Home > Essays > Amnesty International: Myth and Reality
Published: Mon Oct 15 2001
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, El Fracoso de los Texeles / The Failure of the Church Women (detail), 2004, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
Amnesty International: Myth and Reality

During the second half of the 1950s, as Peter Benenson was developing the ideas that would lead him to found Amnesty International, the Cold War was intensifying throughout the world. The United States, Western European countries, and the Soviet Union competed for international dominance in trade, weapons, and politics. In their former colonies and spheres of influence, the industrialized nations of Europe sought to maintain and perpetuate their control through indirect means. The United States sought to dominate the new nations through treaties, defense agreements, trade pacts, covert actions, propaganda offensives, and armed intervention. The Soviet Union established its control over neighboring states through force of arms and installation of friendly regimes, while waging worldwide ideological warfare. The new communist regime in China, the world’s largest nation, intervened in the Korean War, and that country became an “outlaw state” for the next two decades.

At the same time, the world’s major powers conducted trials of war criminals for crimes against humanity, established the United Nations, and signed a series of international declarations and agreements guaranteeing human rights. In 1948 the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was promulgated. Yet the signers of these agreements continued to commit systematic human rights abuses against their own peoples. These violations included abridging freedom of religion, assembly, expression, and association; imprisoning political opponents without warrant or trial; conducting unfair trials; using torture to force confessions; executing political prisoners; exiling and “banning” political opponents; and many others.

It was in response to these realities that Amnesty International came into existence.


The Creation Myth

Amnesty’s “creation myth” goes like this: One day in late 1960, Peter Benenson was reading the Daily Telegraph in the London tube when he saw a brief article about two Portuguese students who had been arrested for making a toast to freedom in a Lisbon bar. As Benenson told the story:

This news item produced a righteous indignation in me that transcended normal bounds. At Trafalgar Square Station I got out of the train and went straight into the Church of St. Martin’s in the Fields. There I sat and pondered on the situation. I felt like marching down to the Portuguese Embassy to make an immediate protest, but what would have been the use? Walking up the Strand towards the Temple my mind dwelt on World Refugee Year, the first of those years dedicated to international action. What a success it had been! The DP [displaced person] camps in Europe had been finally emptied. Could not the same thing be done for the inmates of concentration camps? I speculated. What about a World Year against political imprisonment?

In May 1961, Benenson published an article, “The Forgotten Prisoners,” in the London Observer. According to the myth, thousands of people responded, and Benenson set up Amnesty International. Soon its members were writing so many letters to heads of state and other officials that political prisoners were being released all over the world. A member designed the organization’s logo, a candle circled by barbed wire. Amnesty International became the world’s largest, most successful, and most influential human rights organization, winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977. Amnesty’s members commemorate the circumstances of its founding by ending every annual general meeting with a “toast to freedom.”

This story lacks only a happy ending: Forty years after Amnesty’s founding, governments throughout the world continue to violate human rights, often on a massive scale.

The creation myth does have a large kernel of truth, but the real story of Amnesty’s beginning is much more complicated and drawn out. The difficulties, twists, and turns of its founding and early years are reminiscent of its precursors’ experiences during the previous two centuries. The goals and strategies its originators developed owe much to earlier campaigns and organizations. Whether unconsciously or deliberately, they were responding or reacting to earlier successes and failures by recreating old structures or inventing new ones.

The immediate impetus to form Amnesty did come from Peter Benenson’s righteous indignation while reading a newspaper in the London tube on November 19, 1960. But more than twenty years of involvement in civil liberties initiatives led Benenson to that moment of angry inspiration. And he was not alone in his effort. Without the active collaboration and participation of Benenson’s “fierce legion of friends,” Amnesty International would not have come into being.


Amnesty’s Ancestors

Even before Peter Benenson’s birth in 1922, some direct precursors of Amnesty International were operating. In 1907, British and American anarchists founded the Anarchist Red Cross (ARC) to send funds and letters to anarchist political prisoners in Russia. They arranged for lawyers to defend the prisoners in court and even sent them false identity papers.

The ARC had branches in Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia, and other U.S. cities as well as an office in London. Its New York center’s sixty to seventy members met weekly. The organization raised funds by sponsoring social events such as dances. Avrich says the ARC lasted until 1917, when some of its members returned to Russia to participate in the revolution there.

They, too, were persecuted and imprisoned by the new Bolshevik government. Alexander Berkman, Emma Goldman’s companion, set up a relief fund in the early 1920s for anarchist prisoners and revolutionaries in Russia and other countries.

In the wake of the American “red scare” of 1920, Roger Baldwin, founder of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and a self-proclaimed follower of Emma Goldman, set up the International Committee for Political Prisoners (ICPP). Its purpose was “to raise money for the deported aliens and to get in touch with agencies in foreign countries that could help them.”

