The history of Amnesty International

Amnesty International began with one man’s outrage and his courage to do something about it. After learning of two Portuguese students imprisoned for raising a toast to freedom in 1961, British lawyer Peter Benenson published an article, “The Forgotten Prisoners” in the Observer newspaper.

That article launched the “Appeal for Amnesty 1961”, a worldwide campaign that provoked a remarkable response. Reprinted in newspapers across the world, his call to action resonated with the values and aspirations of people everywhere. This was the genesis of Amnesty International.

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The 1960s

1961

British lawyer Peter Benenson launches a worldwide campaign, “Appeal for Amnesty 1961”, with the publication of an article in the Observer newspaper. The article, “The Forgotten Prisoners”, is written after he learns of two Portuguese students who were imprisoned for raising a toast to freedom. Reprinted in newspapers across the world, his appeal marks the beginning of Amnesty International.

The first international meeting is held in July, with delegates from Belgium, the UK, France, Germany, Ireland, Switzerland and the USA. They decide to establish "a permanent international movement in defence of freedom of opinion and religion".

A small office and library, staffed by volunteers, opens in Peter Benenson’s chambers in Mitre Court, London. The “Threes Network” is established, through which each Amnesty International group adopts three prisoners from contrasting geographical and political areas, emphasizing the impartiality of the group's work.

On Human Rights Day, 10 December, the first Amnesty International candle – which would become the organization’s iconic symbol – is lit in the church of St-Martin-in-the-Fields, London. 

 

1962

In January, the first research trip is undertaken, to Ghana.  This is followed by visits to Czechoslovakia (on behalf of prisoner of conscience Archbishop Josef Beran), Portugal and East Germany.

The Prisoner of Conscience Fund is established to provide relief to prisoners and their families.

Amnesty International’s first annual report gives details of activities so far: 210 prisoners of conscience have been adopted by 70 groups in seven countries; 1,200 cases are documented in the Prisoners of Conscience Library.

An observer is sent to attend the trial of Nelson Mandela.

Amnesty International groups are started in Australia, Belgium, Denmark, Greece, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, and the USA. At a conference in Belgium, all the groups decide to set up a permanent organization that will be known as “Amnesty International”.

A new section is set up in Ireland. 

 

1963

Sean MacBride, Irish human rights advocate, is elected Chair of Amnesty International’s newly established International Executive Committee, the organization’s most senior governing body.

The International Council meeting takes place in Konigswinter, West Germany.

Amnesty International now comprises 350 groups. The two-year total includes 770 prisoners adopted and 140 released. The International Secretariat (the Amnesty International headquarters) is established in London. A Research Bureau, consisting of volunteers, is established to prepare background papers on political imprisonment in individual countries.

Ukrainian Archbishop Josyf Slipyi, who was sent 7,000 cards by Amnesty International members, is released from prison in Siberia.

 

1964

At an International Council meeting in Canterbury, UK, Amnesty International debates and rejects the proposal to recognize as prisoners of conscience people who use or advocate the use of force in opposing oppressive regimes. This means people like Nelson Mandela are not recognized as prisoners of conscience, although campaigns continue against the inhumane conditions of his imprisonment.

At the same meeting, Peter Benenson, who had been secretary to the International Executive Committee, is named President of Amnesty International. The first iconic Amnesty International candle design is unveiled.

A three-year total of 1,367 prisoners have been adopted and 329 released. There are now 360 Amnesty International groups in 14 countries. New sections are established in Denmark, Israel, Norway and Sweden.

The UN grants Amnesty International consultative status. 

 

1965

Amnesty International issues its first reports – on prison conditions in East Germany, Paraguay, Portugal, Rhodesia, South Africa and Romania – and sponsors a resolution at the UN to suspend and finally abolish the death penalty for peacetime political offences.

The monthly Postcards for Prisoners campaign starts. 

 

1966

Following resistance in the USA to military service in Vietnam, Amnesty International gives prisoner of conscience status to all who refuse to fight in wars.

Peter Benenson gives up his day-to-day involvement with Amnesty International and Eric Baker takes over the running of the organization.

