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Common Knowledge 9.1 (2003) 166
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Jonathan Power, Like Water on Stone: The Story of Amnesty International (Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 2001), 352 pp.
Power's portrayal of the Nobel Prize-winning Amnesty Internationalreaches back into its humble beginnings, when the annual budget was calculated on the back of a cigarette pack in a London pub. He follows Amnesty's struggles against Britain's handling of political prisoners in Northern Ireland, the United States' use of the death penalty, and abuses of human dignity by the Pinochet regime in Chile. He writes passionately about his personal relationship with Olusegun Obasanjo, once one of Amnesty's adopted prisoners and today the elected president of Nigeria. But Power is under no illusions about Amnesty's successes and its failures, and he is candid about its mistakes, such as its decision to support the Baader-Meinhoff gang. In the words of Job (28:10), the man of faith "cutteth out channels among the rocks" like water on a stone. For Job, human genius is found where tenacity and vision meet. Such is the evaluation of Amnestythat Power's title implies. "Amnesty may not have yet changed the world," he admits, "but it has not left it as it found it either." This is no impartial study; it is a tribute to persistence and, for the attentive reader, it is a diatribe against cynicism. For men and women of letters, this book could just restore faith in the power of the written word—in which case, it is also a call to arms.
Alick Isaacs is associate editor for history, religion, and special projects of Common Knowledge. He teaches medieval history and Jewish history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is currently writing on the shared milieu of synagogue and church in the European Middle Ages.