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Peter Benenson

Last modified 28 May 2011.

First published 11 March 2005

Country: Great Britain.

Cause: Creation of the human rights organisation Amnesty International.

Mini biography: Born Peter James Henry Soloman in London on 31 July 1921. Benenson's father, Harold Solomon, is a member of a London stockbroking family and a career soldier who had risen to the rank of brigadier-general in the First World War. His mother, Flora Solomon (nee Benenson), is the daughter of Grigori Benenson, a Russian-Jewish banker who had moved his family to Britain at the outbreak of the Russian Revolution in 1917.

Benenson is at first tutored privately by the poet W.H. Auden, then attends Eton College and Oxford University, where he studies for a degree in history at Balliol College. At Eton he becomes a socialist and converts to Catholicism.

1920 - Prior to Benenson's birth his father is assigned to the staff of the High Commissioner of Palestine. Benenson's father and mother move to Jerusalem.

1923 - At Christmas, Benenson's father is involved in a serious riding accident outside Jerusalem. He is subsequently confined to a wheelchair. The family returns to London, where the marriage collapses.

1930 - Benenson's father dies in Switzerland on 30 July.

1933 - Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party seize power in Germany.

1936 - The Spanish Civil War begins on 17 July when the military led by General Francisco Franco stage a coup against the elected republican government.

1937 - While at Eton Benenson organises support for the Spanish Relief Committee, which is providing assistance to orphans of republican war dead. He "adopts" one of the babies himself, helping to pay for its upbringing.

Meanwhile, as the situation for Jews in Nazi Germany deteriorates, Benenson looks for ways to help. He convinces his school friends and their families to raise £4,000 to bring two young German Jews to Britain.

Later, he helps his mother find homes for refugee children who have fled to London.

1939 - When Benenson's grandfather Grigori dies in March Benenson agrees to adopt his surname. He is known for a while as Solomon-Benenson, but later shortens this to Benenson.

The Second World War begins on 1 September when German forces invade Poland.

Benenson interrupts his studies at Oxford University to join the military, settling on the army after the navy rejects him because of his family's Russian background. He works first in the Ministry of Information press office and then at the Bletchley Park code-breaking centre, where he is assigned to the 'Testery', a section responsible for cracking German teleprinter ciphers.

While in the army he meets and marries Margaret Anderson. The couple will have two daughters.

1945 - The war in Europe ends on 7 May when Germany surrenders unconditionally.

1946 - While he waits to be demobilised from the army Benenson studies law. He takes his bar exams and becomes a practising lawyer, specialising in human rights cases. He also joins the Labour Party, becoming a leading member of the Society of Labour Lawyers, and helps found Labour's Spanish Democrats Defence Committee.

He seeks election to House of Commons as a Labour candidate four times - in 1950 for the seat of Streatham, and in 1951, 1955 and 1959 for Hitchin - but each time is unsuccessful.

1948 - The newly formed United Nations (UN) adopts and proclaims the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on 10 December, followed by the Geneva and Genocide Conventions.

1950s - The Labour Party sends Benenson to Spain to observe the trial of 17 Basque nationalists in 1954. He is also dispatched to Spain by the Trades Union Congress to observe trials of trade unionists. Benenson is appalled by what he witnesses at the trials of the trade unionists and draws up a list of complaints with which he confronts the trial judge. The trials end with acquittals.

Across the Mediterranean in British-administered Cyprus, Benenson helps and advises Greek Cypriot lawyers whose clients are facing prosecution under British law.

1956 - He persuades Labour, Liberal and Conservative lawyers to send multi-party observers to Hungary during the failed uprising against Soviet interference and the ensuing trials. Observers are also sent to South Africa for the 'Treason Trial' of Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu and 153 others.

The relative success of these missions leads to the formation of 'Justice', a British arm of the International Commission of Jurists.

1959 - Benenson develops coeliac disease, an irritation of the bowl caused by intolerance to gluten. He takes a break from law and moves to Italy to recuperate. He will later establish a society for people with the disease.

1960 - In November, while commuting on the London underground, Benenson reads a short newspaper article about an incident in Portugal, which is then under the regime of dictator António de Oliveira Salazar. According to the article, two Portuguese students had been arrested and sentenced to seven years in jail after drinking a toast to liberty in a café in Lisbon.

Outraged by the trammelling of the students' human rights he decides to "see what could really be done effectively to mobilise world opinion."

