History Ph.D. Dissertations


Amnesty International, Human Rights & U.S. Policy

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)



First Advisor

Gary Hess


This dissertation assesses Amnesty International's ability to influence U.S. foreign policy through an examination of its human rights campaigns in three different nations—Guatemala, the United States and the People's Republic of China. While these nations are quite different from one another, according to Amnesty International they share an important characteristic; each nation has violated their citizens' human rights. Sometimes the human rights violations, which provoked Amnesty International's involvement occurred on a large scale; such as the "disappearances" connected with Guatemala's long civil war or the imprisonment of political dissidents in the PRC. Other times the human rights violations that spurred Amnesty International's involvement occurred on a smaller-scale but still undermined the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; such as the United States use of capital punishment. During the Guatemalan and Chinese campaigns Amnesty International attempted to influence the United States relations with these countries by pressuring U.S. policymakers to construct foreign policies that reflected a grave concern for institutionalized human rights abuse and demanded its end. Similarly during its campaign against the United States use of the death penalty Amnesty International attempted to make it a foreign policy liability for the United States. How effective Amnesty International has been in achieving these goals is the subject of this dissertation. This dissertation argues that Amnesty International has played an important, if often overlooked, role in shaping the environment in which foreign policy was made in the United States. While it would be difficult to argue that it was directly responsible for specific pieces of legislation this dissertation asserts that Amnesty International was instrumental in increasing U.S. policymakers' sensitivity to human rights issues during the last quarter of the twentieth century. While this increased sensitivity did not always translate into domestic or foreign policies that fully respected the provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights the ability of Amnesty International, a non-governmental organization, to pressure U.S. policymakers and to change the policymaking environment needs to be studied.