The ICPP was much more overtly left-wing than the ACLU. For more than fifty years Baldwin (who lived to the age of ninety-six) acted as the bridge between the radical left and liberal civil libertarians in the U.S. and other countries.

Baldwin compared the ICPP to Amnesty, “but [it had] far more limited means and results. We got some prisoners out—I don’t remember how many, but we wrote a lot of letters to officials and put out a regular bulletin and irregular reports.”

After Baldwin retired from the ACLU in 1950, he focused his efforts on the International League for the Rights of Man, of which he was chair. Emile Zola had founded this organization as the Fédération des Droits de l’Homme during the Dreyfus Affair in 1902. With Baldwin gone, the ACLU became a grassroots organization. In 1949 it had 9,000 members, but by 1970 there were 250,000 members, forty-nine state affiliates, and four hundred chapters. In Baldwin’s day, only fifteen to twenty chapters had existed.

Baldwin became a close friend of Peter Benenson after World War II and helped him set up Amnesty’s U.S. Section in the early 1960s.

Peter Benenson’s personal involvement in human rights went back to the 1930s. He traced the origins of the Amnesty idea to the Spanish Civil War, which broke out when he was fifteen. At that time he read and was much affected by Arthur Koestler’s Spanish Testament on imprisonment and political execution.

Benenson was part of a privileged family. His maternal grandfather, a fabulously wealthy Russian mine owner and banker, moved to Britain and then to the U.S. just before the revolution. His father, Colonel Harold Solomon, was an official in the British colonial administration in Palestine after World War I. Solomon ran for Parliament as a Tory in 1929 but lost. He died when Peter was nine, in 1931.

A widow during the Depression, Benenson’s mother, Flora Solomon, had to work to support herself and her son. She went to work at the British department store Marks and Spencer as an administrator. During World War II she organized food distribution for the British government and won an OBE1 for her work.


The Making of an Activist

Peter Benenson attended Eton, Britain’s most prestigious private school. It was there that he became politically active. He and his classmates “adopted” orphan children in Spain during the Civil War and sent funds to a relief committee there. He left school when he was sixteen or seventeen to work for a refugee children’s group in London, finding countries to which German Jewish children could emigrate. He would go to various embassies to wangle or buy visas for the children. One of the early staff members of Amnesty, Marlys Deeds, and her brother were among the children Benenson rescued from Germany.

Benenson went to Balliol College, Oxford, then served as an army intelligence officer during the war. Afterwards he became a lawyer, though he found he was more interested in politics than in practicing law. He ran a legal advice bureau for the Labour Party in North Kensington, London, and ran for Parliament (unsuccessfully) several times in the 1950s. During all those years he was gathering hundreds of contacts in the worlds of politics, law, and journalism. These would serve him well when he organized the one-year campaign that became Amnesty.

In the 1950s the Trades Union Congress (TUC) asked Benenson to observe political trials in Spain. As a result he became interested in such trials in several countries, including Cyprus, South Africa, and Hungary. Spain was still suffering under the apparently eternal dictatorship of Franco. Cyprus was struggling to gain independence from Britain. In South Africa, the African National Congress was the target of persecution and prosecution by the apartheid government. The 1956 revolution in Hungary had briefly given many in the West hope that Eastern Europe could free itself from Soviet domination.

Benenson attended trials in Spain. After seeing the conditions of imprisonment and the situation of political prisoners’ families, he suggested that the TUC set up a Spanish Prisoners’ Defense Committee to send financial aid and food parcels to the families.

Through these activities, Benenson got to know other lawyers and organizations involved in civil liberties work. He avoided groups like the National Council of Civil Liberties, which he considered a communist front organization, and looked to the American Civil Liberties Union as a model.

At the time the ACLU was encouraging the development of the Society of Labour Lawyers in the UK. Benenson joined its executive committee. In 1956 he founded a new organization, called Justice, which became the British branch of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ).

A friend, Tom Sargant, became Justice’s executive secretary, a post he held for twenty-five years. In 1956 Benenson called Sargant and asked for his help. Benenson was trying to find lawyers from the three major political parties in Britain to observe treason trials in Hungary and South Africa. Justice grew out of this initiative; its other programs included a court ombudsman, a victim compensation scheme, and legal aid. Branches were established in Trinidad, Jamaica, four British colonies in Africa, and Hong Kong. The policy of Justice was not to work on individual cases, but Sargant did some of this kind of work “on the quiet.” With volunteers and a staff of four or fewer in the office, Sargant found such work overwhelming.

Benenson became restless and dissatisfied with the organization, which he saw as too legalistic. He wanted to be directly involved in issues such as torture that were beyond the purview of Justice. He was already “involved in all sorts of committees against torture of prisoners in Iraq and Syria and different parts of the world. . . . All this was part of my daily bread, really.”

