Summary of "Enforcing International Standards of Justice: Amnesty International's Constructive Conflict Expansion"

Summary of

Enforcing International Standards of Justice: Amnesty International's Constructive Conflict Expansion

By Ann Marie Clark and James A. McCann

This Article Summary written by: Tanya Glaser, Conflict Research Consortium

Citation: Ann Marie Clark and James A. McCann, "Enforcing International Standards of Justice: Amnesty International's Constructive Conflict Expansion," Peace & Change, 16:4, (October 1991), 379-399.

Amnesty International

Amnesty International is unique in a number of ways. It has no official standing with individual governments. Its membership is unrestricted and voluntary. It includes members from the grassroots and elites, and often works across such boundaries. AI takes an adversarial stance toward nations which are abusing human rights, but has no military or official mandate to back up its stance.

AI acts by intervening on the side of the relatively powerless to advocate justice through the rule of law. It uses potent symbols and meanings to mobilize support. And AI focuses on concrete, pragmatic demands for government action, and seeks to justify those demands by principles to which the target regime is already committed.

Constructive Conflict Expansion

Prior to World War II, international justice was understood as pertaining simply to the relations between sovereign nations. In light of the Holocaust and other war atrocities, the idea of human rights was expanded to include the idea of global human rights. The international community began to demand that states adhere to the international principles of justice in their domestic policies. The vast majority of states now defer, at least verbally, to the standards of international justice and human rights. Unfortunately, in times of domestic crisis, most states still resort to repression.

Theorists who study conflict dynamics find that the more powerful parties to a conflict generally try to keep the scope of the conflict narrow, to preserve their power advantage. Less powerful parties are generally more willing to broaden the scope of a conflict, to bring in new allies and resources. The authors explain that "Amnesty International works by increasing the number of participants in ostensibly private conflicts, thereby attempting to invoke international norms of justice."[p. 387] By mobilizing international grass-roots activists on behalf of prisoners, AI engages in constructive conflict expansion to pressure nations to adhere to international principles of justice and human rights.


It can be difficult to mobilize and sustain such widespread grass-roots support. To this end AI attempts to create a sense of personal connection between its members and the victims of government repression. AI gathers information on individual victims and prisoners, and publicizes these otherwise "faceless" cases of abuse. Amnesty also tries to match activists with particular prisoners based on common characteristics such as occupation.

AI uses potent symbols and images, such as the lit candle wrapped in barbed wire. These symbols are made even more effective by the fact that there is no legitimate opposing imagery available in the international context. AI is able to transcend domestic appeals to nationalism and order in the repressive country by acting in an international context.

The structure and organization of AI "allows for the orderly expansion of conflict by facilitating communication and concerted action from the grass-roots to the elite level and back again."[p. 389] Activists join at the local level. Local level groups generally focus on an "adopted" prisoner. Local groups are overseen by state and regional groups. These groups disseminate educational materials, and host conferences and workshops for the local groups. The national offices coordinated large-scale mobilizations and mails out monthly updates and news. The International Secretariat (IS) operates primarily on the elite level. IS members communicate directly with governments, and testify before national legislatures and the UN.

Conflict Resolution

In terms of conflict resolution, AI tries to be objective, but not neutral. AI acts as an advocate for the prisoner, a representative for the relatively powerless. AI confronts repressive governments, and so brings covert, hidden, domestic conflicts out into to the open. For any group to be an effective advocate, they must have credibility, skill, and wisdom in choosing their demands.

Amnesty's credibility rests primarily on the quality and objectivity of its information about human rights violations. AI undertakes extensive and thorough investigations of alleged human rights abuses. Perversely, as groups like AI become better at investigating and publicizing human rights abuses, target regimes have turned to increasingly covert tactics, such as assassination and "disappearing." AI is also effective because it makes specific, pragmatic demands on repressive governments, in addition to calling on governments to adhere to international principles of justice. The authors note that "one is much more likely to cause a decision to be made if one is able to make a specific request for action within a specific time frame."[p. 394] AI focuses on prisoner conditions, and on the basis of imprisonment. AI draws on both international law and on the target nations own laws and constitution to make its cases.


The authors describe three ongoing challenges to Amnesty's effectiveness. First, AI is primarily a reactive organization, and so its agenda is always in other's control. Second, international human rights protections, and so Amnesty also, have traditionally focused on government violations. However there is an increasing number of human rights violations made by non-state actors, such as organized crime, and terrorists. Finally, the increasingly swift and covert nature of human rights violations poses a challenge to groups like AI whose main tactic is mobilizing massive grass-roots opposition.