Amnesty International workers in London walked off the job on Tuesday for the second strike in as many months in an embarrassing setback for an organization that campaigns for the rights of workers and is considered one of the world's pre-eminent human rights advocates.
The walkouts are a public airing of staff complaints that have been building for years, with tensions rising dramatically in recent weeks as Amnesty's international operations prepare to re-organize.
The changes include transferring some of its 500 jobs from a centralized London base to 10 regional hubs around the world — part of an effort to be closer to the hotspots where human rights violations occur. The organization says it's not really sure how many jobs will go, and that uncertainty has caused frustration and anger among its employees. Amnesty's British workers, meanwhile, reject the notion of handing over more money to international operations — as their jobs might be at risk.
Amnesty's creation goes back to 1961, when a British lawyer learned that two students in Portugal had been imprisoned for seven years for drinking a toast to liberty despite being under a dictatorship. Peter Benenson's response was simple, and became radical: He wrote an article in Britain's Observer newspaper based on the premise that prisoners of conscience might be released by writing letters to governments.
That appeal spawned a movement, marking the beginning of Amnesty International, which from that humble start grew to a worldwide movement of 2.1 million members, its symbol of the candle circled by looping barbed wire becoming an icon to the oppressed.
But the group's current crisis is raising questions about its ability to remain a leading human rights advocate in a world no longer defined by Cold War era divisions.
Last week, Amnesty's program director for the Americas, Susan Lee, resigned, expressing shock at "senior management's failure to honor its commitments to treat staff fairly and with respect." The next day, the union voted to strike, saying it had "lost all confidence in senior management because it lacks integrity, competence, transparency and accountability."
"The organization's ability to conduct research and campaigning in defense of human rights has been undermined, and the organization faces a threat to its very existence," the resolution said.
Not so, Amnesty's management says. The restructuring will make the organization stronger, said Amnesty's senior director of campaigns and communications, Thomas Schultz-Jagow.
"The overall aim for this is to maximize the impact our organization has for justice and human rights," he said.
From its humble start, its programs now go beyond some of the classical issues for which it made its name, such as the campaign against the death penalty. It started fighting for the rights of indigenous peoples against the perils of poverty and for corporate accountability for human rights abuses.
That broadening mandate has led in part to a fraying at the edges of the venerable organization as it tries to adapt to a changing world. Managing that change has led to problems — an indication of which emerged in 2009, when Amnesty handed over about 800,000 pounds ($1.2 million) to two former executives as part of a confidential payout upon departure.
Meanwhile, the global economic crisis strained fund-raising. Donations which come from individuals, foundations and other charities totaled 907,000 pounds last year, compared with about 2.8 million pounds in 2007. Amnesty says the 2007 figures were buoyed by a pair of one-off donations and that their reporting periods changed, skewing results.
Over the same five-year period, the number of people employed by the organization rose 15 percent. There's been an even bigger jump in those making big salaries.
Last year, Amnesty paid 36 people more than 60,000 pounds a year and seven of them received more than 100,000 pounds. In 2007, there were only seven people earning more than 60,000 pounds, three of whom received more than 100,000 pounds. Amnesty says those changes came after a review and were influenced by currency exchange fluctuations.
"It's been like a perfect storm for Amnesty," said Gerald Steinberg, the head of NGO Monitor, an organization that offers information and analysis on human rights groups. "They really are in trouble. They've been in crisis for a number of years."
Schultz-Jagow makes no apology for the reorganization, saying that Amnesty has to adapt — though he noted with regret that some staff members will likely be forced to leave. In a telephone interview with The Associated Press, he argued that the complexity of human rights violations has increased and the organization needs to move with the times.
"The main driver for this is our belief that we need to be based and operate much closer to where human rights violations take place," he said.
Meanwhile, other organizations have moved into territory where Amnesty once enjoyed exclusivity. Human Rights Watch, for example, with its critical reports, has steadily gained in influence and has the backing of wealthy philanthropist and financier George Soros.
While Amnesty has its issues, they are not alone among human rights groups in the struggle to adapt.
Alexander Cooley, chairman of the Department of Political Science at Barnard College in New York, said in a statement that two significant pressures are currently besetting several international advocacy groups: funding and global restructuring.
"Transnational groups such as Amnesty are now strategizing how to best expand their global coverage in order to remain relevant to evolving human rights challenges, though this is usually being done without an ... increase in resources," he wrote. "Across the world of foundations and NGOs, the trend is away from centralization and towards more experimentation at the regional and local levels. Whether this will lead to more effective advocacy practice remains an open question."
Associated Press Writer Frank Jordans contributed to this story.