In 1958 Benenson followed the activities of the International Refugee Year, a one-year United Nations campaign, with great interest. The next year he became seriously ill with an undiagnosed gastrointestinal disease. He retired from the bar and went to Italy to convalesce. While there, he became a Roman Catholic and pondered his future.

As his time in Italy came to an end, he decided “[i]t was necessary to form an independent, international organization that would be open to the general public.” A few weeks later he was in the London tube reading about the Portuguese students in the Daily Telegraph.


Early Collaborators

Benenson took his idea for a political prisoners’ campaign to a friend and legal colleague, Louis Blom-Cooper, the chair of the Howard League for Penal Reform, an organization dating back to the 1860s.

Like Benenson, Blom-Cooper was Jewish but not religious. His father’s family had migrated from Holland to Britain in the 1880s. As an army officer and later as a lawyer, he traveled to Africa, India, and Burma. Benenson would send him on missions for Amnesty to Sri Lanka and Pakistan.

Blom-Cooper suggested that Benenson approach the London Observer about publishing an article to launch the Amnesty campaign. Blom-Cooper was the Observer’s legal correspondent, and he went to his editor, David Astor, with the idea. Astor thought it was far-fetched.

But Astor himself had written to the Soviet ambassador about a correspondent of his who had vanished in Korea during the war, and the correspondent’s situation in prison improved as a result. So Astor had seen that the tactic could work. And Astor admired Blom-Cooper, describing him as a person who would not hesitate to stand up and speak out. The Observer had already run articles supporting campaigns, including one to abolish the death penalty in Britain, which Blom-Cooper had spearheaded.

Benenson developed the Amnesty campaign idea with another colleague, Eric Baker, a Quaker who headed the Friends Home Service Committee in London. He was general secretary of the National Peace Council and one of the founders of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Like Benenson he had a long history of involvement in social justice initiatives. As a conscientious objector during World War II, he worked on the “Starvation in Europe” campaign, raising funds to send food to the war-torn continent, educate the British public, and pressure the government.

Baker and Benenson met while working on the issue of Cyprus in the late fifties. During his stay in Italy in 1960, Benenson corresponded with Baker, sometimes about political matters but just as often about religious belief. On his return to Britain, he used Baker as a sounding board. On January 13, 1961, for example, Benenson wrote to Baker

I am working on a scheme to make this year (anniversary of U.S. Civil War and emancipation of serfs in Russia) an occasion for launching a general appeal for an Amnesty for all political prisoners everywhere. The appeal will be made on 11th November to link up with the idea of the Armistice. The Observer is offering its centre supplement on 12th November for the occasion, and I am finding a great deal of goodwill everywhere for the scheme. If you know of any people willing to undertake a little work on their own in this connection, I would be grateful.

As he organized his thoughts, Benenson kept in close touch with Baker, calling him almost every night on the telephone.

Benenson decided to compile a book of cases of political prisoners, Persecution ’61, to be published as part of the Amnesty campaign. Baker did much of the research, and Benenson later said the book would not have appeared without his help. The two gathered information on about one hundred prisoners, but the book contained the cases of just nine, from the First, Second, and Third Worlds.

During the first six months of 1961, Benenson and several colleagues met weekly for lunch at the White Swan, a pub near his legal chambers. There they planned the Amnesty campaign, noting their ideas on paper napkins and the backs of envelopes that still repose in Amnesty’s archives. This quaint way of doing business harkened back to early British antislavery campaigners who met regularly in taverns and coffeehouses.

Peter Archer was one of the colleagues with whom Benenson met at the White Swan. The son of a toolmaker, he became interested in politics at school. Later he was a barrister, a Methodist lay preacher, chair of the Fabian Society, a Member of Parliament, U.K. Ambassador to the United Nations, chair of Amnesty’s British Section, solicitor general in Harold Wilson’s government, and chair of the Society of Labour Lawyers. He met Benenson around 1953 and later joined Justice. His wife, Margaret, organized and managed the first local Amnesty groups. Archer became a parliamentary expert in human rights as a result of his work for Amnesty.

With this group of friends and colleagues, Benenson was defining the goals and purposes of the “Appeal for Amnesty, 1961.” At first, he had thought to call the campaign “Armistice,” linking the release of political prisoners to an armistice in the Cold War. When he wrote to Eric Baker in January 1961 he mentioned launching the campaign on November 11, Armistice Day.

As he discussed and developed the idea with others, Benenson changed some of the guiding concepts of the campaign. It would start, he decided, on Trinity Sunday, May 28, 1961. Perhaps his choice of a religious holiday had something to do with his recent conversion to Catholicism. In later years he linked the division of the world into three political blocs with the starting date of the campaign.


Launching the Appeal for Amnesty

In the spring Benenson went to Italy to write Persecution ’61 and the article, “The Forgotten Prisoners,” that would appear in the Observer on May 28. David Astor gave the article the two center pages of the paper’s Sunday supplement. It included photographs of six prisoners: Constantin Noica of Romania, Rev. Ashton Jones of the U.S., Agostinho Neto of Angola, Archbishop Beran of Czechoslovakia, Toni Ambatielos of Greece, and Cardinal Mindszenty of Hungary. Other prisoners mentioned in the article were from South Africa and Spain.

