ON 28 MAY 1981, Peter Benenson, the British founder of the human-rights organisation Amnesty International, celebrated the group’s twentieth anniversary by lighting a candle. It was the same candle he first lit at the birth of the organisation two decades earlier on the steps of St Martin-in-the-Fields, in London.
In Portugal in 1961, under the authoritarian regime of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, two students were arrested and imprisoned for seven years for making a toast to liberty in a public restaurant. Benenson was so angered by the arrests he decided to do something about it. His solution was to urge people to inundate the Portuguese government with letters of protest.
Rather than limit this action to just one particular case, Benenson wanted to draw attention to political prisoners the world over. In an article for The Observer titled, “The Forgotten Prisoners,” Benenson articulated the need for protecting those who spoke up against atrocities committed by their governments. He coined the term “prisoner of conscience,” which gained wide traction. Amnesty International’s logo, representing a candle surrounded by barbed wire, has come to be seen as a symbol of hope. Amnesty now has over two million members and has dealt with many thousand of cases of human-rights violations across the globe. In 1977, the organisation was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Peter Benenson died of pneumonia in Oxford in 2005, at the age of 84. Irene Khan, then the secretary general of Amnesty International, recalled him as a man “whose conscience shone in a cruel and terrifying world, who believed in the power of ordinary people to bring about extraordinary change.” By creating Amnesty International, she said, “he gave each of us the opportunity to make a difference.”