Amnesty International Regarding Romanian Children

By Betsy M. Meredith

Amnesty International Regarding Romanian Children

Throughout the 1990s, photos in newspapers and television broadcasts revealed the atrocities in Romanian orphanages. Many of us have cringed and attempted to erase the images from our minds. However, while the images can fade in our memory, the problem still exists. Romania has a track record of human rights violations, including the abuse and neglect of the nation’s children, which includes the enormous orphan population. How has Amnesty International (AI) assisted with this challenge? AI has, in fact, had a voice and has spoken for those children who cannot speak for themselves. By doing so, the international community has taken notice of the human rights violations in Romania and has put pressure on them to raise their standards. This pressure has been especially important considering Romania has aspirations of joining the European Union in 2007.

To understand the challenge that Romania, AI, and the international community as a whole, encounters in addressing the challenge with orphans, it is important to understand the dilemma in historical context. The explanation to the vast orphan problem is revealed by looking at the totalitarian rule of Nicolae Ceausescu during the era of communism. The large orphan population is “a direct result of his insistence that women under the age of 45 have at least five children, coupled with his ban on contraception and abortion” (Kisslinger 2002). In addition to this, “families were given monetary incentives upon the birth of each new child, and families with more than four children would receive 500 lei per month, about one-fifth of low income workers’ monthly salaries, for each new child” (Klingman 1998, 73 as read in Glowviczki 2004, 117). Why was Ceausescu encouraging, even requiring, women to have so many children? 

The dictator was focused on spreading communism and he believed the way to do it was by increasing the Romanian population. Ceausescu’s goal was increasing a “communist population of Romania to 30 million by the year 2000” (White 2003). It is not difficult to surmise that many families were unable to care for their children and, as a result, placed them in orphanages. The government seized the opportunity to acquire the children and, “Ceausescu created state-run orphanages to house the excess children. His aim was to draft these children into the army when they reached adulthood, in order to bolster Romania's military force” (White 2003). What were the lasting consequences, of the implementation of this plan, after the fall of communism in the state?
 Had Nicolae Ceausescu continued to rule, he would have discovered that his plan to use children, raised in the government orphanages, for military purposes was a flawed plan. Ceausescu’s plan would have failed and international organizations such as AI still take issue with Romania’s human rights record pertaining to children, including the orphan population. The reason for both of these points is the fact that the orphans were exposed to horrid conditions. In one aspect, Ceausescu was successful. He did, in fact, increase the population in Romania. Sadly, after the dictator’s death, “experts estimated that between 100,000 and 300,000 children lived in these baby homes or orphanages for the school-aged or in institutions for persons considered to be irrecuperable” (Romanian encyclopedia.adoption.com).  These children were not taken care of and in fact lived in deplorable conditions. “No consideration was ever given to the developmental needs of the children” (Kisslinger 2002). Tanya Kissinger, a volunteer caregiver, reports that the orphanages were filled with “malnourished children, most under the age of three, many covered in bedsores, lying on urine-soaked cots in steel cribs”. She goes on to say the many of these children had not learned to “walk or talk”, and “significant numbers were dying of infectious diseases” (Kissinger 2002). Regarding disease, many orphaned and abandoned children have acquired the HIV virus. According to Human Rights Watch, they discovered “in 1990 that doctors forbidden to acquire medical information from outside the country had carried out a practice of giving small blood transfusions to children to “strengthen” them” (Children hrw.org). These conditions were certainly not acceptable if the goal was to raise a strong, healthy army. When the conditions of these orphanages surfaced, a horrified international community including NGO’s (non-governmental organizations) like Human Rights Watch, and AI, took notice.

