Peter Benenson: A Light in Times of Darkness

A life devoted to human rights

| March 3, 2005

Peter Benenson founded Amnesty International 44 years ago, after learning that two students were imprisoned for toasting liberty in Lisbon, Portugal. To him, the organization's logo of a candle entwined in barbed wire evoked an old Chinese proverb: 'Better light a candle than curse the darkness.' On Friday, February 25, Benenson died in Oxford, England. He was 83.

Benenson first articulated his vision for Amnesty International in 1961, when he wrote an article for The Observer that called for a one-year letter writing campaign to repressive authorities that failed to recognize and enforce the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights.

'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,' he wrote. 'The 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.'

The result of Benenson's work saved lives and forever changed the landscape of political activism. Nearly two million people currently call themselves members of Amnesty International, and nonviolent citizen groups around the globe have adopted the organization's core methodology to aid prisoners of political conscience and create social change.

'He brought light into the darkness of prisons, the horror of torture chambers and tragedy of death camps around the world' Amnesty International Secretary General Irene Khan said in a statement. '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.'

Over the years, Benenson also worked to help find homes for orphans of the Spanish Civil War, championed the relocation of Jews to Britain, established a society for people with coeliac disease (which he suffered from), and observed trials as a member of the Society of Labour Lawyers.

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