Amnesty International Is Founded Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Reading of the imprisonment of two Portuguese students who toasted freedom, an English lawyer was inspired to found Amnesty International, the world’s largest human rights organization.

Summary of Event

In the fall of 1960, Peter Benenson read a news item while on a London-bound train. There was nothing unusual about the item; in fact, it was a “routine” report of a human rights violation. Two Portuguese students had been sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment by the military dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar Salazar, António de Oliveira for raising their glasses in a toast “to freedom” at a restaurant. Salazar had exercised power since 1932 in Portugal in a manner typical of dictatorships—repressing democracy and human rights. What was unusual was that Benenson, a wealthy and successful English lawyer, decided at that moment that ordinary citizens must find some effective way to raise their collective voices on behalf of these students and the thousands of others like them who were imprisoned for the peaceful exercise of their human rights. Amnesty International Human rights;Nongovernmental organizations Nongovernmental organizations Appeal for Amnesty, 1961[Appeal for Amnesty, Nineteen sixty one] [kw]Amnesty International Is Founded (May 28, 1961) Amnesty International Human rights;Nongovernmental organizations Nongovernmental organizations Appeal for Amnesty, 1961[Appeal for Amnesty, Nineteen sixty one] [g]Europe;May 28, 1961: Amnesty International Is Founded[06950] [g]United Kingdom;May 28, 1961: Amnesty International Is Founded[06950] [c]Human rights;May 28, 1961: Amnesty International Is Founded[06950] [c]Organizations and institutions;May 28, 1961: Amnesty International Is Founded[06950] Benenson, Peter Baker, Eric MacBride, Seán

Benenson, who had already founded Justice Justice (organization) , an organization of British lawyers working on behalf of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, immediately began discussing his idea with Eric Baker, a prominent British Quaker, and Louis Blom-Cooper Blom-Cooper, Louis , an internationally prominent lawyer. Through Benenson’s friendship with David Astor Astor, David , editor of the liberal London Sunday newspaper The Observer, they were given free editorial space on May 28, 1961, to launch a campaign called Appeal for Amnesty, 1961. The date, Trinity Sunday, was deliberately chosen by Benenson, a Roman Catholic (of Jewish ancestry). To open a newspaper any day of the week, Benenson wrote in the article “The Forgotten Prisoners,” "Forgotten Prisoners, The" (Benenson)[Forgotten Prisoners] is to read of someone imprisoned, tortured, or executed because “his opinions or religion are unacceptable to his government.” The article, immediately reprinted in major newspapers around the world, identified eight “forgotten prisoners.”

Among the eight prisoners was Agostinho Neto Neto, Agostinho , a poet and one of few Angolan physicians, who later became the first president of Angola. Three religious leaders were also included: the Reverend Ashton Jones, an American imprisoned for his involvement in the Civil Rights movement; Archbishop Josef Beran of Prague, previously imprisoned by the Nazis; and Cardinal Mindszenty, primate of Hungary. The other political activists who peacefully criticized or organized opposition to their governments were Constantin Noica, a Romanian philosopher; Patrick Duncan, a white South African; Tony Abiaticlos, a Greek communist and trade unionist; and Antonio Amat, a Spanish lawyer.

If the “sickening sense of impotence” most readers feel “could be united into common action,” Benenson concluded, “something effective could be done.” He therefore proposed the creation of a Threes Network. Each group of human rights activists would adopt three prisoners—one each from the West, the Communist bloc, and developing nations. Their strategy would be to write letters to the prisoners, comfort their families, and harass the governments that imprisoned them. This scheme later evolved into Amnesty’s Prisoner of Conscience program. At Benenson’s request, British artist Diana Redhouse Redhouse, Diana designed a logo that would become the internationally recognized Amnesty symbol, a candle encircled by barbed wire. She created it as an illustration of the aphorism, “It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.”

The response was tremendous. Within six months of the Appeal for Amnesty, 1961, Amnesty International emerged as a permanent organization coordinating the Adoption Groups for prisoners of conscience that sprang up throughout Western Europe. (Amnesty defines “prisoners of conscience” as those detained for their beliefs, color, sex, ethnic origin, language, religion, sexual orientation who have neither used nor advocated violence.) In addition to demanding the immediate release of all prisoners of conscience, Amnesty’s official mandate also included two other points: the prompt and fair trial of all political prisoners and the absolute prohibition of the use of torture or the death penalty.

Although Amnesty was on its way to becoming the 1977 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize as the world’s largest and best-known human rights organization, it nearly collapsed in its early years from internal conflict. A crisis was instigated in 1966 by Benenson, who had long considered it a serious problem that Amnesty was not based in a neutral country. Few in Amnesty shared this concern. Benenson was suspicious that British intelligence and Central Intelligence Agency money had compromised the organization. When a strongly critical Amnesty report on British activities in Aden (Yemen) was delayed, Benenson himself released the report. He then asked longtime friend Seán MacBride, chair of Amnesty’s executive committee, to authorize and oversee an investigation.

The inquiry, however, led to Benenson’s ouster. Apparently without the knowledge of London headquarters, Benenson himself had taken money from the British government for the purpose, he later explained, of aiding the families of prisoners of conscience in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). This was regarded in MacBride’s report as one of the many examples of Benenson’s one-person rule, which was characterized by his reliance on personal connections, haphazard organization, and sloppy record keeping. The result, according to MacBride (who earned both the Lenin Peace Prize and the Nobel Peace Prize), Nobel Peace Prize;Seán MacBride[MacBride] was a tendency of Benenson to act through “unilateral initiatives” which resulted in “erratic actions.”

