Peter Benenson, the British lawyer who founded the human rights organization Amnesty International with his stated goal “to condemn persecution regardless of where it occurs or what are the ideas suppressed,” has died. He was 83.
Benenson died Friday night at John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, England, of pneumonia, Amnesty International USA spokesperson Wende Gozan said Saturday. Benenson had been in ill health for several years.
With a social conscience developed in early childhood, he laid the foundation for Amnesty International in 1961 after becoming incensed over an article he read about the imprisonment of two students in Portugal. The youths were sentenced to seven years after their arrest at a Lisbon cafe for drinking a toast to liberation from then-dictator Antonio Salazar.
Benenson set off for the Portuguese Embassy in London to protest, but suddenly decided to get off the subway at Trafalgar Square and went inside the church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields to think.
“I went in to see what could really be done effectively, to mobilize world opinion,” he told his friend and former Amnesty International spokesman Richard Reoch, according to a statement issued Saturday by Reoch. “It was necessary to think of a larger group which would harness the enthusiasm of people all over the world who were anxious to see a wider respect for human rights.”
Envisioning a massive letter-writing campaign to officials of Portugal and other repressive authorities at the time, Benenson wrote an article, “The Forgotten Prisoners,” published by London’s Observer newspaper May 28, 1961. He described the imprisonment of the two Portuguese students and four others in other nations for their beliefs.
“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,” the article said. “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.”
The article was the opening salvo in what was seen as a yearlong Appeal for Amnesty urging supporters to write letters urging the release of “prisoners of conscience,” a term Benenson coined that would become an international rallying cry.
The one-year effort became permanent, initially attracting thousands of international letter-writers eager to enforce the largely ignored 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Benenson and his followers not only wrote letters, but they also traveled internationally to investigate cases and make publicized direct appeals for the release of prisoners. Initially, Benenson personally provided most of the organization’s funding, went on research trips and handled much of the administration.
In observance of the organization’s 25th anniversary, he lighted a symbolic candle outside St. Martin-in-the-Fields. The logo for Amnesty International is a candle surrounded by barbed wire.
“The candle burns not for us,” he said on that anniversary in words now prevalent on posters and T-shirts displayed around the world in several languages, “but for all those whom we failed to rescue from prisons, who were shot on the way to prison, who were tortured, who were kidnapped, who ‘disappeared.’ That’s what the candle is for.”
London-based Amnesty International, which received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977, has grown to 1.8 million members in more than 64 countries.
The organization -- which spawned similar groups, including Human Rights Watch and Global Witness -- has fought repressive governments and politicians, worked to verify and stamp out torture, opposed the death penalty and criticized the current war in Iraq.
“Peter Benenson’s life was a courageous testament to his visionary commitment to fight injustice around the world,” Irene Khan, Amnesty International secretary general, said in a statement issued Saturday in London. “He brought light into the darkness of prisons, the horror of torture chambers and tragedy of death camps around the world. This was a man whose conscience shone in a cruel and terrifying world, who believed in the power of ordinary people to bring about extraordinary change and, by creating Amnesty International, he gave each of us the opportunity to make a difference.”
Born in England on July 31, 1921, to a British army colonel and his wife, Benenson was tutored privately by poet W.H. Auden before enrolling at Eton. He waged his first campaign for human rights -- specifically for better food -- in grammar school. At 16 he organized school support for orphans of the Spanish Civil War, and he later raised money to transport two young Jews from Hitler’s Germany to Britain.
Benenson studied history at Oxford, and joined the British army during World War II, working in the Ministry of Information press office and then in code breaking. At war’s end, he passed the bar and soon was recognized as a leading member of Britain’s Society of Labour Lawyers.
In the decade preceding his founding of Amnesty International, Benenson served as official observer of trade unionists’ trials in Spain, advised Greek Cypriot lawyers defending clients against British officials and persuaded the British government to send observers to Hungary during the 1956 uprising and to South Africa during a treason trial. His efforts led to the founding of Justice, a Britain-based organization for legal and human rights.
Benenson had celiac disease, which impairs absorption of food in the intestines and leads to malnutrition, and founded an organization for others with the disease. In the 1980s he served as chairman of the then-new Assn. of Christians Against Torture, and in the 1990s he worked to rescue Romanian orphans.
Modest and unassuming, Benenson repeatedly rejected knighthoods, Reoch said, telling officials who proffered them that if they wished to acknowledge his work for human rights, they should redress remaining abuses in Britain.
Benenson is survived by his wife, Susan; their son and daughter; and two daughters from a previous marriage.
Amnesty International will hold a public memorial service at a later date.