In order to understand AI’s role in this situation, it is important to grasp what Amnesty International’s mission is, what they do and how they are connected to IGOs (intergovernmental organizations). AI, founded in 1961, “is a worldwide movement of people who campaign for internationally recognized human rights” (About amnesty.org).  Karen Mingst, an international relations expert, points out that AI has been involved in human rights awareness through “its letter-writing campaigns on behalf of victims of human rights violations” (Mingst 2001, 241). The organization’s website goes on to say that “AI’s vision is of a world in which every person enjoys all of the human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights standards” (About amnesty.org). These rights, according to Amnesty, extend to all individuals in society, including children. Amnesty, while they can assist in making the world aware of human rights violations, as an NGO, they have no real power to enforce change. It is Amnesty’s marriage with IGOs, such as the United Nations (UN) and the European Union (EU), that allow their campaigns to have an impact.
 When it comes to the promotion of human rights; IGOs and NGOs need each other. According to one source, there is a “complementarity of IGOs and NGOs in the issue-area of human rights on the three dimensions of norm-generating, monitoring and enforcement” (Diehl 2001, 366). In analyzing this unique relationship, there are a few key advantages and disadvantages that, on some level, forces the interdependence on each other for the furtherance of human rights standards. The UN has repeatedly set standards for human rights through various declarations and conventions pertaining to the topic. “Only the United Nations as an all-embracing IGO can create new rules by such means as legally binding conventions” (Diehl 2001, 376). Amnesty, has no power to enforce desired standards, however, they are
”better able to investigate human rights abuses at the grass root level” (Diehl 2001, 376). Amnesty, unlike the UN, is an impartial reporter of facts, and this, plus its cost-effectiveness, makes it the better of the two in the area of monitoring state’s behavior. The UN, however, is crucial to Amnesty because this liaison gives them “a wider audience and on a broader platform” (Diehl 2001, 384) than they would otherwise have.  Amnesty’s importance and relationship with IGOs will further be discussed when addressing the continued challenge with human rights violations pertaining to children in Romania.

In my work researching the global orphan situation, to date, the first individual country that pops into the majority of people’s minds when I say “orphan,” is Romania. This is due to the fact that after the thumb of Ceausescu’s rule was lifted after his death in 1989, information began to circulate regarding the atrocities in orphanages and the world began to listen. While it is difficult to track how the information initially made it to the west, it is evident that both the media and organizations such as Amnesty played a role in informing the public. Tom Jarriel, a correspondent for ABC’s 20/20, did a “series of nine pieces” from “1990 to 2001 that chronicled the wretched living conditions in Romanian orphanages” (Johnson 2002). As a result of this information being released, American’s and others began to rescue these children through adoption. Regarding Amnesty International, the founder, Peter Benneson, himself took notice. After his recent passing, many acknowledged his involvement in assisting these kids. “Peter Benneson never gave up campaigning for a better world”. One article went on to say that “in the early 1990s, he organized help for the orphans of Ceausescu’s Romania” (McFadden,  2005). While it was not Amnesty alone that brought the information to the surface regarding this situation, Amnesty has had an ongoing role in reporting the human rights abuses that Romania has continued to have throughout the 1990s and now, into the 21st century. One such example is Amnesty’s reporting of abuse in the psychiatric hospitals, which does in fact have a link to the orphan situation.

The plight of despair for Ceausescu’s orphans does not end when the children grow into adulthood. AI has consistently called for changes in Romanian psychiatric hospitals. This organization has stated that “the placement and treatment of many psychiatric patients violate international human rights and best professional practice” (Lungescu 2004). How does that apply to orphans? While the number of children in state orphanages and institutions has decreased, AI has pointed out that some of the children “are simply transferred to psychiatric hospitals, where they are left to languish for the rest of their lives” (Lungescu 2004). Clearly, this is an example of AI’s role in bringing information to the surface and not allowing governments to circumvent human rights standards or shove the violations under the carpet.

Amnesty’s role with Romanian children has not stopped with the ill-treatment of orphans. Amnesty has made significant strides to be a voice for children in general. In their 2004 report on Romania, they specifically raised concerns regarding the countries mistreatment of children. There were several allegations, which if they were proven to be true, “would represent a violation of Romania’s international treaty obligations including the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment” (Romania amnestyusa.org). According to the report, AI is also “concerned about the government’s failure to carry out impartial investigations into complaints of ill-treatment of children and to bring justice to those responsible” (Romania amnestyusa.org). After discussing numerous examples of police abuse, Amnesty made several recommendations.

AI not only reported the violations, but offered recommendations to the Romanian government.