The article cites Articles 18 and 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, on freedom of thought, conscience, religion, opinion, and expression. It describes repression in Eastern and Western countries, defines the “Prisoner of Conscience,” describes the campaign’s principal aims and activities, gives several examples of prisoners’ plights, and links their persecution to larger social and political forces. Benenson concludes by drawing a parallel with the anti-slavery campaigns of the nineteenth century: “Experience shows that…governments are prepared to follow only where public opinion leads. Pressure of opinion a hundred years ago brought about the emancipation of the slaves. It is now for man to insist upon the same freedom for his mind as he has won for his body.”

The article’s central paragraph describes how the campaign would work:

The campaign, which opens to-day, is the result of an initiative by a group of lawyers, writers, and publishers in London…We have set up an office in London to collect information about the names, numbers, and conditions of what we have decided to call ‘Prisoners of Conscience,’ and we define them thus: ‘Any person who is physically restrained (by imprisonment or otherwise) from expressing (in any form of words or symbols) any opinion which he honestly holds and which does not advocate or condone personal violence.’ We also exclude those who have conspired with a foreign government to overthrow their own. Our office will from time to time hold press conferences to focus attention on Prisoners of Conscience selected impartially from different parts of the world. And it will provide factual information to any group, existing or new, in any part of the world, which decides to join in a special effort in favour of freedom of opinion or religion.

The Appeal for Amnesty had four aims, listed in a box in the middle of the article:

1. To work impartially for the release of those imprisoned for their opinions.

2. To seek for them a fair and public trial.

3. To enlarge the Right of Asylum and help political refugees to find work.

4. To urge effective international machinery to guarantee freedom of opinion.

The box also contained an announcement of a press conference whose speakers included Conservative, Labour, and Liberal Members of Parliament and gave the campaign’s mailing address (Benenson’s chambers in the Temple Bar).

Benenson and his colleagues conceived of the Appeal as a “one-off,” one-year campaign. But Benenson always had the idea that the campaign could eventually become a permanent organization.

As the creation myth claims, the public responded to “The Forgotten Prisoners” immediately, in overwhelming numbers. Thousands of people, from parliamentarians to schoolchildren, from London to Uruguay, wrote to the Appeal’s offices, sending contributions and offering to do volunteer work. Newspapers around the world reprinted “The Forgotten Prisoners,” radio broadcasts mentioned the campaign, pastors sermonized about it.


The Pioneers

Among the thousands who wrote in were several people who became intimately involved in the campaign. One of the best known was Sean MacBride, Irish revolutionary, statesman, and diplomat. MacBride had met Benenson through Justice. For several years, as secretary general of the ICJ, he had traveled to various countries, trying to persuade governments to release political prisoners. Sometime before Amnesty was formed, for example, he went to South Africa and persuaded the foreign affairs minister to release about two thousand prisoners.

MacBride came from an Irish political family. The British executed his father for his participation in the Easter Uprising of 1916, and during that era his mother spent some time in prison, as did MacBride himself—the first time when he was only fourteen. During the Irish Civil War in the early 1920s he spent a year in jail, and his cellmate was executed. MacBride’s mother helped many Irish prisoners get out of jail. He told an interviewer that she ran a campaign called “Amnesty” well before 1914.

As a diplomat and international lawyer, MacBride participated after World War II in drafting the European Declaration of Human Rights, which set up the first international body to receive individual complaints of human rights violations. As a result of these experiences, he saw the need for “a humanitarian organization that would do for political prisoners what the Red Cross did for prisoners of war.” MacBride later became chair of Amnesty’s board, lending his personal prestige to the organization at an early stage.

Another colleague who wrote to the Appeal was Neville Vincent, who had met Benenson when both were involved in Labour Party politics. He was a member of the Howard League for Penal Reform and the Society of Labour Lawyers. One of Benenson’s closest associates and advisers during Amnesty’s early days, he raised funds, recruited members, and went abroad on missions to visit political prisoners. Vincent was Amnesty’s first treasurer.

Norman Marsh, former secretary general of the ICJ, phoned Benenson at his wife’s urging after the publication of “The Forgotten Prisoners.” He had seen a draft of the article but had not been enthusiastic about the idea. He became involved in the new organization as a member of the policy committee and one of the “godfathers” who counseled Benenson at difficult moments.

Like MacBride, Marsh had traveled to several countries for ICJ, trying to persuade governments to release political prisoners. During the mid-1950s Benenson wrote to him at ICJ, urging him to take action on one issue or another.

From his own experience, Marsh understood that Benenson had decided to start Amnesty because organizations like ICJ could not cope with emergency situations or take action on behalf of individuals.

