty, conditions in prison can be shocking: overcrowding, promiscuity, derelict buildings, deplorable sanitation, lack of food, no or little access to medical care, limited access to legal justice. These are major symptoms in countries that practise unjustified, excessive and prolonged preventive detention. Amnesty International is concerned because it especially affects very needy men, women and children who cannot afford a lawyer’s fee. Amnesty International’s research teams document the conditions of detainees in the prisons of Madagascar and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the occupancy rate of some institutions can be triple their actual capacity. As well as being illegal, these arbitrary and abusive detentions are aggravated by wretched conditions that wreak permanent havoc on prisoners’ physical and mental health.
Assault on freedom of expression
Republican march against terrorism and antisemitism after the attack on Charlie Hebdo and the hostage taking at the Hyper Casher. Paris, France, 11 January 2015.
On Wednesday 7 January 2015 a deadly attack by armed men took place in the Paris offices of the satiric weekly Charlie Hebdo, killing 12 people (Frédéric Boisseau, Franck Brinsolaro, Cabu, Charb, Elsa Cayat, Honoré, Bernard Maris, Ahmed Merab, Mustapha Ourrad, Michel Renaud, Tignous and Wolinski) and seriously injuring several others. The attack followed the publication of cartoons that the attackers considered an insult to Islam. This constituted a shocking assault on freedom of expression, a fundamental right that Amnesty International has never ceased to defend. Throughout France and all over the world millions of voices were raised in support of the victims and against barbarism, united by the cry “Je suis Charlie”. At the end of 2020 in Paris, justice was pronounced in a historic trial. Those convicted of the January 2015 attacks were found guilty and given sentences ranging from four months to life imprisonment.
Persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar
Rohingya in internal displacement camps in Sittwe. Myanmar, June 2016.
In autumn 2017, when hundreds of thousands of Rohingya were fleeing from Myanmar, Amnesty International published the result of two years of investigation in its report Caged Without a Roof. In Myanmar’s State of Arakan, the situation is such that this Muslim minority is living in ghetto conditions, suffering daily persecution by the authorities. Without citizen status, the Rohingya people struggle to have access to health care, administrative services, education or justice. The Amnesty International report documents the segregation being suffered by men, women and children in a dehumanizing apartheid system where the pursuit of ethnic cleansing is the only policy. Forced to flee fierce repression and to seek exile in neighbouring Bangladesh, 800,000 Rohingya live today in deplorable conditions in the Kutupalong camp (district of Cox’s Bazar), the world’s largest refugee camp. Under international law, however, they ought to be eligible for asylum.
Against repressive laws in Hong Kong
Demonstrators gathering in Victoria Park. Hong Kong, China, 18 August 2019.
Although the former British colony of Hong Kong ought to enjoy a high degree of autonomy in governing its affairs, this special administrative region of China is increasingly fettered by the central power. In 2014, people in Hong Kong massed in the streets to protest a bill introduced by the Chinese government which would limit the scope of universal suffrage in the election of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive. Known as the “umbrella movement”, these peaceful demonstrations were violently repressed by the authorities. In 2019, there were new demonstrations against a bill designed to facilitate extraditions to mainland China. Beijing’s measures of control have become increasingly authoritarian. The research carried out in the city by Amnesty International speaks for itself: the Chinese régime is progressively restricting the freedoms of expression, opinion, assembly, association and information of the people of Hong Kong. The national security law established in 2020 gives Beijing carte blanche to stifle all dissident opinion. It legalizes generalized arbitrary detentions and the closing of press media that are critical of the central authority.
“I believe that activism is about turning the impossible into the possible”
– Joshua Yong –
A young human rights defender in Hong Kong, Joshua Yong has been arbitrarily detained on many occasions for his participation in opposition protests.
The right to abortion
Demonstration against the anti-abortion law. Warsaw, Poland, November 2020.
The fact that certain countries are challenging the right to abortion and that governments resisting this right continue to restrict and ban its use led Amnesty International to launch the “My body my rights” campaign in 2014. The goal: to reverse this trend and say loud and clear that every woman has the right of control over her body, specifically in the matter of reproductive rights. After long years of activism and lobbying of policymakers, by Amnesty International among others, some crucial gains have been made in favour of voluntary interruption of pregnancy (VIP). In 2018 Ireland repealed by referendum its constitutional ban on abortion, a major step forward for human rights in this country. At the end of 2020, it was the turn of Argentina – where the fight has been unrelenting – to decide to legalize access to abortion. Poland, however, continues to restrict this right, disregarding a large section of the population who regularly take to the streets in protest.
For climate justice
Bristol, England, 2020.
In August 2018, Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg started the first school strike for the climate. In just weeks, a whole generation of young people concerned by ecological and environmental issues joined her initiative under the hashtag “#FridaysForFuture”. Every Friday, all over the world, thousands of people gathered in the streets to call on policymakers to work towards greater climate justice. For Kumi Naidoo, then Secretary General of Amnesty International: “The failure of most governments to act in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence is arguably the biggest inter-generational human rights violation in history”. In 2019, Amnesty International organized jointly, with the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Peoples’ Summit on Climate, Rights and Human Survival. Thanks especially to her “How dare you?” speech at the United Nations Assembly, Greta Thunberg will remain an emblematic figure in the fight against climate change.
“You are never too small to make a difference”
– Greta Thunberg –
Amnesty International chose Greta Thunberg, together with other activists in her movement, to receive its Ambassador of Conscience Award for 2019.
Against racial discrimination in the United States
Demonstration after the murder of George Floyd by the police. Flatbush Avenue, New York City, United States, 14 June 2020.
In the United States, police violence against black people is endemic. Suffocated to death by the knee of a police officer on 25 May 2020 in Minneapolis, George Floyd is one of countless victims. In a few hours, the video with his last words “I can’t breathe” was seen across the world, instantly re-kindling the Black Lives Matter protest movement throughout the country and beyond. Amnesty International swiftly denounced the extrajudicial execution of George Floyd. During the month of largely peaceful demonstrations that followed, Amnesty International recorded 125 cases of police violence in 40 States and in Washington, D.C. Calling for an end to the systemic racism of the judiciary and police services in the United States towards black people, and demanding that the family of George Floyd obtain justice, Amnesty International collected over a million signatures worldwide. Found guilty of the murder of George Floyd, Derek Chauvin was sentenced to 22.5 years in prison on 25 June 2021.
The right to freedom of opinion in Russia
Heavy police presence at a pro-Navalny demonstration at Yaroslavskiy station, Moscow, Russia, 31 January 2021.
In Russia, the repression of freedoms of expression, assembly and association reflects Moscow’s determination to stifle dissident voices. The list of opponents of the régime who have been poisoned, imprisoned or assassinated these last 20 years grows ever longer. The murder of former Deputy Prime Minister and opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, shot and killed in 2015, is a case in point. After the killing, Amnesty International stressed the need for a rapid, impartial and effective investigation, in a country where such cases are usually entrusted to senior officials close to the Kremlin, and often remain unresolved. In 2020, the poisoning of Aleksei Navalny re-activated accusations concerning the central power’s intentions to eliminate opponents. Aleksei Navalny remains in prison today, deprived of freedom for expressing his ideas. A portion of the Russian population supports him by demonstrating regularly for his release: these gatherings are violently repressed by the authorities. Amnesty International has designated Aleksei Navalny as a prisoner of conscience and is fighting for his release.
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