Amnesty Law

Amnesty law, in criminal law, is the act of a government “forgetting” about criminal offenses committed by one or a group of persons, usually related to crimes considered political in nature. It is often conditioned upon a return to obedience of the law within a prescribed period. Amnesty is often granted to a group of people who have committed offenses against the state, such as treason, immigration violations, or desertion from the military. Amnesty does not grant a license to commit future crimes, nor does it pardon offenses not yet committed.

In the United States, granting amnesties is chiefly a power of the Executive Branch, but under some circumstances Congress may also initiate amnesties as part of legislation. An amnesty does not erase a criminal act, nor to condone or forgive it, but merely enables political reconciliation.

Amnesty in Time of War

Amnesty in time of war, permits the government of a nation or state to "overlook" criminal acts, typically prior to prosecution. Amnesty has customarily been used as a political tool of resolution and reunion after a war has ended. The first amnesty in United States history was presented by President George Washington, in 1795, to partakers in the Whiskey Rebellion, a series of uprisings caused by an out of favor excise tax on liquor. Known as a conditional amnesty, it allowed the U.S. government to forget the crimes of the individuals involved in exchange for their signatures on an oath of loyalty to the United States.

During the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln offered multiple amnesties to Union deserters under the requirement that they readily return to their regiments. Following the war, Lincoln granted a proclamation of amnesty for any who had taken part in the rebellion. Though Congress opposed the leniency of the plan, it was helpless to stop it. Lincoln's amnesty required a loyalty pledge, but did not apply to high ranking officers and political officials. But, it was not until President Andrew Johnson's Christmas Amnesty Proclamation of 1868 that an absolute amnesty was granted to all participants in the Civil War.

Immigration Amnesty 

Immigration Amnesty is a form of amnesty that is more consistent with the historic concept of amnesty. President Reagan granted what amounted to a blanket amnesty to about 3 to 4 million individuals who were in the country illegally but who were not known to be guilty of any other crimes. Since the turn of the 21st century, however, amnesty as it is applied to immigration issues and statuses has taken on a less structured definition. 

For more information on amnesty laws, please see the resources below. Additionally, you can contact one of the attorneys listed on our “Law Firms” page for direct legal assistance with your amnesty matters.


Amnesty Law – US

  • 'Dirty War' Amnesty Law

    The United States is following the lead of “dirty war” nations, such as Argentina and Chile, in enacting what amounts to an amnesty law protecting U.S. government operatives, apparently up to and including President George W. Bush, who have committed or are responsible for human rights crimes.

  • Amnesty - Definition

    Amnesty (from the Greek amnestia, oblivion) is a legislative or executive act by which a state restores those who may have been guilty of an offense against it to the positions of innocent persons. It includes more than pardon, in as much as it obliterates all legal remembrance of the offense. The word has the same root as amnesia. Amnesty is more and more used to express 'freedom' and the time when prisoners can go free.

  • Amnesty for Illegal Immigrants

    Amnesty for illegal immigrants is defined as a governmental pardon for violating policies related to immigration. Immigration amnesty would include the federal government forgiving individuals for using false documentation such as social security numbers, identification cards, and driver’s licenses, in order to gain employment in the U.S. and continue to remain in the country. Amnesty would allow illegal immigrants or undocumented aliens to gain permanent residency in the United States.

  • Amnesty Law - Definition

    An amnesty law is any law that retroactively exempts a select group of people, usually military leaders and government leaders, from criminal liability for crimes committed.[1] Most allegations involve human rights abuses and crimes against humanity.

  • Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996

    The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 is the product of legislative efforts stretching back well over a decade and stimulated to passage in part by the tragedies in Oklahoma City and the World Trade Center.

  • Consular Notification and Access

    Instructions for federal, state, and local law enforcement and other officials regarding foreign nationals in the united states and the rights of consular officials to assist them.

  • Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996

    This act is a very large and complex piece of legislation, enacted on September 30, 1996 (Clinton was president at this time), which addresses many aspects of immigration (both legal and illegal), and the responsibilities placed upon not only immigrants, but those enforcing legal immigration. It directly addresses border patrol and upgrades needed for border patrol enforcers, equipment, and the overall patrolling process. It also details an increase in interior enforcement and practices with regard to INS and investigators monitoring visa applications and visa abusers. Illegal activities were a central concern in this bill and penalties for racketeering, alien smuggling and the use or creation of fraudulent immigration-related documents are high on the priority list. Other crimes and immigration-related offenses committed by aliens and the consequences, including deportation, are addressed in the sections following.

  • Immigration Act of 1990

    Except as specifically provided in this Act, whenever in this Act an amendment or repeal is expressed as an amendment to or repeal of a provision, the reference shall be deemed to be made to the Immigration and Nationality Act.

  • Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986

    The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) (Public Law 99-603) amended and repealed sections of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). The IRCA provides for the legalization of illegal aliens who meet certain requirements and updates the registry date which allows INS to process certain illegal aliens differently. (See SI 00501.420 and .425 for instructions on the entry date and PRUCOL based on continuous residence.)

  • Overview of the new DREAM Act of 2009

    The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act (The "DREAM Act") is a long anticipated Immigration Bill which was just introduced in the US Congress (both Senate and House) on March 26, 2009. This bill will provide millions of immigrant children who graduate from U.S. High Schools the opportunity to receive U.S. Residency (a "Green Card") after so many years of being left in the shadows by State and Federal laws. The new legislation will provide immigration benefits to those who arrived in the United States as children, before the age of 16 and who have been residing in the U.S. continuously for at least five years prior to the Bill being enacted into Law.

