10 Facts About Amnesty International

Hundreds of high school students demonstrate April 8, 2002 in front of the Russian Consulate as part of Amnesty International's National Week of Student Action in New York City.
Hundreds of high school students demonstrate April 8, 2002 in front of the Russian Consulate as part of Amnesty International's National Week of Student Action in New York City. / Spencer Platt, Getty Images

Amnesty International started with a British newspaper opinion piece published in The Observer on May 28, 1961. To mark the occasion, each May 28th is celebrated as Amnesty International Day. Here are 10 facts you might not have known about the organization and its efforts related to human rights causes across the globe.

1. The group's founder was inspired by the arrest of two students, which may not have happened.

According to an often-told origin story, Peter Benenson, a British lawyer and former World War II codebreaker, was riding the tube home in November of 1960 when he came across a Daily Telegraph item about two Portuguese students imprisoned for raising a toast to freedom in a Lisbon bar. (This was during the 36-year rule of rightwing authoritarian Prime Minister António de Oliveira Salazar.)

“This news item produced a righteous indignation in me that transcended normal bounds,” Benenson would later say. “At Trafalgar Square Station I got out of the train and went straight into the Church of St. Martin’s in the Fields. There I sat and pondered on the situation. I felt like marching down to the Portuguese Embassy to make an immediate protest, but what would have been the use?” Responding to the report, Benenson wrote his article in The Observer as an attempt to call attention to human rights violations around the world.

However, subsequent researchers have not found any documentation of the toast or the two Portuguese students. While compiling a 2002 article for The Journal of Contemporary History, Oxford historian Tom Buchanan couldn’t locate the article in editions of The Daily Telegraph from November and December of 1960. The earliest references to the arrest (but not the toast) appear to be 1962 interviews with Benenson.

But Buchanan continued his search and learned that Benenson originally claimed he read the article in December. Using this, Buchanan found an article in the Times from December 19 that talked about the imprisonment of two people for “subversive activities.” Although they weren’t students (one of them was 37 at the time) and there was no mention at all of a toast (the "subversive activities" lasted for three years), it’s thought that Benenson vaguely remembered that there was an imprisonment, and then all the other details got altered through repeated retellings.


According to Jonathan Power's Like Water on Stone: The History of Amnesty International, Benenson enlisted the help of David Astor, longtime editor of the prominent leftwing Sunday paper The Observer. His article, titled “The Forgotten Prisoner,” was a call to attention for anyone sick and disgusted by reports of political persecution.

“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,” Benenson wrote. “There are several million such people in prison—by no means all of them behind the Iron and Bamboo Curtains —and their numbers are growing. 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.”

Benenson pointed to eight people imprisoned across the world, victims of governments' attempts to regulate ideology: an Angolan poet, a Romanian philosopher, a Spanish democracy activist, an American civil rights organizer, a South African Apartheid opponent, a Greek trade unionist, a Czech archbishop, and a Hungarian cardinal, who, in a strange case, was a refugee in his own country and given asylum in the U.S. embassy.

The article ended with the announcement of an office in London to collect information on such prisoners of conscience. It was republished in several ideologically aligned newspapers internationally.


Letters poured in to the newly established office, with support and press clippings of other possible cases. Benenson connected sympathizers geographically and encouraged chapters in universities and churches (particularly the Society of Friends, or Quakers). The group’s original tactic was to assign a prisoner to each chapter, which would “then start pestering the life out of the government responsible,” according to Power’s book. Groups sent letters to officials, the prisoners' families, and the prisoners (even if no response was possible) with the underlying message: The world is watching.

“The idea, characteristically British—parochial, low-key, frugal, committed to working across ideological, religious and racial boundaries—was amazingly effective on the international scene,” wrote Power. By the end of 1963, Amnesty International had chapters in 12 countries and links to international lawyers and diplomats. Prisoners freed after Amnesty’s intervention in its early days included Czech Cardinal Josef Beran and West German trade unionist Heinz Brandt, who was being held in East Germany.