"I became aware that lawyers themselves were not able sufficiently to influence the course of justice in undemocratic countries," Benenson later says. "It was necessary to think of a larger group which would harness the enthusiasm of people all over the world who were anxious to see a wider respect for human rights."

After discussing the matter with his friend and fellow barrister, Louis Blom-Cooper, Benenson visits the editor of the 'The Observer' newspaper.

1961 - On Sunday, 28 May 'The Observer' publishes an article by Benenson titled 'The Forgotten Prisoners' on the front of its Weekend Review section. The article calls for a one-year Appeal for Amnesty to obtain the release of "prisoners of conscience."

The article begins, "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. ... 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. ...

"That is why we have started Appeal for Amnesty, 1961. The campaign, which opens today, is the result of an initiative by a group of lawyers, writers and publishers in London, who share the underlying conviction expressed by Voltaire: 'I detest your views, but am prepared to die for your right to express them.' We have set up an office in London to collect information about the names, numbers and conditions of what we have decided to call Prisoners of Conscience, and we define them thus: 'Any person who is physically restrained (by imprisonment or otherwise) from expressing (in any form of words or symbols) an opinion which he honestly holds and which does not advocate or condone personal violence."

Abridged version of original article on 'The Observer' website.

The appeal attracts thousands of supporters from around the world. In July a meeting of supporters from Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Ireland, Switzerland and United States decides to establish "a permanent international movement in defence of freedom of opinion and religion." Amnesty International has been born.

A committee including Benenson, Louis Blom-Cooper, the Quaker Eric Baker, Peter Archer and Peggy Crane is formed to guide the campaign. Groups of volunteers work out of Benenson's chambers at No. 1 Mitre Court, London, helping to organise further groups that have been founded in the Britain, West Germany, Holland, France, Italy and Switzerland.

Each group adopts three "prisoners of conscience" who have not used or advocated violence and who have been jailed in violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A network of letter writers is established to lobby governments with individual appeals on the prisoners' behalf. Prisoners of conscience are adopted irrespective of their political beliefs.

"At that time we were still putting our toes in the water and learning as we went on," Benenson later says. "We tried every technique of publicity and we were very grateful to the widespread help of journalists and television crews throughout the world who not only sent us information about the names of prisoners but also, whenever they could, gave space to stories about prisoners. It's the publicity function of Amnesty that I think has made its name so widely known, not only to readers in the world, but to governments - and that's what matters."

Benenson provides much of the funding for Amnesty International in the first few years of organisation's existence. He also participates in research missions and is involved in all aspects of the organisation's affairs.

A candle wrapped in barbed wire is chosen as the symbol of Amnesty International. The first candle is lit in the church of St-Martins-in-the-Fields, London, on Human Rights Day, 10 December.

Referring to the candle symbol, Benenson later says, "Once the concentration camps and the hell-holes of the world were in darkness. Now they are lit by the light of the Amnesty candle; the candle in barbed wire. When I first lit the Amnesty candle, I had in mind the old Chinese proverb: 'Better light a candle than curse the darkness.'"

In October Benenson publishes 'Persecution 1961', a short book outlining the stories of nine prisoners of conscience, including Angolan doctor and poet Agostino Neto, Romanian philosopher Constantin Noica, Spanish lawyer Antonio Amat, Greek communist Toni Ambatielos, Archbishop Josef Beran of Prague, Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty of Budapest, US civil rights campaigner Ashton Jones, and South African antiapartheid activist Patrick Duncan.

By the end of October the Appeal for Amnesty has 840 case files from 31 countries. "We believe that Amnesty has already begun to achieve results," Benenson says. "There have been cases where a prisoner has been released remarkably quickly after a protest from Amnesty."

1962 - Amnesty makes its first international missions, to Ghana in January, then Czechoslovakia, Portugal and East Germany. An Amnesty observer is also present at the trial of Nelson Mandela.

By the end of the year, 70 groups in seven countries have adopted 210 prisoners and Amnesty groups have been started in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Belgium, Greece, Australia, Ireland, and the US.

A conference of supporters held in Belgium decides to set up a permanent organisation to be known as 'Amnesty International'.

1963 - After two years of existence Amnesty comprises 350 groups. Of the 770 prisoners adopted by the groups, 140 have been released.

