07/15/2011 09:09 EDT | Updated 09/14/2011 05:12 EDT

Amnesty Marks 50 Years of Advancing Freedom

As near as 15 years ago, says Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada, it would have been "a pie in the sky dream" for Moammar Gadhafi to be indicted by a united front of governments. It's a stark reminder for Canada to "stand on guard" and oppose crimes against humanity.


It's 1961. Belgium pulls out of the Congo. The Berlin wall is erected in East Germany. Cuba's Soviet-trained army conquers the U.S. military in the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion. Iraq declares dominion over Kuwait -- Kuwait disagrees.

Two Portuguese students raise their wine glasses in a toast to freedom, a loaded word in a country under the dictatorship of Antonio Salazar, and they are imprisoned.

Amnesty International is born when British lawyer Peter Benenson launches an Appeal for Amnesty '61. In a news-article-cum-human-rights-manifesto he christens the Portuguese students "prisoners of conscience" jailed for their beliefs.

Amnesty celebrates its 50th anniversary at a profound moment in history, as the highs and lows of civil rights struggles are revealed in a compact period of time and space like snapshots of revolution in progress. Egypt and Tunisia rebuild governments while, beside them, horrifying violence continues in Libya.

Freedom is still a loaded word. Amnesty has built a legacy around defending it, now with the help of three million members, including 67,000 Canadians.

Over five decades, the organization has released thousands of prisoners of conscience, saved torture victims from suffering and stopped executions. Most impressively, it's credited with advancing a global human rights culture. In 1977 it won the Nobel Peace Prize.

The Conspiracy of Hope and Human Rights Now! tours that rocked the world in the '80s helped make civil liberties the cause du jour that defined a generation.

Craig was three years old during the Conspiracy of Hope tour; Marc was nine. Neither of us were cognisant that it was the social justice equivalent of Woodstock. But time and again we've seen the torn, yellowed posters -- Peter Gabriel and Radiohead shared a marquee with an image of a guitar made of twisted barbed wire -- taped to walls in the overstuffed libraries of some of Amnesty's long-time members.

The spark was contagious and it inspired people from all walks of life. Advocacy letter writing circles connected grandmothers in Halifax with students at UBC, all for the same cause. The two of us grew up writing Amnesty letters and may be the last generation to send shoe boxes full of signatures before the advent of email. And we saw how powerful those letters can be.

Amnesty and its supporters led the charge for the UN convention against torture. It was a vital influence that helped convince governments to form the International Criminal Court. As near as 15 years ago, says Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada, it would have been "a pie in the sky dream" for Moammar Gadhafi to be indicted by a united front of governments targeting crimes against humanity.

Last year, after countless Amnesty appeals, Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was released from 15 years of detention in Myanmar. We'll never forget watching Suu Kyi, flower pinned in her hair, standing on the gates that once confined her, telling throngs of her supporters that they still have a long way to go.

Alex Neve personally worked on the case of Maher Arar, a Syrian-born, Canadian-bred software engineer, arrested in New York and deported to Syria in 2002. He was violently tortured, held for months on spurious charges of terrorist connections. After five years fighting, the Canadian government paid Arar's family $11.5 million in retribution.

Neve calls it a stark reminder for Canada to "stand on guard" against breaching the very rights we're fighting for outside of our borders.

Amnesty has seen groundbreaking victories. But it's also been scrutinized. It recently faced criticism for expanding its mission beyond prisoners of conscience to include protections against economic injustice. It's an absurd criticism that comes from the notion that human rights are divisible, with civil rights sitting atop an imagined hierarchy and economics at the bottom. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, written a decade before Amnesty's founding, includes economic, social and cultural equalities as fundamental freedoms.

We're proud to watch Amnesty expand and remain a crucial, powerful and noble cause.

This year it's launched a diverse set of campaigns to mark its 50th, taking actions to abolish the death penalty in the United States, stop oil companies in the Niger-Delta from polluting waters and violating rights for profit, and demanding justice for international war criminals.

It's 2061. Extreme poverty is non-existent. Women and girls have equal political, economic, academic and social freedoms around the world. The Arab Spring is a distant but potent memory that's brought hundreds of seasons of peace to the Middle East. We're looking forward to celebrating another 50 years of Amnesty leading the good fight.