There are now 1,500 prisoners adopted, and 1,000 released since Amnesty International was founded.

New sections are established in India and the USA. 

 

1967

Fearing that intervention could jeopardize a prisoner’s chance of release, Amnesty International refrains from adopting prisoners of conscience in China.

There are 550 groups in 18 countries, and Amnesty International is working for nearly 2,000 prisoners in 63 countries – 293 prisoners have been released.

New sections are established in Finland and New Zealand. The International Secretariat moves to offices in Turnagain Lane, London. 

 

1968

Amnesty International announces its opposition to the death penalty for political prisoners.

The first Prisoner of Conscience Week is observed in November.

Martin Ennals is appointed Secretary General. 

 

1969

In January, UNESCO grants Amnesty International consultative status as the organization reaches another milestone – 2,000 prisoners of conscience released.

The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination is adopted. 

 

The 1970s 

1970

There are now 850 groups in 27 countries; 520 prisoners are released during the year.

 

1971

Amnesty International’s 10th anniversary receives widespread publicity in international press, radio and television, in a year when 700 prisoners are released. 

New sections are established in Bangladesh, Mexico and South Korea.

“When the first letter came it was like something from another planet” - Marina Aidova, speaking to Amnesty International in 2006 about the letter-writing campaign to release her father, Slava Aidov. A prisoner of conscience, Slava Aidov was arrested in 1966 for attempting to obtain a printing press and printing leaflets denouncing the Soviet regime. He was released in 1971. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Marina Aidova went to Newbury in the UK to visit the couple who had sent her father his first postcard in prison.

1972

Amnesty International launches its first worldwide campaign for the abolition of torture. 

 

1973

The first full Urgent Action is issued, on behalf of Professor Luiz Basilio Rossi, a Brazilian who was arrested for political reasons. Luiz himself believed that Amnesty International's appeals were crucial: "I knew that my case had become public, I knew they could no longer kill me. Then the pressure on me decreased and conditions improved."

The new regime in Chile agrees to allow a three-person Amnesty International visit for an on-the-spot probe into allegations of massive violations of human rights.

Amnesty International holds its World Conference for the Abolition of Torture in Paris. The conference produces a large number of recommendations and proposals for future action. The UN unanimously approves the Amnesty International-inspired resolution formally denouncing torture. 

 

1974

Amnesty International’s Sean McBride, Chair of the International Executive Committee, is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of his lifelong work for human rights.

On the first anniversary of Chile's military coup, Amnesty International publishes a report exposing political oppression, executions and torture under the regime of President Augusto Pinochet.

Mümtaz Soysal of Turkey becomes the first former prisoner of conscience to be elected to the International Executive Committee. 

 

1975

The UN unanimously adopts a Declaration on Torture, as campaigned for by Amnesty International.

There are now 1,592 groups in 33 countries and more than 70,000 members in 65 countries. 

 

1976

A worldwide campaign against torture in Uruguay is launched.

In November, Amnesty International lists 167 trade unionists as imprisoned in 16 countries.

The first Secret Policeman's Ball fundraising event in London features John Cleese and Monty Python, Peter Cook and other comedians. The series continues in later years with musicians such as Peter Gabriel, Duran Duran, Mark Knopfler, Bob Geldolf, Eric Clapton and Phil Collins, paving the way for benefits such as Live Aid.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights enter into force. Together they are known as the International Bill of Rights. 

 

1977

Amnesty International is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for "having contributed to securing the ground for freedom, for justice, and thereby also for peace in the world".

The Stockholm Conference calls on all governments to “bring about the immediate and total abolition of the death penalty”.

This year’s major campaign is for prisoners of conscience. Joan Miró, Elisabeth Frink, Alexander Calder and Roland Torper are among the artists who create posters for the campaign. 

 

1978

Amnesty International wins the UN Human Rights Prize for "outstanding contributions in the field of human rights". 

 

1979

Amnesty International starts working against political killings.