Benenson is appointed as secretary of Amnesty's International Executive Committee (IEC). Sean MacBride, an Irish human rights advocate, is elected as the IEC's chairman.

1964 - Benenson is named president of Amnesty. In August Amnesty is given consultative status at the UN.

1965 - Amnesty issues its first reports - on prison conditions in Portugal, South Africa and Romania. The Council of Europe grants Amnesty consultative status.

Also during the year, Amnesty lobbies the UN to adopt a resolution to suspend and abolish capital punishment for peacetime political offences.

1966 - Benenson's standing within Amnesty is compromised when he alleges that the organisation has been infiltrated by British agents and calls for its headquarters to be moved to another country. The allegations are rejected by an independent investigation. This is followed by claims from the US that the Central Intelligence Agency has become involved in Amnesty. Benenson himself is then accused of accepting funds from the British Government.

When he is criticised at a subsequent meeting of the organisation's executive committee Benenson resigns from Amnesty. He retires to take up farming at Aylesbury, 60 km northwest of London. He later moves to Nuneham Courtenay outside Oxford.

1968 - The 1st Amnesty International Week - also called Prisoner of Conscience Week - is held in November.

1969 - At the end of the decade Amnesty has 640 groups in 21 countries. Of the 4,000 prisoners adopted since the foundation of the organisation, 2,000 have been released.

1972 - Amnesty extends its orbit to the issue of torture or any other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, launching a worldwide campaign for the abolition of such practices.

Meanwhile, Benenson divorces Margaret. In 1973 he marries Susan Booth. The couple have a son and daughter.

1973 - Amnesty is granted entry to Chile to investigate allegations of violations of human rights following the military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet. The following year Amnesty publishes its findings, confirming widespread political oppression, executions and torture.

1975 - On 9 December the UN unanimously adopts a Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Being Subjected to Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

1976 - On 3 January the UN brings into force the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights comes into force on 23 March.

1977 - Amnesty is awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in October for having "contributed to securing the ground for freedom, for justice, and thereby also for peace in the world."

At the Nobel presentation ceremony held in Oslo, Norway, on 10 December, Aase Lionæs, Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, says:

"In deciding to honour Amnesty International with the Nobel Peace Prize in the year 1977 - the year of 'prisoners of conscience' - the Nobel Committee does so in the conviction that the defence of human dignity against torture, violence, and degradation constitutes a very real contribution to the peace of this world. ...

"But this work to protect human dignity is not a sacrifice we make for others: it is important that all of us should understand that in this age we must act accordingly in recognition of the earnest appeal contained in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's words:

"You're defending yourself -
Your future itself is at stake."

Full copy of presentation speech on the Nobel Peace Prize website.

Presenting the Nobel Lecture, the deputy chair of the Amnesty International Executive Board, Mümtaz Soysal, says, "Peace is not to be measured by the absence of conventional war, but constructed upon foundations of justice. Where there is injustice, there is the seed of conflict. Where human rights are violated, there are threats to peace. ...

"People everywhere need to be continually reminded that violations of human rights, whether arbitrary arrest and detention, unjust imprisonment, torture, or political assassination, are threats to world peace. Each violation, wherever it occurs, can set in motion a trend towards the debasement of human dignity. From individuals to groups, from groups to nations, from nations to groups of nations, in chain reaction a pattern sets in, a pattern of violence and repression and a lack of concern for human welfare.

"This must never be allowed to start. And the place to stop it is at the level of the individual. Therefore, the protection of the rights of the individual to think freely, to express himself freely, to associate freely with others and to disseminate his thoughts is essential to the preservation of world peace. This is equally so with the right to live in decent social and economic conditions, to have a job, to get an education."

Full copy of lecture on the Nobel Peace Prize website.

1978 - Amnesty wins the UN Human Rights prize for "outstanding contributions in the field of human rights."

1979 - Amnesty publishes a list of 2,665 people known to have "disappeared" in Argentina following a military coup led by Jorge Rafaél Videla.

1980s - During the 1980s Benenson returns to an active role in Amnesty, speaking and campaigning on its behalf. He also becomes the chair of the newly created Association of Christians Against Torture.

1981 - Lighting a candle in St Martin-in-the Fields church to mark the 20th anniversary of Amnesty, Benenson says, "I have lit this candle, in the words of Shakespeare, 'against oblivion' - so that the forgotten prisoners should always be remembered. We work in Amnesty against oblivion."

