B is for Peter Benenson: Giving Birth To Amnesty International

Peter found his own way to maintain the positive spirit in people. He was travelling on the London Underground one day in the autumn of 1960 when his eye caught an article in the newspaper.

He was shocked to read that the Portuguese Government had jailed two students to seven years in prison for drinking a toast to freedom. A lawyer by profession, Peter decided to help them.

His original idea soon developed to include prisoners of conscience languishing in cells around the world. He created what many politicians found to be an irritating but necessary organisation, Amnesty International.

Writing in his book The Nobel Peace Prize, Irwin Abrams describes how Peter hunted for sponsors and, in May 1961, published an article in The Observer.

Headed The Forgotten Prisoners, it drew attention to people imprisoned for their beliefs and launched an Appeal for Amnesty 1961. The article began:

Open your newspaper any day of the week and you will find a report from somewhere in the world of someone being imprisoned, tortured or executed because his opinions are unacceptable to his government.

The forgotten prisoners

Peter did not start by building a big organisation. He encouraged small groups of people to adopt two or three prisoners and write letters asking for their release.

They aimed ‘to light a candle in the darkness’ surrounding the prisoners.


Did it work? In the first 25 years of its existence, Amnesty campaigned for over 30,000 prisoners, over which 25,000 were released. A labour organiser in the Dominican Republic wrote:

When the first two hundred letters came, the guards gave me back my clothes. 

Then the next two hundred letters came, and the prison director came to see me. 

When the next pile of letters arrived, the director got in touch with their superior.

The letters kept coming: three thousand of them. The President was informed.

The letters still kept arriving, and the President called the prison and told them to let me go.

Amnesty International continues to court controversy. But it still aims to bring hope by lighting a candle in the darkness.



Be Sociable, Share!

1 comment to B is for Peter Benenson: Giving Birth To Amnesty International

  • The Amnesty International report criticising the Ukrainian army for endangering its citizens’ lives misses the crucial point entirely. The Ukrainians are only taking whatever action they can to defend their citizens against the brutal and criminal invasion by Russia of its towns and villages. Peter Benenson would be turning in his grave at such a report bearing the name of Amnesty International, as would my father Ion Ratiu who was the proposer of the first ever Amnesty Intl prisoner of conscience, a Romanian priest – a report vigorously defended by Amnesty INTL’s Secretary General Agnes Callamard, but completely rejected by the Ukrainian head of Amnesty International. Tragically Amnesty International has brought shame on its name and history. Worse still the position it has taken has been massively and instantaneously exploited by Putin and those who speak for him

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>