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.

2. BENENSON’S ARTICLE MENTIONED PLENTY OF OTHER TROUBLING CASES.

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.

3. THE GROUP IS KNOWN FOR ITS LETTER-WRITING CAMPAIGNS.

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.

4. AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL HAD A COMPLICATED RELATIONSHIP WITH NELSON MANDELA

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.

5. ITS SCOPE GREW SLOWLY

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.

6. IT DOESN’T TAKE MONEY FROM GOVERNMENTS (EXCEPT IN SOME CASES)

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”).

7. IT HOSTS COMEDY SHOWS.

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.

8. IT WON A NOBEL PEACE PRIZE.

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.”

9. SCHOOLS HAVE TRIED TO OUST CHAPTERS.

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.

10. IT ENDORSES MOVIES

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.

Mental Floss's Three-Day Sale Includes Deals on Apple AirPods, Sony Wireless Headphones, and More

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15 Memorable Ruth Bader Ginsburg Quotes

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has passed away at the age of 87.
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has passed away at the age of 87.
Tom Brenner/Getty Images

Supreme Court justice, feminist, and all-around badass Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away on September 18, 2020 from "complications of metastatic pancreas cancer," the Supreme Court said in a statement. Over the course of her 87 years, she smashed glass ceilings and delivered plenty of wisdom—inside the courtroom and out. Here are some of our favorite quotes from the Notorious RBG.

1. On her mother

"My mother told me two things constantly. One was to be a lady, and the other was to be independent. The study of law was unusual for women of my generation. For most girls growing up in the '40s, the most important degree was not your B.A., but your M.R.S."

— via ACLU

2. On turning rejection into opportunity

“You think about what would have happened ... Suppose I had gotten a job as a permanent associate. Probably I would have climbed up the ladder and today I would be a retired partner. So often in life, things that you regard as an impediment turn out to be great good fortune.”

— In conversation with Makers

3. On female Supreme Court Justices

"[W]hen I’m sometimes asked when will there be enough [women on the supreme court]? And I say ‘When there are nine.’ People are shocked. But there’d been nine men, and nobody’s ever raised a question about that."

— In an interview with 10th Circuit Bench & Bar Conference at the University of Colorado in Boulder, via CBS News

4. On dissenting opinions

"Dissents speak to a future age. It's not simply to say, ‘my colleagues are wrong and I would do it this way,’ but the greatest dissents do become court opinions."

— From an interview on Live with Bill Maher

5. On criticism and not getting a majority vote

"I’m dejected, but only momentarily, when I can’t get the fifth vote for something I think is very important. But then you go on to the next challenge and you give it your all. You know that these important issues are not going to go away. They are going to come back again and again. There’ll be another time, another day."

— via The Record [PDF]

6. On having it all

"You can't have it all, all at once. Who—man or woman—has it all, all at once? Over my lifespan I think I have had it all. But in different periods of time things were rough. And if you have a caring life partner, you help the other person when that person needs it."

— From an interview with Katie Couric

7. On discrimination

"I ... try to teach through my opinions, through my speeches, how wrong it is to judge people on the basis of what they look like, color of their skin, whether they’re men or women."

— From an interview with MSNBC

8. On gender equality

"Women will have achieved true equality when men share with them the responsibility of bringing up the next generation."

— via The Record [PDF]

9. On feminism

"Feminism … I think the simplest explanation, and one that captures the idea, is a song that Marlo Thomas sang, 'Free to be You and Me.' Free to be, if you were a girl—doctor, lawyer, Indian chief. Anything you want to be. And if you’re a boy, and you like teaching, you like nursing, you would like to have a doll, that’s OK too. That notion that we should each be free to develop our own talents, whatever they may be, and not be held back by artificial barriers—manmade barriers, certainly not heaven sent."

— In an interview with Makers

10. ON her fellow Supreme Court Justices

"We care about this institution more than our individual egos and we are all devoted to keeping the Supreme Court in the place that it is, as a co-equal third branch of government and I think a model for the world in the collegiality and independence of judges."

— In an interview with C-Span

11. On the 5-4 Hobby Lobby ruling

"[J]ustices continue to think and can change. I am ever hopeful that if the court has a blind spot today, its eyes will be open tomorrow."

— From an interview with Katie Couric

12. On those Notorious RBG T-shirts

"I think a law clerk told me about this Tumblr and also explained to me what Notorious RBG was a parody on. And now my grandchildren love it and I try to keep abreast of the latest that’s on the tumblr. … [I]n fact I think I gave you a Notorious RBG [T-shirts]. I have quite a large supply."

— In an interview with NPR’s Nina Totenberg

13. On being an internet sensation

"My grandchildren love it. At my advanced age—I’m now an octogenarian—I’m constantly amazed by the number of people who want to take my picture."

— From an interview with the New Republic

14. On retirement

"Now I happen to be the oldest. But John Paul Stevens didn’t step down until he was 90."

— From an interview with The New York Times

15. On how she'd like to be remembered

"Someone who used whatever talent she had to do her work to the very best of her ability. And to help repair tears in her society, to make things a little better through the use of whatever ability she has. To do something, as my colleague David Souter would say, outside myself. ‘Cause I’ve gotten much more satisfaction for the things that I’ve done for which I was not paid."

— From an interview with MSNBC