In 1961, a British lawyer named Peter Benenson (1921 – 2005) learned that two Portuguese students had been sentenced to seven years in prison for raising a toast to freedom in a Lisbon bar. Horrified and outraged, Benenson published an article entitled “The Forgotten Prisoners” in the British newspaper The Observer on May 28 that year. He asked readers to write letters to Portuguese officials demanding the students’ release. The article unleashed a wave of support for the students and other prisoners of conscience.
Benenson launched his campaign, Appeal for Amnesty 1961, to protest against the authorities’ indifference to “forgotten prisoners” – men and women imprisoned for their political or religious beliefs. Within a month, more than 1,000 readers had sent letters of support, offers of practical help and details about many more prisoners of conscience. Within six months, a brief publicity effort was being developed into a permanent, international movement. Within a year, the new organisation had sent delegations to four countries to make representations on behalf of prisoners, and it had taken up 210 cases. Its members had organised national bodies in seven countries. That was how Amnesty International was born. In 1977, the movement’s efforts were recognised by the award of the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1978, it was honoured with a United Nations Human Rights Prize.
It can be said that Amnesty International started its campaign in 1961 with a newspaper article about two prisoners of conscience. More than 50 years later, even when Amnesty International is dealing with atrocities on a massive scale, it still tries to describe the lives and fates of individual victims in its reports. In this way, it aims to depict the individual human suffering that lies behind the headline statistics.
Today, Amnesty International is the world’s largest human rights organisation, with a global network of members and supporters. At the latest count, there were more than 7 million members, supporters and subscribers in over 155 countries and territories in every region. Although they come from many different backgrounds and have widely differing political and religious beliefs, they are united by a determination to work for the world in which everyone enjoys human rights.