Peter Benenson: A Light in Times of Darkness

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.

‘The candle burns not for us,’ he said, ‘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.’

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The Man Who Fought for the Forgotten

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