Marsh’s wife, Christel, became even more intensely involved in Amnesty than her husband. Christel Marsh was German, the daughter of a teacher and Protestant theologian. In 1939 she was arrested and interned by the Gestapo. After fleeing Germany she met and married Norman Marsh in England. The war destroyed her family in Germany. She was one of three German refugee women among Amnesty’s founding members. She was the first coordinator of the “library,” which later became Amnesty’s research department. Her job was to collect and document cases. She started with two small boxes of file cards.

At first Benenson paid a clipping service to collect news reports about political prisoners. These were often only a few lines long. Some of the early case files that Christel Marsh created can still be found in the Amnesty archives: they are little more than lists of names by country, with brief descriptions of prisoners’ occupations, reasons for imprisonment, and the source of the information. Marsh later expanded her activities to corresponding with overseas Amnesty groups. She worked at the Amnesty office from 1961 to 1973.

Keith Siviter also responded to the Observer article, but he was not a friend or colleague of Benenson. A Protestant minister, he received a telephone call on Trinity Sunday 1961 about the article from a friend and parishioner. The two visited the Appeal office in June or July and attended the first meeting of their local Amnesty group in November; 250 people came.

In 1963 Siviter’s friend joined the Amnesty staff and asked him to volunteer. He joined the staff part-time in 1966, while still a pastor. Later he resigned his ministry and went to work for Amnesty full-time. He was financial officer until 1986.

Peter Archer, an early member of the policy committee, admitted that they had no idea what to do with all the offers of help they received after the publication of the article. The answer was the “Threes.”


Threes’ Company

Apparently Benenson came up with the idea: Headquarters would send prisoners’ names and other information to local Amnesty groups, which would each work on three cases, one from each political bloc. The groups, called “Threes,” would do further research, write to officials, send relief to families and prisoners, help released prisoners gain asylum and rebuild their lives in a new country, raise funds to support the work at headquarters, and educate the public.

Headquarters sent pages of instructions to the new groups. For example, under the heading “HOW TO SET TO WORK,” one such document suggested that individuals work with other groups or start their own. Members should accept the humanitarian goals of the movement and work equally on all three cases.

Groups were told to consult with headquarters before undertaking certain actions, such as writing to prisoners’ relatives or obtaining information about their families.

It was even suggested that members go to the country where their prisoner was held to seek out relatives, though not without consulting first with the central office.

Perhaps Amnesty staff later rued having advised members to use their own initiative. The instructions concluded by asking members to desist if headquarters asked them to. These statements show an amusing but touching combination of naiveté, audacity, and astuteness. Whoever wrote them (probably Benenson) had associated with the powerful and found it possible to do business with them.

Indeed, his colleagues and friends repeatedly mentioned Benenson’s talent for making contacts. Benenson’s friends Marsh, MacBride, Archer, and Vincent also were accustomed to operating on the higher levels of government, and they may have made certain assumptions about others’ capacity to persuade rulers and bureaucrats to free prisoners. When they went on mission alone to Spain, Portugal, Czechoslovakia, Ghana, and other countries, they sometimes got their way by going directly to the top and making a personal plea for mercy.

Housewives in Eltham or university students in Sheffield had a harder time, however. Marlys Deeds, who worked directly with local groups, observed that they became discouraged when they received no replies to their letters.

In November 1961, the policy committee met to discuss the future of the Threes:

Unfortunately, so far the work of the Threes has not prospered, largely because the task set them has proved in practice almost impossibly difficult to fulfill. There are about twenty groups in Britain, anxious to do something for Amnesty, but reports indicate that most of them feel that they are not really able to make any progress. They need more help from the centre and the work involved means that in fairness this can only be done by paid central office staff.

The Threes, which had begun as part of an inspired, creative, and innovative project, Peter Benenson’s brainchild, soon became the mainspring of a bureaucratized and structured organization. This transformation should not be surprising, since apparently none of the pioneers had any previous experience organizing or participating in a grassroots group. They were making it up as they went along, discovering through trial and error just how complicated consolidating a far-flung, rapidly growing, international organization could be.

They sought, however, to make the volunteer aspect of the organization its focus.

Benenson, MacBride, and the other pioneers wanted to directly involve ordinary people around the world in the struggle for human rights. If there must be a central office, its raison d’être would be to serve the groups and individuals who would write the letters, raise the funds, and educate the public. Amnesty always billed itself as a “volunteer-run organization.” Accordingly, the pioneers tried to set up a democratic form of governance on the international level, with an elected International Executive Committee and International Council Meetings where volunteer delegates would make policy.

The reality, however, was more complicated and contradictory. A permanent tension developed between the increasingly professional headquarters and the “amateurs” who comprised the international movement that gave the organization its legitimacy and purpose.