The following is a list of the suggestions:
 “Amnesty International once again urges the Romanian authorities:


  • To ensure that impartial and thorough investigations are conducted immediately into all    reported cases of ill-treatment or torture of children in accordance with Article 12 of the    United  Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading    Treatment or  Punishment;
  • To make public full reports of the investigations and bring to justice anyone suspected    of having committed torture or ill-treatment against children;
  • To ensure that a parent is notified of the child's whereabouts and that a lawyer or an    appropriate person is present when a child is being interviewed by law enforcement    officials or a prosecutor;
  • To ensure that no child is deprived of his or her liberty unlawfully or arbitrarily;
  • To ensure that police officers are introduced and trained according to international    standards on juvenile justice;
  • In order to prevent ill-treatment, to ensure that the rights of children are adhered to    from the onset of custody. These include:
    • The right to be informed of the reasons for arrest;
    • The right to be interviewed only in the presence of a lawyer or an appropriate person;
    • The right to notify a relative or another appropriate person of the fact of arrest or detention and  place of confinement;
    • The right of access to a doctor and the right to receive adequate medical care”    

(Romania amnestyusa.org)

Whether or not Romania follows AI’s suggestions on this matter remains to be seen. However, if  their goal is to integrate with the European community, by gaining membership in the EU, it  would be in their best interest to follow the advice on this matter, as well as heed the suggestions  by Amnesty in regards to other human rights violations.
 Critics of AI and other NGO’s often minimize their significance. Those who view the world through the realist lens take issue with the relevance of IGOs or NGOs and their “causes”. They do not believe that anyone, including an international organization has power over a state. International organizations can be used for soft power type of issues and/or the collective action activities that the state does not want to bother with. On a power scale, the realist does not see an international organization as especially powerful. Realists, because they believe that the state is at the very top of the international hierarchy, don’t believe that international organizations can act on their own. They also believe less powerful states can use international organizations to further their interest so long as it does not start infringing on the rights of the more powerful states. (Berg 2005). While it is true that an NGO such as Amnesty cannot act on its own, critics, like the extreme realist, have a difficult time rationalizing the impact that AI and other NGOs have had, especially pertaining to Romania’s failing human rights record and its importance to the state’s credibility on an international level.

Despite the criticism, however, evidence shows that organizations such as Amnesty do have an impact on state’s behavior. It is important to reiterate the point that Amnesty, acting alone, would have a great difficulty doing anything about their findings in Romania or any country. However, because of AI’s marriage with IGOs such as the United Nations and the European Union, they are making a difference and the critics need to take notice. The most pertinent example is Romania’s quest for EU membership and the challenges that they are encountering.

As of April 13, 2005, Romania, along with Bulgaria has been given the “thumbs up” to join the EU in 2007. However, the journey to this point has not been and is not guaranteed. In the case of Romania, part of the issues still at hand is the human rights violations that AI has exposed.  Less than a year ago, a BBC correspondent stated that “AI has called for an urgent reform of psychiatric hospitals in Romania” (Lungescu 2004). The same day that Onan Lungescu made that statement; the Irish section of AI had this to say: “Amnesty pointed out that the EU has apparently failed to take account of the many young adults from institutions which were closed down, who ended up being inappropriately transferred to psychiatric hospitals” (Urgent amnesty.ie). Although not all residence of these institutions were formerly orphanage residents, some, in fact, were and this report was “a new blow to Romania’s hopes for joining the EU in 2007” (Lungescu 2004). These statements were made in 2004, prior to Romania being voted into the EU, however, the concerns still exist and reforms are still being requested.

Regarding the 2007 expansion of the EU, “Romania and Bulgaria must deliver on key reforms”, said Olli Rehn, the EU Enlargement Commissioner. He goes on to say that the EU will not “hesitate to use safeguard clauses. The agreement must be conditional. If they fall too far behind, accession may be delayed” (Bulgaria cnn.com). Although there are other concerns, in addition to the human rights violations, they certainly factor into the equation and AI has had a hand in that. This situation is a perfect example of the fact that AI has made a difference and can, despite the realist’s belief about NGOs, impact a state’s behavior and influence the international community.

In sum, Nicolae Ceausescu left orphans in his country in atrocious situations. These situations are still so prevalent that, a over a decade after his death, the international community is still attempting to remedy the problem.  Amnesty International has been one of the most influential voices in the global world as they speak out about human rights. They did not hesitate in helping the orphans in the 1990s as the world watched and became aware of the truth of the dictators plan. The have continued to speak out for orphans and children in Romania as well as speak out about the violations in psychiatric wards, whose residents include adult orphans who have unjustly been placed in these institutions. Amnesty has worked with IGOs and, as a result, their voice has had an impact. This impact has been so great that there is still a question about whether or not Romania will be accepted into the EU. Amnesty has won multiple awards since its humble beginnings in 1961 and, based on what I have read regarding their work in Romania, the awards are well deserved.

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