Amnesty International publishes a list of 2,665 cases of people known to have disappeared in Argentina following Jorge Videla’s military coup. This is the first time that Amnesty International has dealt with such a huge number of cases on one country.

 

The 1980s

1980

Amnesty International launches the first campaign against the death penalty.

Thomas Hammarberg is appointed Secretary General. 

 

1981

Amnesty International launches its Disappearance campaign. It now numbers over 250,000 members, subscribers and supporters in more than 150 countries or territories.

A candle-lighting ceremony is held in London to mark Amnesty International’s 20th anniversary. 

 

1982

On 10 December, Human Rights Day, Amnesty International launches an appeal for a universal amnesty for all prisoners of conscience and collects more than 1 million signatures to deliver to the UN.

Amnesty International condemns and opposes laws and practices of apartheid, and reaffirms its opposition to inhumane treatment of people because of their sexuality.

 

1983

Amnesty International launches a campaign against political killings and disappearances.  

 

1984

Amnesty International launches a second campaign against torture, which includes a 12-point plan for the abolition of torture.  

 

1985

Amnesty International publishes its first educational pack: Teaching and Learning about Human Rights.

The International Council meeting in Helsinki, Finland, decides to broaden Amnesty International’s Statute to include work for refugees.

There are now more than half a million members, supporters and subscribers. 

 

1986

Amnesty International marks its 25th anniversary with Voices for Freedom, an anthology reflecting the lives of people who fought for human rights and for whom the organization has worked.

Amnesty International USA launches the Conspiracy of Hope concert tour with U2, Fela Kuti, Sting, Peter Gabriel, Lou Reed, the Neville Brothers and others.

Ian Martin is appointed Secretary General. 

“My father, Fela Kuti, was released from prison [in Nigeria] in 1986 after Amnesty International took him on as a prisoner of conscience. So I am one of the thousands of people whose life has been directly affected by Amnesty’s work. Please support Amnesty by taking action for those whose freedom of expression has been taken away from them.” - Message from Fela Kuti’s son Femi to the audience at the opening of the show “Fela!” in London, UK.

 

1987

Amnesty International launches a report stating that the death penalty in the USA is racially biased, arbitrary and violates treaties such as the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment enters into force. 

 

1988

The Human Rights Now! tour begins in London to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Artists include Bruce Springsteen, Tracy Chapman, Youssou N’dour and Sting. The tour visits 19 cities in 15 countries in Africa, the Americas, Asia and Europe and is viewed by millions when broadcast on Human Rights Day. As a direct result, Amnesty International membership rises in many countries.

A new section is established in Tunisia. 

 

1989

Amnesty International launches a new campaign against the death penalty with a major report, When the state kills: The death penalty v. human rights.



The 1990s

1990

Amnesty International’s Urgent Action on torture and extrajudicial executions in Brazil receives an immediate response from President Fernando Collor, who says “We cannot and will not again be a country citied as violent.”

There are 700,000 members in 150 countries and more than 6,000 volunteer groups in 70 countries.
New sections are founded in Sierra Leone and Hungary. 

 

1991

On Amnesty International’s 30th anniversary it broadens its scope to cover work on abuses by armed groups, hostage-taking and people imprisoned for their sexual orientation.

After political change in eastern and central Europe, more than 40 Amnesty International groups are set up in every country of the region. New sections are founded in Argentina, Mauritius and the Philippines. 

“in Mikuyu prison where I was, no letters were allowed, no newspapers were allowed, no radio was allowed... For some strange reason somebody in Holland sent me a postcard. And for some strange reason that postcard arrived... the postcard said in Dutch, ‘greetings from Holland’”. - Jack Mapanje, who was detained by the Malawian authorities from 1987 to 1991 for writing poetry critical of President Kamuzu Banda’s government. He was released following intense public pressure from around the world.


1992

Amnesty International calls for an end to centuries of human rights abuses against Indigenous people.

Membership passes the 1 million mark, with 6,000 local groups in over 70 countries.

Pierre Sané is appointed Secretary General.

A new section is established in Algeria. 