Benenson’s resignation was accepted, and his position of president was abolished. Eric Baker, one of the organizers of the initial Appeal for Amnesty, 1961, acted as interim secretary-general for a year. Baker took the organization from the edge of self-destruction to a stable and professional organizational foundation. Martin Ennals Ennals, Martin followed up Baker’s critical stabilization with twelve years of sustained growth and the crystallization of Amnesty’s international reputation for credibility, impartiality, and accuracy. His tenure as secretary-general was highlighted by the organization’s attainment of the Nobel Peace Prize Nobel Peace Prize;Amnesty International in 1977.

The international organizational structure is based in Amnesty’s London headquarters, which verifies all information and authorizes all campaigns. London headquarters collects and analyzes information from newspaper accounts, journal articles, governmental bulletins, reports from lawyers and human rights organizations, and prisoners themselves. Fact-finding missions by leading experts are also used to investigate and gather evidence. Amnesty notes in every publication its responsibility for the accuracy of all information and states its willingness to correct any errors. It rigorously maintains ideological neutrality and does not accept money from governments. Perhaps its most well-known and widely used work is Amnesty International Reports Amnesty International Reports (periodical) (published annually), which reviews the human rights record of every country in the world. In it, Amnesty does not rank governments but reviews each country’s record, discussing specific individuals about whom Amnesty has verified information.

Amnesty’s growth has been remarkable. At the close of its first decade following the Appeal for Amnesty, 1961, Amnesty had generated one thousand Adoption Groups in 28 countries. By the time it received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977, this had grown to more than 165,000 active members in more than one hundred countries. By the early twenty-first century, Amnesty claimed more than 1.8 million members in 150 countries.

Despite the welcome crumbling of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War at the close of the 1980’s, Amnesty noted that two out of three people in the world still lived in the nearly 130 countries of the world that imprisoned unjustly, tortured, or killed their own citizens. Therefore, the work begun in 1961 continued with a thirtieth birthday campaign on behalf of thirty prisoners of conscience whose fate Amnesty pledged to publicize until all were released.


A new attention to human rights violations by the international community followed in the aftermath of the public exposure of the terrible atrocities committed during World War II, especially those committed in the name of Nazism. The Nuremberg Trials, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the numerous treaties that followed were all aimed at eroding the state sanctuary of “domestic jurisdiction.”

Because human rights have honorific status, states unfailingly posture as champions of human rights. For example, virtually all states endorse the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Governments, however, often suppress human rights to stay in power. As Amnesty noted in its twenty-fifth anniversary celebration, this leaves a wide gap between commitment and reality. Because of this hypocrisy, nongovernmental human rights organizations such as Amnesty International have a crucial role to play.

Perhaps the most significant and poignant confirmation of Amnesty’s impact is that more than thirty-eight thousand individuals for whom Amnesty worked between 1961 and 1991 were released. A released prisoner of conscience from the Dominican Republic testified to Amnesty’s effectiveness when he said,

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 his superior. The letters kept coming and 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 Human rights;Nongovernmental organizations Nongovernmental organizations Appeal for Amnesty, 1961[Appeal for Amnesty, Nineteen sixty one]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Clark, Ann Marie. Diplomacy of Conscience: Amnesty International and Changing Human Rights Norms. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001. Detailed, scholarly history of the organization and its impact on international law. Bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Drinan, Robert. Cry of the Oppressed: History and Hope of the Human Rights Revolution. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987. Good general introduction to human rights, including the Nuremberg Trials, United Nations efforts, and American foreign policy. The chapter on nongovernmental human rights organizations focuses on Amnesty. The author was part of an Amnesty mission to Argentina in 1976. Index and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hopgood, Stephen. Keepers of the Flame: Understanding Amnesty International. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2006. Outlines the human rights practices of Amnesty International. Includes the chapter “Telling the Truth About Suffering.” Bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Larsen, Egon. A Flame in Barbed Wire: The Amnesty International Story. New York: W. W. Norton, 1979. An accessible, anecdotal presentation of the history of Amnesty International, including its origins, torture in various countries, the death penalty debate, the stories of numerous individual prisoners, and evaluations of Amnesty’s work. Index, no bibliography, many illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Power, Jonathan. Amnesty International: The Human Rights Story. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981. Excellent coverage of the founding and development of Amnesty International, including its attainment of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977. Describes Amnesty’s mandate, organizational arrangements, and campaigns on torture, the death penalty, and children. The records of the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China, Nicaragua, and Guatemala are examined. Controversies are frankly discussed. Many illustrations; no index or bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Like Water on Stone: The Story of Amnesty International. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2001. A thorough account of the history of the organization. Chapters examine human rights violations in places such as Guatemala, Nigeria, Argentina, Germany, and China.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stephenson, Thomas. “Working for Human Rights.” Bulletin of Atomic Scientists 37 (August/September, 1981): 54-56. Good general description of Amnesty. The author gives an excellent picture of the work of an Adoption Group by explaining his own and its work on behalf of prisoners in Guatemala and Romania.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Youssoufi, Abderrahman. “The Role of Non-Governmental Organizations in the Campaign Against Violations of Human Rights, Apartheid, and Racism.” In Violations of Human Rights. Paris: UNESCO, 1984. Good background on nongovernmental human rights organizations. The author explains what they are and how they operate. Offers concrete discussions of their activities on behalf of human rights, using Amnesty as an illustration. Appendixes include the final report of a U.N.-sponsored conference on individual and collective action to stop human rights violations.

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European Convention on Human Rights Is Signed

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United Nations Adopts the Declaration of the Rights of the Child

British Parliament Abolishes the Death Penalty

United Nations Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Is Adopted

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Cassin Is Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize

Categories: History