60 Years of Amnesty International: How the world’s biggest human rights campaign was founded through one newspaper article

Picture of By Hannah Bock

By Hannah Bock

With more than 10 million followers from more than 150 countries, Amnesty International will turn 60 years old in July this year. Their fight against human rights abuse involves multiple campaigns, such as opposing arms trade, censorship, freedom of expression, and child labour. The organisation is independent of any government whose actions are not motivated by political faction, ideology, economic interest, or religious creed. The movement was founded by the British lawyer Peter Benenson (1921-2005) in 1961, and its origin story is yet again proof of the power of the written word and the media’s influence on the public.

One day in 1960, Peter Benenson stumbled across a newspaper article about two Portuguese students who were arrested and sent to prison for seven years simply because they publicly raised a toast to freedom in a bar in Lisbon. As a bit of historical context, Portugal was a corporatist authoritarian government at the time, and the nation was ruled by dictator Antonio de Oliveira Salazaar. Citizens were supposed to respect and follow strict rules, and any individual initiative was prohibited. 

Utterly agitated by the terrible fate of these two students, Benenson started walking through the city of London until he eventually arrived at the St. Martin-in-the-Fields church in which he entered. He was in the hopes of coming up with the idea that would help him mobilise the public against the act of injustice that the students had to face. Initially, Benenson’s idea was to go to the Portuguese Embassy in London and protest in person. However, he came to the conclusion that such an action would not do much for the students, as its impact might not be powerful enough to actually encourage change. 

Not long after, the 39-year old lawyer decided to write a newspaper article to raise awareness about the topic published on the 28th May 1961 by the British newspaper « The Observer.» In his life-changing piece, Benenson urged every one of his readers to put pressure on the government and plead for the release of political prisoners in a one-year long campaign. On the front page, he put six different pictures, each containing a political prisoner (some of them being philosophers, doctors, and poets) who had previously criticised their government and had been punished. The response to his article was so overwhelming that it even reached people that lived beyond the borders of the United Kingdom. Hundreds of people answered Benenson’s public plea and wrote letters to multiple governments all across the world, demanding justice and fairness. Owing to this large-scale level of commitment towards the issue, the first political prisoners were released from their cells soon after. Hence, «The Forgotten Prisoners,» Benenson’s significant article, became the foundation stone for the human rights movement. With this global rescue mission, Benenson officially founded the campaign in July of that same year with some other fellow campaigners.

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 or religion are unacceptable to his government. There are several million such people in prison – by no means all of them behind the Iron and Bamboo Curtains – and their numbers are growing. The newspaper reader feels a sickening sense of impotence. Yet if these feelings of disgust all over the world could be united into common action, something effective could be done. (Peter Benenson, “The Forgotten Prisoners”)

Despite Peter Benenson’s death in 2005, his idea of freedom and justice continues to exist and serves as a reminder that each and every one of us has the power, possibilities, and abilities to make our voices heard. Like so, the story of Amnesty International remains one of the many examples showing how the media can contribute to meaningful socially structural change. It also motivates or encourages the public to stand up for what they believe is morally valuable, whether that is the maintenance of equity, gender equality, or the fight against racism.


Cover: Amnesty International Canada

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