Amnesty Law - Europe

  • Amnesty International - Europe
  • EUMAP - Program of the Open Society Institute (OSI)

    EUMAP, a program of the Open Society Institute (OSI), monitors the development of human rights and rule of law standards and policies both in the European Union and in its candidate and potential candidate countries. EUMAP has published monitoring reports highlighting specific areas in which state performance conforms to, or falls short of, broadly accepted international standards. These reports also examine ways in which EU standards or policy could be clarified or further articulated. EUMAP approaches monitoring as a crucial tool to encourage a continuous review of policies, and to contribute to improving standards and policies where needed.

  • European Policy Centre (EPC)

    The European Policy Centre (EPC) is an independent, not-for-profit think tank, committed to making European integration work. The EPC works at the ‘cutting edge’ of European and global policy-making providing its members and the wider public with rapid, high-quality information and analysis on the EU and global policy agenda. It aims to promote a balanced dialogue between the different constituencies of its membership, spanning all aspects of economic and social life.

Amnesty Law - International

  • Amnesty International Canada

    Amnesty International was founded in 1961 by British lawyer Peter Benenson. He became angry after reading a report about two Portuguese students who had been imprisoned for raising their glasses in a toast to freedom. In response, Benenson published an article - called “The Forgotten Prisoners” - on the front page of the London Observer newspaper on May 28, 1961. The article cast the light of public attention on the situation of a number of people - including a U.S. civil rights leader, a dissident Hungarian cardinal and an Angolan poet. Each of these people were in prison simply for peacefully expressing their beliefs.

  • International Court of Justice (ICJ)

    The International Court of Justice (ICJ) is the principal judicial organ of the United Nations (UN). It was established in June 1945 by the Charter of the United Nations and began work in April 1946. The seat of the Court is at the Peace Palace in The Hague (Netherlands). Of the six principal organs of the United Nations, it is the only one not located in New York (United States of America). The Court’s role is to settle, in accordance with international law, legal disputes submitted to it by States and to give advisory opinions on legal questions referred to it by authorized United Nations organs and specialized agencies.

  • International Criminal Court (ICC)

    The International Criminal Court (ICC), governed by the Rome Statute, is the first permanent, treaty based, international criminal court established to help end impunity for the perpetrators of the most serious crimes of concern to the international community. The ICC is an independent international organisation, and is not part of the United Nations system. Its seat is at The Hague in the Netherlands. Although the Court’s expenses are funded primarily by States Parties, it also receives voluntary contributions from governments, international organisations, individuals, corporations and other entities.

  • UNHCR - Amnesty Law / National Law

    Refworld is the leading source of information necessary for taking quality decisions on refugee status. Refworld contains a vast collection of reports relating to situations in countries of origin, policy documents and positions, and documents relating to international and national legal frameworks. The information has been carefully selected and compiled from UNHCR's global network of field offices, Governments, international, regional and non-governmental organizations, academic institutions and judicial bodie

  • United Nations Agreements on Human Rights

    The first Geneva Convention focuses on the rights of individuals, combatants and non-combatants, during war. It is lengthy and detailed, perhaps because human rights are rarely at such risk as during war and, in particular, involving prisoners of war or enemy captives.

  • Universal Declaration of Human Rights

    On December 10, 1948 the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights the full text of which appears in the following pages. Following this historic act the Assembly called upon all Member countries to publicize the text of the Declaration and "to cause it to be disseminated, displayed, read and expounded principally in schools and other educational institutions, without distinction based on the political status of countries or territories."

Organizations Related to Amnesty Law

  • Amnesty International

    Amnesty International is a worldwide movement of people who campaign for internationally recognized human rights for all. Our supporters are outraged by human rights abuses but inspired by hope for a better world - so we work to improve human rights through campaigning and international solidarity. We have more than 2.2 million members and subscribers in more than 150 countries and regions and we coordinate this support to act for justice on a wide range of issues.

  • Amnesty International - US

    We are people from across the world standing up for humanity and human rights. Our purpose is to protect people wherever justice, freedom, truth and dignity are denied. We investigate and expose abuses, educate and mobilize the public, and help transform societies to create a safer, more just world. We received the Nobel Peace Prize for our life-saving work.

  • Amnesty UK - Human Rights Action Centre

    The Human Rights Action Centre is a focal point for Amnesty supporters and the wider human rights community. As well as office space for staff and volunteers, the centre has public spaces available for hire by organisations working in the fields of human rights and social justice. It is an inspirational, practical and affordable space for people to come together to learn about, debate and campaign on human rights issues.

Publications Related to Amnesty Law

  • Amnesty International Human Rights and U.S. Foreign Policy: A Mandate for Leadership (1988)

    Amnesty International USA urges U.S. Government officials to accept the challenge of leadership in the promotion and protection of human rights. Amnesty International USA's 200,000 members work with Amnesty International members in over 150 other countries. We encourage the U.S. Government and elected officials to contribute to safeguarding the fundamental rights of all people. U.S. political leaders who support the standards in international human rights agreements will find that their position resonates throughout the United States and the world.

  • Amnesty International Magazine

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