Glorious Amateurs

In the early days, though, the Appeal for Amnesty was a kind of cottage industry that operated on a piecework basis. The office consisted of two small cellar rooms. The men and women who worked there every day communicated a vivid sense of its chaotic but productive ambience. Keith Siviter, who worked first as a volunteer, then as a staff member, reminisced:

It was very good fun. . . . [W]hen you had Peter around, you’d never had . . . a closed door. Whatever was going, it would be an open office, very much so. [There were] Library meetings, when all the staff, volunteer and paid, met on Friday lunchtimes. If there was a problem over a prisoner or a group, that was the place it was discussed. By everybody, including the telephonist. . . . There was no sense of a hierarchy and a structure and authority and all those things. Just a job to be done.

Christel Marsh, head of the “library,” recalled, “If you think how absolutely amateurish it was, it’s quite staggering. . . . We experimented all the time—trying to improve, making it more professional, quite simply because it was so terribly unprofessional.”

Marsh remained for twelve years. She told oral historian Andrew Blane that sometimes she felt that if she left, the whole operation would come to an end.

Benenson was inspiring and stimulating to be around but was not an organizer or manager by temperament. Sean MacBride complained, “The trouble with Peter was he used to keep things on bits of paper, backs of envelopes and things. . . . Peter was a marvelous ideas man . . . but when it came to the implementation of the ideas, he was . . . inexperienced or unorganized in converting them into concrete projects.”

Peggy Crane believed he did not want to create an administrative structure. She compared Benenson to a tornado. Marlys Deeds said Benenson had so many ideas that he could not set priorities. Everything had to be done immediately. She found the environment extremely stimulating but broke down in 1966 and left the organization.

Neville Vincent had a broader perspective: “It was a new movement, a bit strange and mad on the face of it. And it was not always easy, if one was being honest, to know if one was doing good, I mean bearing in mind the amount of effort involved, the amount of money, the amount of time. . . . [O]ne was imbued with more zeal because very often people came back who’d been let out of prison…and said, ‘About those postcards of yours, they kept me alive in a time of darkness.’”


The Beehive

During the Appeal’s first year, a great number of activities were going on simultaneously. Benenson did not want the organization to be only British. He went to Paris to meet with religious leaders and set up a campaign in France. He and other pioneers organized and participated in international meetings in Luxembourg and Belgium, and Benenson flew to New York to see if an American section could be established. By mid-1962 Amnesty claimed to have groups working or forming in West Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Ireland, Canada, Ceylon, Greece, Australia, the United States, New Zealand, Canada, Ghana, Israel, Mexico, Argentina, Jamaica, Malaya, Congo, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Burma, and India. Threes were at work in Australia, Britain, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States.

Marlys Deeds organized an event to take place on December 10, 1961, commemorating the anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. With the help of a public relations firm, she booked Yehudi Menuhin and Jacqueline du Pré to give a concert at St. Paul’s Cathedral. The most dramatic part of the commemoration occurred at St. Martin-in-the-Fields Church, where Benenson had meditated on the Portuguese students about a year before. Handcuffed, with a cord linking the handcuffs, Calypso singer Cy Grant and actor Julie Christie walked solemnly into the church. The Amnesty candle was used to burn through the cord, freeing the “prisoners.” After the ceremony, ex-prisoners of conscience living in exile in Britain kept vigil over the candle. To this day in Britain, many churches commemorate Human Rights Day on the Sunday closest to December 10 with a special “Amnesty service.”


Amnesty on the Ground

The candle became associated with Amnesty, and a local group member, Diana Redhouse, designed the original candle-in-barbed-wire logo in June 1961. Redhouse was Jewish and had experienced anti-Semitism at school in London and later on the job. Like some of the other Jews involved in Amnesty, she was not religious, but she did not convert to Christianity.

Strongly affected by the Observer article, she wrote to Benenson, who asked her to start a local Amnesty group. She and some others founded what she believed to be the very first Amnesty group, in Hampstead, Northwest London; she was its secretary for sixteen years.

The group started its work for a Ghanaian prisoner by raising five pounds at a “bring and buy” sale and sent the money to the prisoner’s wife. Later they wrote to the government asking for his release.

Another important early group was in Eltham, a London suburb. Dorothy Warner, its first secretary, was born in Germany to a Protestant mother and a Jewish father in 1920. Although she was baptized and educated at a convent school, she became a victim of the Nazis with the rest of her family. The Gestapo arrested her and her father, a judge, in 1944 and sent them to forced-labor camps. Both escaped after a bombing. After the war her father returned to being a judge in West Germany. Dorothy’s future husband, Henry Warner, also half-Jewish, had escaped to Britain before the war. He was posted as a British army officer to be Dorothy’s father’s clerk. She and her husband later moved to Britain.

In 1962 her pastor gave a sermon about the Portuguese students. Soon after, she formed the Eltham Amnesty group. Asked why Amnesty appealed to her, she pointed to her experiences in Germany. Warner was the only member of her church who had been a prisoner.

