Our history

9 April 2015, 10:39 UTC | New Zealand
Amnesty International founder, Peter Benenson, rekindles the original candle on the movement's 20th anniversary, outside St Martin in the Fields Church, London, UK, May 1981. © Raoul Shade

Amnesty International began as the result of one man’s outrage.

In October 1960, a young barrister called Peter Benenson opened his newspaper while riding the London Underground. In it, he learned about two Portuguese students who had been sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment, simply for raising their glasses in a toast to freedom.

In 1961, his article “The Forgotten Prisoners” was published in The Observer Newspaper in the UK. It described his disgust at the global trend of people being imprisoned, tortured or executed for holding political and religious views that their governments found unacceptable.

© The Forgotten Prisoners - The Observer Newspaper, 28 May 1961

The Forgotten Prisoners - The Observer Newspaper, 28 May 1961 © Amnesty International

Benenson launched an appeal to collect, publish and distribute information about prisoners of conscience worldwide.

"...if these feelings of disgust all over the world could be united into common action, something effective could be done."

Peter Benenson, founder of Amnesty International

Nothing quite like this had ever been attempted on such a scale before. The appeal was reprinted in newspapers around the world and the response was overwhelming.

On 10 December 1961, the first candle was lit in the church of St-Martin-in-the-Fields, London. This candle would go on to become synonymous with Amnesty International and human rights.

In the years that have followed, Amnesty International has grown from a single office in Benenson’s London lawyer’s chambers, to becoming the world’s largest human rights organisation.

We have achieved countless successes, and helped release thousands of prisoners of conscience. We have pushed powerful governments and corporations to account for violations of human rights.

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