On May 28, 1961, a letter written by Peter Benenson, a British lawyer, was published in The Observer. Reportedly, he was moved to write the letter after hearing about two students in Portugal who were arrested and sentenced to seven years in prison; their crime? Toasting freedom. At the time, Portugal was still under the control of the dictatorial, corporatist, and brutally repressive Estado Novo. Titled “The Forgotten Prisoners,” Benenson’s letter describes a class of political prisoners—he calls them “prisoners of conscience:” “Any person who is physically restrained (by imprisonment or otherwise) from expressing (in any form of words or symbols) an opinion which he honestly holds and which does not advocate or condone personal violence”—and outlines an initiative that would, shortly thereafter, become the foundation for the creation of Amnesty International.
Today, we celebrate the anniversary of the publication of that letter and its launching one of the longest running and most influential non-governmental organizations working to protect human rights. Starting in a small London office, writers, lawyers, and publishers rolled out an Amnesty Campaign, the goal of which was to start collecting information on political prisoners around the world—working under the premise laid out by John Dewey who “once said, ‘If you want to establish some conception of a society, go find out who is in gaol’”—and initiating publicity campaigns to pressure governments to release prisoners of conscience. In the fifty-six years since that beginning as a volunteer project, Amnesty International’s membership is now in the millions and those members hail from over one hundred and fifty nations.
Its campaigns have also grown. Amnesty International’s campaigns have moved beyond advocating the release of political prisoners, encompassing more and broader issues that threaten the rights of people worldwide: torture, refugee rights, capital punishment, police brutality, reproductive freedom, corporate violations of human rights, and advocating for human rights in the face of many of the draconian laws and policies instituted since 2001 as anti-terrorism security measures. As the organization has grown, so has its impact. The NGO’s impact has been recognized on the international stage, receiving the Nobel Peace Prize and the United Nations Prize in the Field of Human Rights.
Though not without controversy—particularly around what are seen as questionable associations—, Amnesty International has had tremendous success in mobilizing grassroots, public responses to human rights violations. That success is largely thanks to the skill with which they engage in publicity campaigns (CN: images of violence, torture, execution). Utilizing as many mediums as are available, Amnesty International engages with and educates folks and, then, gives them the tools to act on their newfound knowledge.
Content Note: depictions of extraordinary rendition, torture, violence
So, today, on the fifty-sixth anniversary of its publication, let us sit down and take time with these words: “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.” That these words are still true over five decades later is a sad fact, but not an immutable one. That fact can be changed so long as we continue to engage, continue to empower and defend one another. I hope you will join me in rededicating ourselves to one another—hop in on Write for Rights or maybe just start looking for ways to engage in more productive conversations about issues like police brutality. Whatever form it takes—whether or not it is through Amnesty International—, it is important to bear in mind that we are all in this together and that, however impotent we may feel, we are not powerless.
Content Note: depictions of violence, repression, police violence
Happy Amnesty International Day! And “[n]ever forget that justice is what love looks like in public.”