In the beginning, Warner and other group members would go to the Appeal office in Mitre Court and select prisoners from Christel Marsh’s card files. At one point the Eltham group was working on twenty-one prisoners’ cases.

In the early days, not all groups were as resourceful as Warner’s. Responding to their pleas and complaints, headquarters expanded the range of activities that groups could carry on locally. Newsletters from the central office suggested that groups undertake human rights education and public outreach, fundraising, recruiting new members, lobbying for adoption of human rights agreements, and helping refugees and asylum seekers.


Visions vs. Practicalities

Beneath Benenson’s idea of an international, grassroots organization lay a visionary impulse. In an unsigned paper dated June 5, 1961, he reveals his true intentions in launching the Appeal for Amnesty:

The underlying purpose of this campaign . . . is to find a common base upon which the idealists of the world can cooperate. . . . Those whom the Amnesty Appeal primarily aims to free are the men and women imprisoned by cynicism and doubt.

On a more practical level, Benenson’s report on the Appeal’s first six months recognized that its goals were very ambitious indeed. Sufficient funds were not available to maintain local groups even in one country, much less internationally. He recommended that the policy committee decide in December 1961 to continue the campaign until June 30, 1962. If they could not raise £5,000 between December 1961 and June 1962, then the operation should close down. They found the money. Their first yearly financial statement showed total income of more than £7,500.

Nonetheless, the organization was often “hard up.” This was because Benenson could not convince government officials that Am-ne sty was a charitable, humanitarian, nonpolitical organization. A 600-year-old law kept the “Prisoners of Conscience Fund,” a popular destination for contributions, separate from the Appeal’s operating budget. As a result, Neville Vincent had difficulty finding sufficient funds to run the office. Staff were sometimes reduced to conducting raffles to raise their operating expenses. Amnesty went to court several times over the years to try to change its status and release the money tied up in the POC Fund.


The Mandate

In the early days the organization’s mandate was very simple, focusing only on Articles 18 and 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the release of prisoners of conscience. There apparently was no “own-country” rule to keep members from working on cases in their own countries; that came later, in the mid-1970s. But in practice, most Threes groups were working on cases of unknown people in faraway countries.

This system had certain advantages. The causes célèbres of the past had centered on notorious members of despised social and political groups. Public campaigns could not overcome the intense animus and prejudice against the Haymarket anarchists or the Rosenbergs. Or it took many years of campaigning to change public opinion, as in the Dreyfus Affair and the Scottsboro case. Amnesty members were much quieter, eschewing polemics, writing polite personal letters about unknown people to government officials thousands of miles away. The pressure they exerted was more subtle and cumulative. They wrote as individuals on behalf of individuals, and they exercised their human rights by standing up for the human rights of others. Therein lay the brilliance of Benenson’s idea.

When Benenson proposed expanding the mandate to include torture cases and the death penalty, many raised an outcry that the additional work would dissipate their energies. This outcry would be repeated many times over the years as the mandate continued to expand.


“A Neutralist Initiative”

Another challenge of Amnesty work was cooperating (or not) with communists. The pioneers had agreed the organization would work only on cases of prisoners who had not advocated violence or carried out violent acts. This limitation excluded committed revolutionists of all sorts. They also decided not to work on espionage or treason cases, perhaps in reaction to the Rosenberg case. But in many countries, communist or communist front organizations were seeking the release of noncommunists or of people merely accused of expressing “communist” opinions. Amnesty groups tried to steer a middle course.

Amnesty members began to congratulate themselves when governments of every ideological variety accused them of being tools or agents of the enemy in the Cold War. The organization responded by continually insisting on its humanitarian, nonpolitical character and built its reputation for objectivity, accuracy, and neutrality on the work of the Threes, which took up cases from the First, Second, and Third Worlds.

This is not to say that the organization transcended the Cold War or achieved perfect impartiality. Nor did Amnesty’s determination to remain neutral keep intelligence services on all sides from trying to use or coopt the organization. Amnesty proclaimed it would not accept any funds from governments, but it was often difficult to ascertain the ultimate source of much-needed funds. Such dilemmas would become more troublesome as the organization became more effective.


Whatever Works

Recognizing that the Threes were having difficulties in working on cases, Benenson in early 1962 returned to the model of Justice and the ICJ by sending several of his colleagues abroad on rescue missions. Blom-Cooper went to Ghana to obtain information about government opponents who had been detained three years before. MacBride went to Prague to plead for the release of Archbishop Beran and other prisoners. Vincent went to Portugal to ask after five physicians who were imprisoned. An Indian lawyer, Prem Khera, went to East Germany to investigate the disappearance of a trade unionist and a forester. None of these missions, except possibly Vincent’s, resulted in releases in the short term.

The organization was careful not to claim credit when governments did let prisoners go. The first annual report pointed to “general or partial amnesties” in a dozen countries and the release of “a number of individual prisoners, on whose behalf Amnesty has intervened.”