 

1993

Amnesty International launches The Lives Behind the Lies, an international campaign on political killings, disappearances and extrajudicial executions.

Amnesty International activists demonstrate at the UN World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, and display Urgent Actions from around the world.

Vera Chirwa, Africa’s longest-serving prisoner of conscience, is released after more than 11 years in prison. Convicted of treason on fabricated charges, she was abducted from Zambia by Malawian agents in 1981. “Every day of freedom is like a miracle to me. If it had not been for Amnesty International, I would not be standing before you today,” she says. 

 

1994

Amnesty International launches a major campaign on women's rights, Human Rights are Women’s Rights, and a worldwide campaign against disappearances and political killings.

A new section is established in Benin. 

 

1995

Amnesty International launches the campaign Stop the Torture Trade. 

 

1996

Amnesty International campaigns for a permanent International Criminal Court, which was later adopted by the UN General Assembly in July 1998.

Prescription for Change, a campaign on the role of health professionals in exposing human rights violations, is launched. 

 

1997

Amnesty International launches Respect Refugees!, an international campaign for refugees’ rights. Analysis of executions of prisoners in the USA shows that a black person convicted of killlings a white person is 15 times more likely to be executed than a black person convicted of killing a black person.

 

1998

Amnesty International launches the “Get Up, Sign Up!” campaign to mark the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, collecting 13 million pledges of support.

The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court is adopted in July.

A concert is held in Paris on Human Rights Day featuring Bruce Springsteen, Tracey Chapman, Youssou N'Dour, Peter Gabriel and others, with special appearances by the Dalai Lama and international human rights activists.  

 

1999

Amnesty International broadens its scope to work on the impact of economic relations on human rights; empowering human rights defenders; campaigning against impunity; enhancing work to protect refugees; and strengthening grassroots activism.

The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women is adopted, meaning the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women can receive and consider complaints from individuals or groups.

Amnesty International and five other international NGOs launch the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers.

 

2000-present day

2000

Amnesty International launches Stamp Out Torture, its third campaign against torture. This is Amnesty International’s first digital campaign, winning The Revolution Awards 2001, for “best use of email”. 

 

2001

In its 40th anniversary year, Amnesty International changes its Statute to incorporate economic, social and cultural rights, thus committing itself to advance both the universality and indivisibility of all human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Amnesty International has covered more than 47,000 cases – only 2,000 are still open. Irene Khan is appointed Secretary General. The International Council meeting is held in Dakar, Senegal. 

 

2002

Amnesty International is granted access to Myanmar for the first time after years of requests, and to Sudan for the first time in 19 years. The organization visits Israel and the Occupied Territories and reports evidence of war crimes in the West Bank city of Jenin.

The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict is adopted (the Convention on the Rights of the Child itself having been adopted in 1959).

The 60th ratification of the Rome Statute paves the way for the International Criminal Court to come into force on 1 July 2002. 

Work begins to combat torture used in the US-led “war on terror”.

 

2003

Amnesty International, Oxfam and the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA) launch the global Control Arms campaign to demand an international arms trade treaty.

Amnesty International is allowed to visit Iraq for the first time in 20 years.

Amnesty International’s Ambassador of Conscience Award is established; the first one goes to Vaclav Havel, former President of the Czech Republic.

 

2004

The global Stop Violence Against Women campaign is launched. At the International AIDS Conference in Bangkok, Thailand, Amnesty International calls for respect for the human rights of those living with HIV/AIDS.

 

2005

Amnesty International is the world's largest independent human rights organization with over 2 million members and many more supporters worldwide. In the age of the “war on terror”, the campaign against torture has a specific aim, to “counter terror with justice”.

Amnesty International launches the Make Some Noise campaign – music, celebration and action in support of its work. Yoko Ono gives Amnesty International the recording rights to Imagine and John Lennon's entire solo songbook.

Peter Benenson, Amnesty International's founder, dies aged 83. 

 

2006

Amnesty International’s report, Partners in crime: Europe’s role in US renditions, details the involvement of European states in US flights used to secretly seize and imprison terror suspects without due process. Amnesty International launches an emergency campaign to highlight the situation in Sudan’s Darfur region, calling for a robust peacekeeping response from the UN.

