When Amnesty International was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977, I felt as though I had played a small part. I was one of the thousands around the world who wrote letters on behalf of prisoners of conscience, prompted by Amnesty International. At that time, I never knew about Peter Benenson, the founder of the group. He lit candles of hope for thousands of prisoners and victims of torture—but didn’t spend time shining light on himself in the process. Now, it’s time to write Benenson back into the pages of our history books.
Founder of Amnesty International
The candle burns not for us, but for all those whom we failed to rescue from prison, who were shot on the way to prison, who were tortured, who were kidnapped, whodisappeared.That is what the candle is for.
How many times have you read a small news item about an injustice, felt a momentary pang, but then swiftly moved on with your life? One man, Peter Benenson, changed the world by not moving on from the small story he had just read. Instead, he turned his anger from the reported injustice into a creative new strategy that mobilized millions to save tens of thousands of lives.
Benenson was born Peter James Henry Solomon but later took his mother’s maiden name to honor his grandfather. He attended privileged schools in Britain and trained as a barrister. In 1957, he joined with a group of British lawyers to form JUSTICE, a human rights and reform organization. He also tried his hand at politics, but failed to win an election to Parliament.
The Birth of Amnesty International
In 1961 as he rode the London Underground on his daily commute, he purchased a copy of The Observer newspaper. He saw a report about the arrest of two students in Portugal during the dictatorial regime of António de Oliveira Salazar. The students’ crime was that they had raised their glasses to toast
freedom! They were sentenced to seven years in prison. Benenson was shocked at the injustice and knew he must do something.
Benenson immediately headed to the Portuguese embassy to lodge a protest, but on the way he detoured to a church. He sat inside for a long time in thought. One voice wouldn’t matter much to authorities. As he later put it,
I went in to see what could really be done effectively, to mobilize world opinion. It was necessary to think of a larger group which would harness the enthusiasm of people all over the world who were anxious to see a wider respect for human rights.
As he sat in the church, Benenson conceived the idea that would become the central practice of an organization he would found, Amnesty International.
Gathering Voices & Building a Network
The newspaper reader feels a sickening sense of impotence. Yet if these feelings of disgust could be united into common action, something effective could be done. To spur the common action he took out a full-page ad called
The Forgotten Prisoners supported by a front-page article in The Observer. He called for others to join by sending letters to the Portuguese government about the students’ case. Newspapers from other countries picked up the appeal. More than a thousand letters were written.
In order to build a network of letter writers and coordinate these campaigns, he founded Amnesty International (AI) with a group of other concerned human rights advocates. Benenson was appointed general secretary. Within a year, a dozen countries had Amnesty International groups, committed to research and action on human rights abuses, especially to end torture, end extra-judicial executions, and to bring freedom for prisoners of conscience. Cases were researched and publicized by AI along with specific steps people could take to support prisoners of conscience.
The candle burning inside a coil of barbed wire became AI’s symbol.
The candle burns not for us, but for all those whom we failed to rescue from prison, who were shot on the way to prison, who were tortured, who were kidnapped, who Benenson said.
disappeared. That is what the candle is for,
Benenson only led the group for a few years. In the mid 1960s, he stepped down from leadership, due to ill health, and by 1967 he resigned over conflict within the group’s leadership. Later, the leaders reconciled and Benenson occasionally was involved in special AI projects, but he was a humble man who never sought personal credit. Over the years, many world leaders wrote to him—and he always wrote back turning the subject to human rights issues they should address. He was especially outspoken in telling British officials that if they wanted to honor his work, they should address abuses in the UK.
Legacy & Organization Success
From that day when Benenson was seized by the story of two prisoners of conscience—and thought of a way to respond—the organization he founded has grown to one of the largest civil society movements in history. There are nearly 3 million members of Amnesty International with chapters formed in more than 60 countries. Some 45,000 cases that Amnesty has pursued have been successfully resolved, drawing a flood of thankful letters from former prisoners of conscience and victims of torture. This work has helped create an international climate in which torture has now been officially banned, though it is still practiced by many countries in one form or another. The International Criminal Court has been established to bring some of the worst systematic offenders to justice. At AI’s 40th anniversary, Benenson said:
Only then, when the last prisoner of conscience has been freed, when the last torture chamber has been closed, when the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a reality for the world’s people, will our work be done.