Amnesty’s originators perceived that the international human rights movement was more than just Amnesty, but that the organization could play a crucial, timely role in shaping, directing, and mobilizing it.


Sufficient Conditions for Success

In July 1962, founding members from Britain and other countries met in Belgium and formally established Amnesty International as a permanent, international organization. Many factors enabled Amnesty to make the transition from a one-year campaign to an established entity:

- International human rights covenants provided the basis of the organization’s mission and gave it very great legitimacy.

- As one founding member put it, “The idea was beautiful.” Amnesty proclaimed itself a humanitarian, not a political, organization that focused on the relief of human suffering.

- Benenson and his colleagues had experience in civil liberties and humanitarian work, as well as carefully refined political ideals and, in some cases, religious convictions that supported their activism.

- Benenson was a classically charismatic leader around whom people of many types could rally. His followers were capable, energetic, and dedicated. His religious conversion during a serious illness seems to have reanimated him and made him a more effective and creative innovator. He also had excellent contacts among powerful sectors of British society, his professional community, and international organizations.

- Precursor organizations, from the International Committee for Political Prisoners to Justice and the International Commission of Jurists, provided models for Amnesty’s pioneers.

- An increasing number of people (especially educated women) in Britain and other countries had free time to volunteer and disposable income to donate to a compelling new cause.

- Many of the founders were social outsiders, unconventional and unafraid to take risks. They were Jews, Catholics, dissenting Protestants, German refugees, housewives, working-class—all on the margins of British public life. They created a tolerant alternative community in which they could thrive and through which they could be socially useful.

- A friendly newspaper editor gave the campaign prime space to make the greatest impact possible. The organization continued to receive positive coverage, free publicity, and considerable help from sympathetic journalists.

- The press regularly reported stories about political prisoners throughout the world, providing relatively reliable information that the organization could pass along to its volunteers.

- Local groups and staff had an improvisational and enthusiastic spirit, took bold initiatives, and worked hard. The organization was dynamic, exciting, and effective in its earliest stages.

- The central office sought the opinions of its members and responded positively to their demands by broadening its activities, increasing its support, and encouraging their activism. The pioneers tried to create a democratic form of governance.

- Socioeconomic and political conditions in a number of other countries made the growth of an international movement feasible. Amnesty’s originators had the foresight to foster this development.


Something Old, Something New

Amnesty International did not spring full-blown from Peter Benenson’s brow. The Appeal for Amnesty grew not only from his brilliant inspiration but also from the hard work and active collaboration of many others. All together, they built such a firm foundation that when Benenson’s health failed in the mid-sixties and he left the organization, it survived his departure and continued to grow.

Amnesty was a kind of culmination. Two centuries of campaigning, in many places by many thousands of people, lay behind it, waiting to be mined for ideas.

Amnesty also marks a turning point in the history of human rights: It opened up new areas, new strategies, and new constituencies. As a result, grassroots groups around the world became active and visible. The complex, dynamic, international movement for human rights, Amnesty’s offspring, sprouted in its shade and then sent out seeds of its own. Over the past forty years, this movement has burgeoned, divided, and multiplied. The old tree continues to flower, now in the midst of a forest of organizations.



Amnesty International, Archives and Oral Histories. Amsterdam: International Institute of Social History, 1961-65.
__________________. Minutes, Policy Executive Committee, February 25, 1961, typescript, Archives.
__________________. “First Notes on Organization, 5th June 1961,” typescript, Archives.
__________________. Annual Report. London, 1962.
Avrich, Paul. Anarchist Voices: An Oral History of Anarchism in America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995.
Benenson, Peter, “The Forgotten Prisoners,” The Observer, May 28: 21, 1961a.
International Committee for Political Prisoners, Letters from Russian Prisons. New York: Boni, 1925.
Larsen, Egon, A Flame in Barbed Wire: The Story of Amnesty International. New York: Norton, 1979.
Lauren, Paul G., The Evolution of International Human Rights: Visions Seen. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998.
Lawson, Peggy, Roger Baldwin: Founder of the American Civil Liberties Union. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976.
Power, Jonathan, Amnesty International. The Human Rights Story. New York: McGraw Hill, 1981.
Robson, Angela, “Founding Father,” C2: 20. London: Amnesty International, 1999.
Solomon, Flora and Barnet Litvinoff, Baku to Baker Street: The Memoirs of Flora Solomon. London: Collins, 1984.
Walker, Samuel, In Defense of American Liberties: A History of the ACLU. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1999.

See what's inside AGNI 54

Linda Rabben is an anthropologist, the Brasil specialist for Amnesty’s International Secretariat. Her article in AGNI is an abridged version of the chapter in her book Fierce Legion of Friends: A History of Human Rights Campaigns and Campaigners (Quixote Center, 2001). (updated 2001)

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