50 years: the Amnesty story
“Yet if these feelings of disgust all over the world could be united into common action, something effective could be done.” Peter Benenson
'It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.' Chinese proverb
May 1961. Elvis Presley is on the radio. Spurs fans are celebrating topping the football league. President Kennedy announces plans to put a man on the moon.
And one man is outraged by a news report on two Portuguese students imprisoned simply for raising their glasses in a “toast to freedom”. Amnesty International is born.
Because that man, British lawyer Peter Benenson, resolved to turn his outrage into action. He wrote an article called The Forgotten Prisoners which was first published in The Observer on 28 May 1961 and reproduced around the world.
In it Benenson highlighted cases like that of the Portuguese students, coining the phrase ‘prisoner of conscience’. He called for like-minded people to unite in an ‘appeal for amnesty’ on their behalf – and readers responded to that call.
Amnesty becomes truly international
In 1962, we were officially named Amnesty International. And since then, what began as a small band of volunteers based in London has grown to a global movement of over three million supporters with a presence in 61 countries, from Algeria to Venezuela.
We have written letters, signed petitions, issued urgent actions, demonstrated outside courtrooms and embassies, launched hard-hitting media campaigns and lobbied officials directly. More recently, we have embraced the opportunities offered by social media and mobile communications.
As the world has changed, so have we. But our objective – to protect people when their rights are denied, and end discrimination, persecution and harassment – has remained constant. See the faces of some of the individuals helped by Amnesty in this beautiful video featuring the banners produced for our 50th anniversary AGM.
In the 1970s, we held the first Secret Policeman’s Ball here in the UK, featuring the likes of John Cleese and Monty Python, Eric Clapton and Peter Gabriel. In the 1980s we broadened our remit to include work on refugees and human rights education.
In 1991 we decided to broaden our scope further to promote all rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in 2001 we began to work on economic, social and cultural rights, paving the way for global campaigns on maternal mortality, slums and corporate accountability.
You can explore key moments in our history on the interactive timeline below.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s birthday wish
For fifty years, we have shone a light on human rights abuses that previously went unseen and unpunished and we will continue to do so. But as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, possibly the world’s most famous prisoners of conscience, said in her birthday message to us:
“I wish, on this 50th anniversary of Amnesty International, that its work will continue to be so successful, that there will no longer be any need for such an organisation.
“So I hope that we shall be able to cooperate together to bring about this sad, this happy day when Amnesty International no longer needs to carry on its work.”
Aung San Suu Kyi
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.