The beginnings of Amnesty International NZ

20 December 2014, 00:00 UTC | New Zealand
Amnesty International New Zealand hands over petitions to Parliament in Wellington, New Zealand 2013 © Amnesty International
By Mary Singleton - Founder of Amnesty International NZ

It all began with a book. One day by sheer chance I picked up a book called Persecution ‘61 by Peter Benenson. It contained a number of case histories of people who had been imprisoned and tortured for expressing dissident beliefs. I was young, I was naïve, I’d had a pretty sheltered middle-class upbringing and I found the stories in the book deeply shocking.

Through Teachers’ College I knew about human rights abuses in South Africa, but the first story I read was about atrocities committed by the French in one of their North African Colonies. The French! A civilised nation. After reading the book I knew that no country and no people were exempt from perpetrating human rights abuses.

The book included the address of the recently formed organisation Amnesty International, and so I wrote to them. I’d never done anything like this before, so this action was a measure of the profound effect the stories had had on me. The London office responded immediately with the name of one other New Zealander who had written them. This was Stan Roberts, a mathematician with the applied maths division of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research. I had already met Stan a few years before when I had taught his daughter at primary school.

Of all the available causes, why did I choose Amnesty? Several reasons. It involved immediate person-to-person contact with real individuals who were in need, it was totally non-partisan, working across all beliefs and creeds; it was about nonviolence and I liked the fact that the work was done in small active groups. I’d had my fill of large meetings where constitutional wrangling took up time and often got in the way of serious action. I didn’t have much money, but I knew that I was fortunate in possessing all the important basic freedoms - and it seemed outrageous to me that these could arbitrarily be taken away by a powerful state machine.

The first meetings with Stan all took place in my very poky little flat. I was a piano-teaching solo parent in the days before the DPB. Stan would leave his workplace at Victoria University, pick up fish and chips in Kelburn and come on up (and I mean up as I was living at the top of an enormous flight of steps). I’d be getting my small daughter ready for bed, so the atmosphere was very domestic and relaxed.

Stan was happy to deal with the money side which I didn’t want to touch with a barge pole and he assumed that I would handle the publicity. This was something I’d never done before and had never have imagined myself doing. However I had some ability in writing, and began sending out articles to every magazine and newspaper that we could think of throughout New Zealand. These were typed, two-finger style, on a very decrepit second-hand portable type-writer and copies were done using carbon paper (young people won’t even know what that is I imagine). As I remember it, almost everybody printed my copy so in a very short space of time we had coverage throughout the country.

When we received our first request for a speaker for a meeting Stan passed it on to me and I was terrified. Stan absolutely refused to have any part of it however and I discovered that when I had something like Amnesty that I was passionate about I was perfectly able to cope.

The first speech I gave was to a small group of members of the Wellington section of the New Zealand Rationalist Association. They were incredibly responsive, asked lots of questions and I met two young scientists, Malcolm Luxton and Colin Summerhayes who became active members and formed a group. Quite soon we had several groups in Wellington, including one at Victoria University, and others throughout the country. Our group had three prisoners to work for but the only one I remember was a young white South African student who was on house arrest for opposing apartheid.

In addition to writing and public speaking I found myself talking on an early talkback radio session and I was interviewed live by Relda Familton on TV. Scary stuff. This was in the relatively early days of TV in New Zealand and thinking about all this makes me feel really old and historical.

The organisational meetings continued to take place in my flat and we gradually developed a working committee with Peter Doogue, now a High Court Judge, as Chairman. It became clear quite quickly that a New Zealand Section could be formed so we went ahead and organised a New Zealand-wide meeting.

I didn’t become part of the foundation committee of the National Section. I was brought up in a time and place and a family where important positions were held by men. After all my work, initiative and success I didn’t feel it was my place to hold office. Incredible but true, sadly.

Sometimes I can hardly believe how Amnesty International in New Zealand has developed. The beginnings were so humble and so informal and now it’s so organised. None of us in those days even remotely considered keeping documents for the archives. But here we all are. Isn’t it wonderful!

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