In 1962, Nelson Mandela was arrested for inciting a strike and leaving South Africa without a passport. A representative from Amnesty International attended the trial, and after Mandela was sentenced to five years in prison, the organization officially deemed him a prisoner of conscience. But in 1963-'64, Mandela was tried again for alleged sabotage and sentenced to life in prison. At the time, one of Amnesty International’s guiding principles was that prisoners of conscience were those who were peaceful. After an organization-wide poll, Mandela was officially dropped as a prisoner of conscience for promoting violence, meaning that they would not campaign for his release, although they continued to fight for his rights as a prisoner.

Amnesty International has since changed that stance and, according to the BBC, "says if a trial is unfair, a prisoner has been tortured, or their jail is inhumane, they can be considered prisoners of conscience even if they have used violence."

In 2006, Amnesty International gave Mandela the Conscience award, their highest honor. "More than any other living person, Mr. Mandela symbolizes all that is hopeful and idealistic in public life," said an Amnesty International spokesperson.


In 1972, the group launched its first campaign against torture and, a year later, began compiling reports on the Pinochet government’s extensive use of it in Chile. Those reports were cited extensively in United Nations hearings that passed the Convention against Torture in 1984. In 1980, the organization began campaigning to abolish the death penalty. Today, Amnesty lists 15 areas of focus, including arms control, corporate accountability, freedom of expression, indigenous peoples, and sexual and reproductive rights.


On its website, Amnesty states, “We neither seek nor accept any funds for human rights research from governments or political parties and we accept support only from businesses that have been carefully vetted.” A majority of funds come from individuals “to maintain full independence from any and all governments, political ideologies, economic interests or religions.”

The group does accept government money for “human rights education,” which it considers distinct from its reportage and lobbying. The U.S., UK, Netherlands, and Norway have all given for this effort.

This refusal of government money was not always the case. In the mid-1960s, it was discovered that the International Commission of Jurists, to which Amnesty International was closely related, was receiving money from the CIA through the American branch, and letters from Benenson revealed that he was asking for money from the British government. Responding to the unfolding crisis, Amnesty’s five-man executive committee ousted Benenson and replaced the president position with “director-general” (later “secretary-general”).


Though it may seem strange for an organization with such a serious workload, Amnesty International holds comedy showcases as fundraisers. Monty Python’s John Cleese organized the first benefit in London in 1976 and gathered some of the UK’s top sketch comedy troupes. The series of events was dubbed The Secret Policeman’s Ball in 1979 and grew in popularity and was performed in the United States for the first time in 2012. The shows and sales of recordings provide Amnesty with a revenue stream and a place on newspaper society pages. Comedians who have performed at balls include Reggie Watts, Rowan Atkinson, Russell Brand, Kristen Wiig, Jimmy Fallon, Sarah Silverman, Stephen Colbert, and Jon Stewart. Among the musicians who have played a Secret Policeman’s Ball are Duran Duran, Phil Collins, David Gilmour, Kate Bush, Sting, Pete Townshend, Eric Clapton, and U2.


In 1977, the group won a Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts. “[I]t must be a source of infinite comfort to the individual prisoner to feel that he has not been forgotten by the outside world, that someone is working to achieve his release, a release, maybe, from the most wretched dungeon” said Aase Lionæs, chairman of the Nobel Committee, in the awards speech. “Amnesty has shone a torch of hope into his cell, maybe precisely when its inmate is sunk in the depths of despair and degradation.”


Sometimes, Amnesty’s positions have caused friction between chapters and their schools. For most of its history, the group had no overarching positions on reproductive rights. When it announced its support for abortion access in cases of rape and incest in 2007, Catholic universities in Northern Ireland ousted Amnesty chapters, and a U.S. Catholic group investigated chapters at American Catholic schools for “abortion advocacy.” A few months ago, a high school near Columbus, Ohio briefly suspended a chapter due to local Jewish groups’ complaints about a “Free Palestine” poster seen in promotional materials.


Amnesty maintains a list of “Films That Open Eyes”, both fictional movies and documentaries that the group believes highlight human rights and oppression. Among the 885 movies with the AI seal of approval: 1984, 12 Years a Slave, American History X, Apocalypse Now, Billy Elliot, Brokeback Mountain, Bowling for Columbine, Citizenfour, Dead Man Walking, Gandhi, The Help, Jesus Camp, Milk, Osama, Paths of Glory, Persepolis, The Pianist, Schindler’s List, Selma, and Y Tu Mamá También.