The story behind our first Urgent Action, forty years ago

It’s hard to believe that it’s forty years since I issued Amnesty’s first ‘Urgent Action’. It was for Professor Luis Basilio Rossi, labour lawyer, academic and political activist at the University of Sao Paulo, who “disappeared” after being seized by Brazil’s security forces.

A new way of campaigning - with urgency

Over the years, many people have asked how I came up with the idea. I always reply that like so many other techniques at Amnesty, the Urgent Action was created in response to a pressing human rights problem. And that problem under the military dictatorship then ruling Brazil was that suspected 'subversives' were being systematically tortured in the first 48 hours after their unacknowledged detention.  

Back then, our sole technique to protect human rights was to identify, adopt and call for the release of prisoners of conscience - people imprisoned for their beliefs, who had not used or advocated violence. Reliant on 'snail mail' and the occasional, often inaudible phone call, this determination could take weeks or months. Meanwhile, Brazilians were dying under torture.

An urgent meeting was convened and we struggled with the problem over an entire weekend. Finally, over lunch at a pizza restaurant, I suggested creating an action technique aimed at protecting detainees from torture, but named to make it immediately clear that we were acting because the matter was urgent, without making a judgement whether the person was a Prisoner of Conscience or not. I suggested the name 'Urgent Action' to convey these two ideas.

The meeting liked the proposal and a few weeks later, Amnesty’s top decision-making body gave the go-ahead for a trial run.

Launching the first Urgent Action

My assistant Maggie and I then combed through huge, dusty volumes in our library containing names and addresses of trade union, medical, journalistic and other organisations and individuals throughout the world. We compiled these by sector, so that when launching actions, we could immediately target those we felt most likely to feel an affinity with the victim and take action on their behalf.

Soon after, we learned of Professor Rossi’s abduction. We wrote up a 'normal' case sheet, but with additional instructions, urging recipients to “… act as quickly as possible. Time may be crucial in locating Professor Rossi or even in helping save his life ….” We then 'xeroxed' hundreds of copies of the case sheet (check a glossary of outmoded office machinery to find out what a 'Xerox' machine was!) and sent them out (snail mail again!) to hundreds of academic, labour and trade union organisations and individuals.

The next thing we knew, we received a letter from Professor Rossi’s wife, Maria Jose, on DOPS stationery, (DOPS was Brazil’s Department of Public Security, responsible for apprehending suspected 'subversives'). She said not to worry about her husband; she’d seen him in custody, he had not been tortured and we should stop acting on his case.

Torture stopped

The letter didn’t ring true, so we continued our action. Sure enough, a few weeks later, Maria Jose wrote again, this time from home, explaining that her first letter had been written under pressure while at DOPS headquarters, looking for her husband. DOPS first denied they were holding him, but eventually produced him. It was clear, Marie Jose told us, that he had been tortured, but the torture had stopped after the urgent messages began arriving.

We, our tiny Americas Research Department, danced down the corridor hugging each other with joy, but our work didn’t stop until Professor Rossi was released and the couple went into exile.

How did we know about Liuz?

But it wasn’t until 1987, after the military dictatorship fell, that we learned exactly what had happened on that day in 1973 and how the information about Professor Rossi reached London. Maggie was attending an Amnesty meeting in Brazil, and was introduced by chance to a nurse described as instrumental in setting up a new Health Professionals Network. Remembering that Professor Rossi’s wife was a nurse, Maggie asked “You’re not Professor Rossi’s wife are you?” And she was!

Maria Jose described how security forces surrounded their home, removed her husband to an unknown location and cut the telephone wires so no one could report Professor Rossi’s detention or seek help. Desperate, she scribbled down the details, balled up the sheet of paper and tossed it over the fence to a next-door neighbour. The neighbour informed the local priest, who passed the information to the office of the progressive Archbishop of Sao Paulo, Ernesto Arns. His office relayed the information to the Catholic University at Louvain, Belgium, a centre of progressive Catholic liberation theology. There, some young theologians happened to know about Amnesty International – not a given in those days – and sent the details to London.

So, by a lucky chain of circumstances, the information got to us just as we had been given approval to try out the new Urgent Action technique.

But it was not till 1995 at a meeting in Sao Paulo, to commemorate the 22nd anniversary of the first Urgent Action, when Professor Rossi, his wife and I finally got to meet, that I could finally hear their story first-hand.

Forty years of Urgent Actions

After the stunning success of that first action, other Latin America research teams quickly launched their own actions, and the method was officially incorporated into our arsenal of campaigning techniques during Amnesty’s first worldwide campaign against torture. 

Since then, Urgent Actions have not only protected thousands, but have also helped raise international concern about new human rights issues and their causes, including abuses against street children and indigenous peoples; impunity; the abduction of children for the lucrative adoption racket; the involvement of international corporations in abuses; and abuses of economic, social and cultural rights such as the rights to health, housing and water.

The technique has also been adopted by other non-governmental and inter-governmental organisations, including regional and United Nations mechanisms on disappearance, torture and extrajudicial executions.

Of course, it’s been personally very satisfying to see how much Urgent Actions have contributed to human rights protection: in fact when people ask how I could bear working with such terrible issues, I have always replied that it was infinitely rewarding to know that, alongside the medical profession, I was in one of the few professions where you knew that you were helping save lives.

And, after all these years, I’m amazed and delighted that the technique I first suggested at a London pizza restaurant is still protecting people worldwide: Last year alone, Amnesty issued almost 400 actions which were acted on by some 165,000 people around the world. I’ve not been in touch with the Rossis for several years, but I hope that somewhere in Brazil, they too may be commemorating that first action and all that we have achieved since then.

Join us!

Finally, a word to anyone that doesn’t already participate in the Urgent Action Network: if you’ve been moved by Professor Rossi’s story, why not add your voice to the network – you too can help save lives!

Tracy Ultveit-Moe was our Brazil and Central America Researcher until 2004.

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