Amnesty is 50 - Make a wish but don't blow the candle out

The world’s largest and best known human rights organisation is still just as vital, half a century on

Amnesty International, the world’s largest human rights organisation, is celebrating 50 years of work on 28 May 2011.

Amnesty was started in London, in 1961, when British barrister Peter Benenson read an article about two Portuguese students who had been arrested for raising a “toast to freedom”. In the 1960s, Portugal was one of the remaining European colonial powers in Africa, ruled by the authoritarian Estado Novo regime. Anti-regime conspiracies were vigorously repressed by the Portuguese state police and deemed anti-Portuguese. The simple toast was deemed insurgent and a challenge to the government and the two were sent to prison.

Benenson wrote an article entitled ‘The Forgotten Prisoners’, in which he highlighted the plight of similar prisoners who had been jailed around the world for peacefully expressing their views. In an impassioned plea, he coined the term ‘prisoner of conscience’ and called for like-minded people across the world to unite in an appeal for amnesty on their behalf. The response was immense, and within weeks Amnesty International, a coordinated movement of ordinary people standing up for justice, had been born.

Since the start, Amnesty has been a rapidly expanding organisation. In the first ten years the movement grew from a small group of volunteers in London, led by Benenson himself, to 18 national sections, with 850 groups in over 27 countries. International recognition was rapid too, and Amnesty International was granted consultative status at the United Nations in 1964 and at the Council of Europe a year later

Today Amnesty has more than three million supporters, members and activists working at the forefront of human rights issues in more than 150 countries and territories across the globe. Amnesty’s purpose is to protect people when their human rights are denied, calling for an end to the discrimination, persecution and harassment that individuals face.

As well as defending individuals, Amnesty International campaigns for an end to torture and for effective controls on the Arms. Amnesty also calls for Women's rights's rightss rights's rights's rights's rights’s rights to be respected and is increasingly working on the impact that poverty has on human rights, In addition, Amnesty has made the treatment of pro-democracy protestors in countries in the Middle East and North Africa a priority focus this year.

Priority campaigns in Amnesty’s 50th year will also include continued calls to abolish the death penalty. In 1961 only nine countries had abolished the death penalty, in 2011, 96 countries have.

Amnesty International is famous for its annual reports which document the current state of human rights in counties across the world. In 1977, Amnesty International was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for contributing to "securing the ground for freedom, for justice, and thereby also for peace in the world".

As well as providing global expertise and conducting powerful and effective campaigns on human rights, Amnesty is famed for its links to comedy and the arts. In the UK, the infamous fundraiser known as `The Secret Policeman’s Ball’ started by John Cleese and other leading comedians in the 1970s, continues to be a flagship event  for Amnesty and the organisation has attracted countless artists, comedians and celebrities over the decades who have lent their voice to Amnesty’s campaigns.

Kate Allen, Director of Amnesty International UK, said:

“Half a century on, the same feelings of outrage which moved Amnesty’s founding members to act against injustice are still proving to be powerful catalysts for our millions of members and supporters.

“The principle on which Amnesty was started, that it is better to light a candle, than to curse the darkness, continues to resonate across the globe and down the years.

“We have had so many successes over the five decades; holding countless governments, individuals and corporations to account; enhancing awareness, understanding and access to human rights across the world; and making a real difference to the lives of people who are persecuted and victimised, but there is still much to be done.

“Amnesty has played an important role in reporting on and documenting the treatment of activists in countries across the Middle East and North Africa recently and we continue to play a vital role in the volatile situation in that part of the world.

“I have just returned from Egypt where Amnesty is working to ensure that human rights remain at the centre of calls for reform and in particular that Women's rights's rightss rights's rights's rights's rights’s rights are not marginalised in the wake of the mass protests and during the transition to a democratic state there.

“Amongst other work, we will also be calling for increased protection and support for Women's rights's rightss rights's rights's rights's rights and girls in Nicaragua where rape and sexual abuse are widespread, demanding an end to the use of the death penalty in Belarus, insisting on the right to freedom of expression and ensuring that international justice is done in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“If the bad news is the world still needs Amnesty, the good news is Amnesty is going strong.”

  • Find out more about Amnesty at 50

View latest press releases