The 50th Anniversary of Amnesty International

I gave the following address at the celebrations held by the ACT branch of Amnesty at the Belconnen Arts Centre on the 27th of May. Happy birthday Amnesty.

The story is fairly well-known but worth re-telling, especially on this occasion.

Whilst on his way to work, Peter Benenson, a London lawyer, read in the morning paper how two Portugese students were arrested by police when proposing a toast to freedom in a Lisbon restaurant and were sentenced to 7 years imprisonment. Outraged, Benenson approached his friend, David Astor, proprietor of The Observer.The result was Benenson’s article, ‘The Forgotten Prisoners‘ which appeared in The Observer, 50 years ago from tomorrow,  the 28th May 1961, – and the formation of Amnesty International.

Its first paragraph read:

“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.There are several million such people in prison – by no means all of them behind the Iron and Bamboo curtains…. 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.”

During  the next 10 days The Observer was flooded with promises of support. The article was repeated in Le Monde,, other European newspapers – courageously in Franco’s Spain – and also in the New York Herald Tribune. No mention was made in the article of any proposed organization. It was simply an appeal to people to protest. But by July there were the beginnings of an organization.

The origins of Amnesty in Australia

The Australian connection commenced in August with a broadcast by Wilfred Thomas. He described Amnesty’s formation in London. As a result of his broadcast many listeners wrote to the address which Thomas gave. One to do so was Clare Wositzky.

It is right on this occasion to remember Clare and to say a word about her: for if there is one person who could be said to be the founder of Amnesty International in Australia it is Clare Wositzky – a woman of great gentleness of manner and equally great organizing ability. She was for long the driving force of Amnesty here.

She received a reply from Benenson which set out a list of names of prisoners. As a result, on the 2nd of March 1962, a meeting was called at Owen Dixon Chambers, William Street, Melbourne. Twenty-two persons attended. It was resolved by the meeting to form a Branch of Amnesty International, the Victorian branch, and to pay the affiliation fee – two pounds – to London. The money was sent and thus was formed the first branch in Australia. The three prisoners of conscience we received were a Greek — for these were the days of the Colonels; two East Germans, Gunther Kemnitz and Jeremiah Moraka, and an African, one of the banished.

Prisoners of Conscience

The concept on which the movement was founded was the ‘prisoner of conscience’. Its basis was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on the 10th of December 1948. The Commission which prepared it, chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Assembly which endorsed it, presided over by Dr Evatt – were greatly affected by the Nuremberg trial. Indeed, the sober, formal ,legal language of the Preamble to the Declaration is broken by a flash of anger when it recites that the violation of human rights has resulted in ‘barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind’.

Benenson had made clear the danger of campaigns drifting into support for the particular political views of the prisoner. The ‘prisoner of conscience’ was a prisoner whose rights, as specifically stated in the Universal Declaration, had been violated; the particular views he or she advocated were irrelevant.

Article 18 guaranteed freedom of thought, conscience and religion; Article 19 freedom of expression. Article 5 guaranteed that no one was to be subject to torture and Article 9 that no one was to be subject to arbitrary arrest or detention.

And so, a ‘prisoners of conscience’ was one who, in violation of these specified rights, had been imprisoned or detained by reason of his or her political, religious or other conscientiously held belief or by reason of ethnic origin, colour or language, provided they had not used or advocated violence. I speak of the original definition of the prisoner of conscience. It was later extended.

The Universal Declaration assumes that the human rights declared by it are superior in moral authority to the claims of the state. But of course the superiority of the state’s physical authority and sheer coercive power were at any time able to override these. Benenson’s genius was to see that if you could mobilise people from all over the world to focus  collective action on the relief of the particular wronged individual and the violation of his or her rights this disparity of power could be greatly redressed.

But how was ‘prisoner of conscience’ status to be assessed in any particular case? How are the facts about a prisoner to be ascertained? There are high profile prisoners – an Andrei Sakharov in 1980 or a Liu Xiabao in 2010 who are self-evidently prisoners of conscience. Not all high profile prisoners, though, fit the ‘prisoner of conscience’ criteria so easily.

The case of Nelson Mandela

In June 1964 the police swooped on a farm house at Rivonia where Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and other leaders of the African National Congress were meeting in secret – many of them, Mandela included were on the run.

They were charged with plotting violence. And there is no question they were. The trial created enormous ferment throughout the world but nowhere more than in Amnesty. It was confronted with admiration for Mandela, on the one hand, and the ‘violence’ exception, on the other.

By way of background I need to tell you that the ANC had preached and practised non-violence since its formation in 1912. But then in 1960 came Sharpville. That was the turning point. The agony in which the ANC leaders were placed was described quite movingly by Mandela in his statement to the court. I shall quote a brief excerpt.

“ I must return to June 1961. What were we, the leaders of our people to do?.. We of the ANC had always stood for a non-racial democracy, and we shrank from any action which might drive the races further apart. But the hard facts were that fifty years of non-violence had brought the African people nothing but more and more oppressive legislation and fewer and fewer rights.”

The outcome of the tremendous controversy was a compromise in which Amnesty members could campaign against the death penalty but not claim he should be released as a prisoner of conscience. Actually, the prison sentence was a kind of triumph.

Finding the forgotten prisoners

But let me return to the immediate question, to Benenson’s numberless forgotten prisoners. How are they discovered? And how are they assessed? Over 40,000 prisoners have been designated and supported as ‘prisoners of conscience’ since 1973.

The London headquarters approaches this systematically. The researchers there rely upon a diversity of sources – local newspapers, court reports, released prisoners, local exile groups, the church and so forth. And Amnesty’s name is sufficiently well-known for it to be approached directly for help.

Their findings of fact are examined to see if they comply with the prisoner of conscience criteria and if approved are embodied in a case history which is then distributed to Amnesty groups throughout the world for action. The case history sets out the offender and the offence and indicates why he or she is a prisoner of conscience. It also sets out the political and legal background of the country concerned and the recommended action including relevant addresses.

The ‘prisoners’ sent to our group and no doubt others in the last month or so, include a number of Chinese internet dissidents; a Kurd due to be executed in Iran for ‘enmity against God’; Vietnamese  labour rights advocates; a Sudanese human rights defender; a 22 year old Sri Lankan domestic servant sentenced to death in Saudi Arabia and then there is  the continuing struggle with Iranian authorities to avoid the death by stoning imposed upon Mohammadi-Ashtiani for adultery.

Our urgent action organizer, Dorothy Bennett, sends them to members of our group. But similar action is being taken throughout the world. The result is mass action from a diversity of countries.

I will conclude at this point. The goal of world-wide human rights remains very much unfulfilled and daunting. But on this 50th anniversary it is right that the 125,000 Australian members of Amnesty International and its friends should join in celebration.  Also, we should perhaps remember two nameless non-members. I refer to those two Portuguese students whose toast to freedom in a Lisbon restaurant led them to spending 7 years in Salazars’ gaols – but also to much else.

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Published in: on May 29, 2011 at 2:58 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. I supported AI for many years, but felt regretfully obliged to resign from it recently over its irresponsible, indeed often childish, vendetta against Shell over events in eastern Nigeria for which the Nigerian Federal and local state governments are primarily responsible and which anyway have nothing to do with prisoners of conscience or amnesties. Amnesty should stick to what it does best and what it was created for.


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