The history of Amnesty International

Ever since we started campaigning in 1961, we’ve worked around the globe to stop the abuse of human rights. We now have more than 2.2 million members, supporters and subscribers in over 150 countries and territories, in every region of the world. The following potted history highlights many of the campaigns and actions we’ve undertaken since our inception all those years ago.

The 1960s

1961 British lawyer Peter Benenson launches an Appeal for Amnesty '61 with the publication of an article, The Forgotten Prisoners, in The Observer newspaper. The imprisonment of two Portuguese students, who had raised their wine glasses in a toast to freedom, moved Benenson to write this article. It proved to be the genesis of AI and the appeal was reprinted in other papers across the world. In July, the first international meeting with delegates from Belgium, UK, France, Germany, Ireland, Switzerland and the United States decides to establish "a permanent international movement in defence of freedom of opinion and religion". An office and library, staffed by volunteers, opens in Mitre Court, London. "Threes Network" is established whereby each Amnesty International group adopted three prisoners from contrasting geographical and political areas, thus emphasizing impartiality of the group's work. On Human Rights Day, 10 December, the first Amnesty candle is lit in the church of St-Martins-in-the-Fields, London. 1962 First mission to Ghana in January, followed by Czechoslovakia in February (on behalf of a prisoner of conscience, Archbishop Josef Beran), and then to Portugal and East Germany. Prisoner of Conscience Fund established to provide relief to prisoners and their families. Release of first annual report details that 210 prisoners have now been adopted by 70 groups in seven countries and there are 1,200 cases documented in the Prisoners of Conscience Library. At a conference in Belgium, decision made to set up a permanent organization that will be known as Amnesty International. An observer attends the trial of Nelson Mandela. 1963 Amnesty International now comprises 350 groups – there’s a two-year total of 770 prisoners adopted and 140 released. The International Secretariat (Amnesty International’s headquarters) is established in London. 1964 Peter Benenson is named president. There are now 360 groups in 14 countries and the United Nations gives Amnesty International consultative status in August. 1965 Reports issued on prison conditions in Portugal, South Africa and Romania. Resolution sponsored at United Nations to suspend and finally abolish capital punishment for peacetime political offences. The monthly Postcards for Prisoners campaign starts. 1966 Peter Benenson gives up his day-to-day involvement with Amnesty International and Eric Baker takes over. 1967 There are now 550 groups in 18 countries and Amnesty International is now working for nearly 2,000 prisoners in 63 countries - 293 prisoners have been released. 1968 The first Prisoner of Conscience Week is observed in November. 1969 In January, UNESCO grants Amnesty International consultative status as the organisation reaches another milestone - 2,000 prisoners of conscience released.

The 1970s

1970 520 prisoners were released during the year there are now 850 groups in 27 countries. 1971 10th anniversary receives widespread publicity in international press, radio and television, in a year when 700 prisoners were released. 1972 Launch of first worldwide campaign for the abolition of torture. 1973 First full Urgent Action 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 admit a three-person Amnesty International mission for an on-the-spot probe into allegations of massive violations of human rights. The United Nations unanimously approves the Amnesty International-inspired resolution formally denouncing torture. 1974 Amnesty International’s Sean McBride is awarded Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of his lifelong work for human rights. On the first anniversary of Chile's military coup AI publishes a report exposing political oppression, executions and torture under Pinochet's regime. Mumtaz Soysal of Turkey becomes first ever former prisoner of conscience elected to the International Executive Committee. 1975 The United Nations unanimously adopts a Declaration Against Torture. There are now 1,592 groups in 33 countries and more than 70,000 members in 65 countries. 1976 The first Secret Policeman's Ball fundraiser features John Cleese and the Monty Python regulars. The series continued in later years and starred comedians and musicians such as Peter Gabriel, Duran Duran, Mark Knopfler, Bob Geldolf, Eric Clapton and Phil Collins, paving the way for the likes of Live Aid. 1977 Amnesty International awarded Nobel Peace Prize for "having contributed to securing the ground for freedom, for justice, and thereby also for peace in the world". 1978 Amnesty International wins United Nations Human Rights prize for "outstanding contributions in the field of human rights". 1979 List published of 2,665 cases of people known to have "disappeared" in Argentina after Videla's military coup.

The 1980s

1980 Thomas Hammarberg of Sweden becomes Secretary General. 1981 In London, candle-lighting ceremony held to mark Amnesty International’s 20th anniversary. 1982 On Human Rights Day appeal launched for universal amnesty for all prisoners of conscience. More than one million people sign petitions which are finally presented to the United Nations the following year. 1983 Special report on political killings by governments. 1984 Launch of second Campaign against Torture, including12-point plan for the abolition of torture. 1985 First educational pack published, "Teaching and Learning about Human Rights". At International Council Meeting in Helsinki, Finland, decision is made to broaden the statute to include work for refugees. There are now more than 500,000 members, supporters and subscribers. 1986 Amnesty International USA launches Conspiracy of Hope rock concert tour with U2, Sting, Peter Gabriel, Bryan Adams, Lou Reed, the Neville Brothers and others. 1987 Report that death penalty in the USA violates treaties, is racially biased and arbitrary. 1988 Human Rights Now! concert tour (featuring Sting and Bruce Springteen, among others) travels to 19 cities in 15 countries and is viewed by millions when broadcast on Human Rights Day, Membership surges in many countries following the tour. 1989 Publication of major new study on the death penalty, When the State Kills.

The 1990s

1990 Membership increases to 700,000 members in 150 countries with more than 6,000 volunteer groups in 70 countries. 1991 30th anniversary sees adoption of new mandate to cover abuses by armed opposition groups, hostage-taking and people imprisoned due to their sexual orientation. 1992 Membership passes the one million mark. 1993 United Nations World Conference on Human Rights held in Vienna. 1994 Launch of major international campaigns on women's rights, disappearances and political killings. 1995 Amnesty International campaigns on "Stopping the Torture Trade". 1996 Campaign for a permanent International Criminal Court – later adopted by the United Nations in 1998. 1997 Human rights of refugees worldwide is the main focus of campaigning. 1998 Launch of Get Up, Sign Up! campaign to mark the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – 13 million pledges of support are collected. Concert held in Paris on Human Rights Day, featuring Radiohead, Asian Dub Foundation, Bruce Springteen, Tracey Chapman, Alanis Morissette, Youssou N'Dour and Peter Gabriel, with special appearances by the Dalai Lama and international human rights activists. 1999 International Council Meeting leads to development of 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.

2000-present day

2000 Launch of third Campaign against Torture. 2001 40th anniversary year with the Stop Torture website winning a Revolution Award. Comedian Eddie Izzard heads a fundraiser at Wembley Arean, London, UK. 2002 Launch of campaign on the Russian Federation 2003 Global Control Arms campaign launched with Oxfam and IANSA. 2004 Amnesty International launches Stop Violence Against Women campaign. 2005 2006