Jon Piccini
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Humanitarianism in the age of human rights
Amnesty International in Australia
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This chapter places Samuel Moyn's influential argument, that the post-war ascendance of human rights saw it subordinated to a humanitarian optic, into dialogue with a study of Amnesty International’s early years in Australia. Founded in 1961 by London-based lawyer and Catholic convert Peter Benenson, AI quickly found a receptive audience in Australia, with ‘sections’ emerging in cities across the nation. Through exploring two of the group’s early campaigns – that Indigenous Australians and conscientious objectors to the Vietnam War be recognised as ‘prisoners of conscience’ by the group’s London-based headquarters – I identify how two different understandings of rights coexisted within the organisation during this period. One was maximalist and humanitarian: insisting that rights inhering in the person irrespective of the state, while the other was minimalist and closer to a traditional understanding of rights as emerging from citizenship and imposing duties onto a subject. Such schisms were also tied into some of the central debates on human rights during the ‘long 1960s’: particularly the competition for supremacy between collective and individual rights at an international level. The chapter concludes by tracing Amnesty International’s Australian history through to the so-called human rights explosion of the late 1970s, revealing how its ‘human rights proceduralism’ frustrated those motivated by an older, often religiously inspired humanitarian sensibility, providing insights that shed light on the group’s neglected global history.

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Humanitarianism, empire and transnationalism, 1760–1995

Selective humanity in the Anglophone world


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