The millionth person to post a picture of himself on the Control Arms Million Faces web petition calling for an Arms Trade Treaty presents the petition to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. A further quarter of a million people sign the petition before the year is out.

Amnesty International and its partners in the Control Arms campaign achieve a major victory when the UN votes overwhelmingly to start work towards an International Arms Trade Treaty.

 

2007

Amnesty International launches a global petition calling on Sudan’s government to protect civilians in Darfur, and produces a CD, Make Some Noise: The Campaign to Save Darfur, featuring 30 internationally known musicians to mobilize support.

Following intense campaigning by Amnesty International and its partners in the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, the UN adopts the first-ever resolution calling for a global moratorium on the use of the death penalty.

Nelson Mandela accepts the Ambassador of Conscience Award and congratulates Amnesty International for making the struggle against poverty its focus for the coming years. 

Amnesty International organizes worldwide protests against five years of unlawful detentions in Guantánamo Bay.

“I owe my life to Amnesty International. Now I am dedicating that life to campaigning against the death penalty and raising awareness about human rights.” – Hafez Ibrahim of Yemen, who received a stay of execution in 2007 after an Urgent Action appeal by Amnesty International. He was later pardoned and released, and studied law at Sana’s University.

2008

The Beijing Olympics campaign provides an opportunity to review China’s human rights record and assess China’s progress at the end of the year. The campaign includes specific requests to free Hu Jia, a prisoner of conscience and winner of European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize. It also calls for China to reduce the number of capital crimes and to publish the number of executions each year.
Amnesty International's global campaign for girls' education is launched on International Women's Day.

The Stop Violence Against Women campaign starts 16 days of activism across the world. 

Amnesty International marks the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with a series of events and publication culminating in a global “Fire Up” celebration on Human Rights Day (10 December).

 

2009

Amnesty International launches the Demand Dignity campaign, focusing on maternal mortality, slums, corporate accountability and making rights law. The organization calls on the multinational Shell to end the abuses resulting from its oil operations in the Niger Delta in Nigeria. Campaign themes are based on the Millennium Development Goals of 2000, and show how far the targets are from completion.

As part of the Demand Dignity campaign, Amnesty International organizes a caravan across Sierra Leone with activists, musicians and a drama group to engage with local communities, including in rural areas, about the high level of maternal mortality in the country. The campaign takes hold in Sierra Leone and across the world, and leads to the government introducing policies for free maternal health care.

Prisoner of conscience Daw Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar receives the Ambassadors of Conscience Award.

Amnesty International is now a global movement of more than 2.2 million people in over 150 countries. 

 

2010

In a landmark victory for Indigenous rights and corporate accountability, the Indian government rejects plans by multinational corporation Vedanta to mine bauxite in the Niyamgiri Hills, eastern India. The decision follows years of campaigning by the Dongria Kondh and other Indigenous communities who described the proposed mining project as a threat to their very existence. Amnesty International’s damning report, Don’t mine us out of existence, forms the basis for this decision.

Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s best-known prisoner of conscience, is released from house arrest in November.

Salil Shetty is appointed Secretary General.

There are now more than 3 million members in over 150 countries. 

“For me, knowing that all of the Amnesty supporters were out there, mentioning his name, collecting signatures, holding up posters and simply thinking about him, was a great strength to help me carry on. you made a difference.” - Ronnate Tissainayagam, wife of Sri Lankan journalist and prisoner of conscience J.S. Tissainayagam who was freed in June 2010 following a sustained letter-writing campaign by Amnesty International members.

 

2011

Amnesty International researchers visit countries in the Middle East and North Africa to document the repression of pro-democracy protest and make concrete proposals for human rights change.

Amnesty International launches its 50th anniversary celebrations with a toast to freedom, recalling the defining moment of its inception. Global actions run throughout the year focusing on the death penalty, freedom of expression, reproductive rights, international justice and stopping corporate abuse.

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