Fighting Bad Guys Since 1961: Human Rights Pioneer Amnesty International

Layout 1Founded in 1961, Amnesty International has grown to be one of the most respected and preeminent human rights organizations on the planet. Combining the global appeal of a populist, membership based organization with an activist, research-based human rights organization, Amnesty International has evolved into a worldwide organization campaigning on a multitude of human rights issues. Progressive Lawyer chatted with Anna Shea, an Amnesty legal advisor working for the International Secretariat in London, England. A graduate of McGill University’s School of Law, Anna started out as a Canadian articling student. She talks about working with Amnesty and offers some tips for the law student looking to break into human rights law.

In the interests of full disclosure, I have been a longtime member of Amnesty International since the mid ’80s.

Progressive Lawyer: Hello! Please introduce yourself and describe your role in Amnesty International.

Anna Shea: I am the Legal Adviser on Refugee and Migrant Rights at Amnesty International’s head office in London, UK. In this role, I do a wide variety of work, such as overseeing legal interventions at national and regional courts, researching human rights violations on the ground, writing reports, doing individual casework, and advising colleagues on international human rights standards related to refugee and migrant rights.

PL: Why was Amnesty started? What issues does it confront?

AS: Amnesty International was founded in 1961. It has grown to be a global movement of more than 3 million supporters, members and activists in over 150 countries and territories who campaign to end grave abuses of human rights. Our vision is for every person to enjoy all the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights instruments. Amnesty International is independent of any government, political ideology, economic interest or religion, and are funded mainly by our membership and public donations.

PL: What services does Amnesty offer? Who are its primary clients/audience?

AS: Amnesty International doesn’t have clients per se. Our mission is to conduct research and generate action to prevent and end grave abuses of human rights and to demand justice for those whose rights have been violated. Grassroots members and supporters exert influence on governments, political bodies, corporations and intergovernmental groups. We also undertake impartial research and take action aimed at preventing and ending grave abuses of these rights, demanding that all governments and other powerful entities respect the rule of law.

PL: How do you utilize the law to further your organizational goals?

AS: International human rights law informs virtually all aspects of Amnesty International’s work. But to give an example of an explicit use of law to advance our organizational goals, Amnesty International intervenes as a third-party intervener in order to provide expert guidance to courts on the interpretation of international human rights law in particular contexts. In Canada, for example, Amnesty International’s expertise has been welcomed by many levels of court, including the Supreme Court of Canada. (a great example of this work is detailed here:

Anna Shea
Anna Shea

PL: Do you offer any internships or volunteer opportunities?

AS: Amnesty International’s head office (the International Secretariat) advertises its employment and volunteer opportunities at National sections have their own methods of recruitment for employees, interns and volunteers. For law students, opportunities will vary according by country. In Canada for the past few years, the Law Foundation of Ontario has funded an annual Public Interest Articling Fellowship – a fantastic articling position at Amnesty International Canada’s head office in Ottawa.

PL: What advice would you give to a law student or legal professional who would be interested in this type of law?

AS: I’d advise people who are interested in doing human rights law to be creative and persistent. In law school and the mainstream legal world, we rarely hear about people doing law differently. But it is possible! It’s important to seek out mentors and people doing work you respect. Informational interviews are a great way of connecting with people and learning about what kinds of opportunities are out there.

PL: One issue I do find important is the question of work/life balance. Human rights law can be all consuming. How do you balance that with having a healthy, private life?

AS: Yes this is an important question. I suppose the short answer is that achieving a work-life balance in the realm of human rights law is very challenging, and – ironically – takes a lot of work and effort!

For more information on Amnesty International, please go to Thank you to Anna Shea for taking the time to answer our questions and for Beth Berton-Hunter, Media and External Communications officer with Amnesty for making this interview happen.

Until next week!

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