The Evolution of the Mandate

Amnesty International's mandate, which sets the limits on the movements work, was expanded as a result of decisions made by the 20th International Council Meeting (ICM), held in Yokohama, Japan, Aug. 31 to Sept. 7. Roger Clark, Secretary General of AICS(ES), was a member of the branch's delegation to the biennial assembly which is AI's supreme governing body. Here he considers the implications of these mandate changes.

The AI mandate has always been something of a mysterious entity. Search as one could, nowhere was there a document entitled "The Mandate". On the other hand, "the mandate" has always been a central fact of AI life, finding its formal expression within Article 1 of the Statute and in the various interpretations that have accompanied it over the years. From the earliest days of the organization, the mandate has undergone changes, some of which (the work against the death penalty, for example) have represented major challenges for the membership. Work on torture, "disappearances", conscientious objection, refugee issues, and much more, have been added to the AI mandate over the years as the movement has grown and found new resources to work with.

By and large, the changes that have taken place since AI was founded in 1961 have occurred as a result of resolutions brought to successive ICMs by national sections or by International Executive Committees. A significant development in the evolution of the mandate took place at the 1987 ICM in Brazil with the decision to create the Mandate Review Committee. It was apparent that a number of difficult mandate issues faced the organization. Rather than deal with them in a piecemeal manner, a thorough review of the entire mandate was undertaken. This was felt to be particularly useful with issues like homosexuality which had real potential for creating a deep rift within the membership.

The work of the Mandate Review Committee was to take four years and involved a broader spectrum of members than ever before in discussions and consultations around the mandate. By the time the Committee had prepared its interim report for the 1989 Dublin ICM, it was clear that far more changes were anticipated than had originally been imagined. Not that the Mandate Review Committee, whose members included a number of experienced individuals from sections around the world, was considered a revolutionary body in AI terms. Most of its recommendations were conservative or reflected a compromise position on contentious matters.

Some changes were designed to bring the mandate statement itself into line with the realities of our work. The explicit reference to "disappearances" and to extrajudicial executions, for example, adds nothing new. It does, however, ensure that the mandate is now a more accurate reflection of what we do. For the first time ever, AI has a formal mandate statement within the Statute which spells out clearly the essence of the work and the basis on which it was founded. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights remains the anchor of the organization's work, along with other international human rights instruments.

At the same time, the revised Article 1 of the Statute now takes note of the "indivisibility and interdependence of all human rights". This does not mean that we are going to carry out actions on the entire range of human rights but rather is an acknowledgement that our work does not exit in isolation or in a vacuum. AI is recognizing that we are part of the global human rights environment and that our work against "grave violations" complements and supports that of others who are also committed to the observance and protection of human rights.

Article 1 goes on to set AI's mandate within the more specific context of the fundamental right of every person to "physical and mental integrity". Finally, there is the mandate statement itself. The new version is much clearer and means that public declarations about AI's work will be both more explicit and more accurate. Our work for "fair and prompt trials", for example, is now described as opposition to "the detention of any political prisoner without trial within a reasonable time or any trial procedures that do not conform to internationally recognized norms".

Other changes will become apparent in some of the actions that members undertake on a regular basis. The decision to expand membership action in the area of work on armed opposition forces ("non-governmental entities" or NGEs) means that AI will research human rights abuses committed by movements like Sendero Luminoso in Peru, the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland, or the Palestinian Liberation Organization. It means that there may be membership actions (including, for example, Urgent Action appeals, letter-writing campaigns and even Regional Action Network actions) aimed directly at the offending NGEs. Such actions may also include work on behalf of hostages taken by armed opposition groups.

Other action-related changes allow for inclusion in AI's work of such human rights violations as forcible exile and forcible relocation, the destruction of houses (as an act of political repression or punishment), and administrative detention. Some of these will not find their way into our regular work until appropriate guidelines have been developed, while others may appear fairly quickly. AI's opposition to administrative detention moves the organization ahead of international law (which makes provision for its application during states of emergency) and will allow us to condemn any lack of fair or prompt trial in such circumstances.

The debate over the inclusion as prisoners of conscience of men or women detained for homosexual acts in private has been a long and difficult one for AI. It goes back at least to 1979 although it has been a major focus of the mandate review since 1987. While many sections (including Canada in 1987) took a clear position on this issue, it required considerable courage and long hours of consensus building for the question to be finally settled at the ICM in Yokohama. Some AI sections work in cultures which are less accepting of homosexuality than others and there are real fears that this decision may seriously impede membership development in such countries. It is too soon to say what effect this change will have on our ongoing work but there are indications that a large number of cases may be identified in the Soviet Union.

The newly-created standing Mandate Review Committee will undertake a number of studies which will lead the organization in new and important directions. Standard setting in areas such as "fair and prompt trials" and "prison conditions" will likely contribute significantly to the development of international law. Work on issues such as institutionalized racial discrimination, the killing of civilians in the context of armed combat, and the detention of people for divulging confidential information will ensure that the mandate will continue to evolve over the coming decade. There is an enormous amount to be done and, as always, many concerns about the resources needed to accomplish what is required of us.

Amnesty International is moving into new areas. We will look back and remember Yokohama as a significant turning-point and a historic moment in AI's growth and relevance.