Amnesty in the UK marks 50 years of human rights campaigning

By staff writers
May 28, 2011

Supporters of Amnesty International in Britain and across the world are marking the NGO's 50th birthday, and pledging to continue the struggle for human rights.

This morning (28 May 2011) the agency declared: "Amnesty International celebrates 50 years of standing up for human rights. We celebrate the thousands of political prisoners released. The lives spared as more countries have abolished the death penalty. The murderers and torturers brought to justice because of the International Criminal Court for which we campaigned. The letters written, petitions signed and people brought together across the world as one man’s idea grew into a global movement of three million people."

A news report on two Portuguese students imprisoned simply for raising their glasses in a “toast to freedom” was the event that gave rise to the doyen human rights organisation in 1961.

British lawyer Peter Benenson was outraged by the story, and resolved to turn his concern into action. He wrote an article called 'The Forgotten Prisoners', which was first published in The Observer newspaper on Sunday 28 May 1961. It was reproduced around the world.

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. Very rapidly, Amnesty became truly international.

In 1962, the NGO was officially named Amnesty International. Since then, what began as a small band of volunteers based in London has grown to a global movement of more than 3 million committed supporters, members and activists with 18 national sections and 850 groups in over 27 countries. The AI message has also reached many millions more.

Marking the 50th anniversary, the organisation's UK blog says: "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."

* Amnesty UK:

* Amnesty worldwide:

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