1985 - Amnesty decides to broaden its statute to include work for refugees. The organisation now has 3,433 groups in 50 countries and over 500,000 members, supporters and subscribers.

1986 - At a ceremony to mark Amnesty International's 25th anniversary, Benenson lights the Amnesty candle with the words:

"The candle burns not for us, but for all those whom we failed to rescue from prison, who were shot on the way to prison, who were tortured, who were kidnapped, who 'disappeared'. That is what the candle is for."

1990s - Benenson helps organise assistance for the 100,000 plus handicapped and orphaned children discovered living in horrific conditions in Romania following the fall of communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989.

1991 - Amnesty expands its mission to include scrutiny of human rights abuses carried out by armed opposition groups (as well as by the State).

1992 - Membership of Amnesty passes one million, with 6,000 local groups in over 70 countries.

Meanwhile, Amnesty is awarded the 1991 Olof Palme Prize for "its patient and devoted work to stand up for human rights in the world." The prize, which is named after assassinated Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme, is presented annually for an outstanding achievement chosen by the board of the Olof Palme Memorial Fund.

2001 - On 10 April Benenson receives The Mirror's Pride of Britain Lifetime Achievement Award.

"I most gratefully accept this award for Amnesty's million members and supporters around the world," he says.

"It is they who work for our objectives, to secure the release of prisoners of conscience, to stamp out torture and to end the death penalty. The more who join Amnesty's aim of preserving life, limb and human dignity, the greater the effect. I will not be around to see the culmination of this end, but I hope my grandchildren will."

Marking Amnesty's 40th anniversary, Benenson says, "Forty years on, Amnesty International has secured many victories. Its files are full of letters from former prisoners of conscience or torture victims thanking the organisation for making a difference. Torture is now banned by international agreement. Every year more countries reject the death penalty. The world will soon have an International Criminal Court that will be able to ensure that those accused of the worst crimes in the world will face justice. The Court's very existence will deter some crimes.

"But the challenges are still great. Torture is banned but in two-thirds of the world's countries it is still being committed in secret. Too many governments still allow wrongful imprisonment, murder or 'disappearance' to be carried out by their officials with impunity.

"Those who today still feel a sense of impotence can do something: they can support Amnesty International. They can help it to stand up for freedom and justice.

"In 1961 I wrote 'Pressure of opinion a hundred years ago brought about the emancipation of the slaves'. Pressure of opinion is now needed to help Amnesty International achieve its ultimate objective: to close for business. Only then, when the last prisoner of conscience has been freed, when the last torture chamber has been closed, when the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a reality for the world's people, will our work be done."

2005 - Benenson dies of pneumonia at 10.45pm on Friday 25 February in the John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford. He had been suffering from a long illness contracted after a serious motor accident.

Irene Khan, the current secretary-general of Amnesty International says, "Peter Benenson's life was a courageous testament to his visionary commitment to fight injustice around the world.

"He brought light into the darkness of prisons, the horror of torture chambers and tragedy of death camps around the world. This was a man whose conscience shone in a cruel and terrifying world, who believed in the power of ordinary people to bring about extraordinary change and, by creating Amnesty International, he gave each of us the opportunity to make a difference.

"In 1961 his vision gave birth to human rights activism. In 2005 his legacy is a world wide movement for human rights which will never die."

Present-day - Amnesty International is the world's largest independent human rights organisation, with more than 1.8 million members and supporters in more than 150 countries and territories around the world. The organisation has dealt with the cases of 47,000 prisoners of conscience and other victims of human rights abuse.

Nearly 100 human rights treaties and other legal instruments are now in force internationally. Over 90% of the world's countries are now party to the most comprehensive of these, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Comment: By all accounts a modest yet charismatic man, Benenson refused to accept most of the public honours offered to him in recognition for his life of community service and was reluctant to position himself as the public face of the world-famous organisation that he founded - Amnesty International.

Offered knighthoods by successive British prime ministers, he always refused.

According to Kate Gilmore, the deputy secretary-general of Amnesty International, each time a prime minister offered him a knighthood Benenson would respond with a personal letter stating that if they truly wished to honour his work, they should clean up their own backyard first.

"Then he would set out a litany of human rights violations the British government was complicit in," Gilmore said. "It was a clever and inspired pitch, and it was heartfelt. In an era of ego and self-aggrandisement, it was almost hard to conceive that such a man ... had such a worldwide impact."