Like Water on Stone: The Story of Amnesty International

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9780140282313: Like Water on Stone: The Story of Amnesty International

Founded in London in 1961 by a radical lawyer, Peter Berenson, Amnesty International is one of the most influential and respected non-governmental organizations in the world. Its story reflects the changing attitudes to political prisoners and human rights throughout the first and third worlds. Always controversial, Amnesty continues to question orthodoxies. Its struggle to free political prisoners goes on, but it also recognizes the need to fight for human rights in whatever form they are denied or abused.

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Review:

Turning 40 can be awkward, but, as journalist Jonathan Power demonstrates in his passionate appraisal of Amnesty International, Like Water on Stone, sometimes it can be a time for quiet celebration. Formed in 1961 after British lawyer Peter Berenson read of two Portuguese students imprisoned for raising their glasses in a toast to freedom, Amnesty took its symbol from an ancient proverb, "better to light a candle than curse the darkness". From humble beginnings, Amnesty International now has over a million supporters worldwide, and while remaining one of the smaller NGOs, has one of the highest profiles through its campaigns against torture, capital punishment, and political crimes against humanity. It may often be a case of two steps forward and one step back, but that odd waltz has changed international thinking, and as importantly, saved individual lives. Its impact may often be intangible, but as Power's title suggests, it's quietly effective.

Power, former foreign affairs columnist for the International Herald Tribune and editor of the official history of the UN, A Vision of Hope, purposefully charts the organisation's success stories and cautionary tales. The first chapter, which focuses on former Amnesty adopted prisoner and now Nigerian President, Olusegun Obasanjo, who gives the book its title, is the most personal in the book, as Obasanjo is an old acquaintance of Power's. What follows are more precise histories of campaigns waged, often alone, by Amnesty, in countries such as Guatemala, where there are no political prisoners, only political killings, and the Central African Republic. The Pinochet affair is usefully sketched, drawing heavily on Geoffrey Robertson's Crimes Against Humanity, and there are lively chapters on British human rights abuses in Northern Ireland, and the interesting dynamics of the organisation's involvement in the Baader-Meinhof campaign of the 1970s, when it perhaps became involved beyond its mandate. The future, Power believes, lies in international law and courting the business community, not glamorous, but fundamental to maintaining momentum. The other massive hurdle remains the USA, which 225 years on from the Declaration of Independence, continues to embrace double standards that render its human rights record grim reading. Conclusion? Good work, but it's not yet time to put down your pen.--David Vincent

About the Author:

Jonathan Power's weekly foreign affairs column is syndicated to over twenty newspapers throughout the world. He has published five previous books and most recently edited the official history of the United Nations.

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Power, Jonathan
Published by Penguin Books, Limited (UK) (2002)
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