In 1960, Portugal was the last European power to be explicitly colonialist, and the regime of Estado Novo was noted for its secret police, and its vigorous pursuit of perceived anti-Portuguese conspiracies. On Nov 19, 1960, the English Lawyer Peter Benenson, overheard 2 Portuguese students talking on the London Underground (what we’d call a subway). They claimed to have been imprisoned for 7 years for “having drunk a toast to liberty.” Benenson was aghast, and it stuck with him. He wrote a newspaper article “The Forgotten Prisoners” about all the people imprisoned across the world for terrible reasons, and how we learn of them, feel indignant, but feel like we are unable to do anything about it. Its not like the Novo regime is going to listen to us. It was published in newspapers in several countries on May, 28th 1961. Benenson and his friend, the Quaker social activist Eric Baker, got a huge response and transformed it into “Appeal For Amnesty, 1961” a group intended to apply public pressure to free people who were imprisoned in violation of articles 18 and 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which all UN member nations are technically signatories to. People who are “imprisoned, tortured, or executed because his opinions or religion are unacceptable to his government,” what Benenson called, “prisoners of conscience.” That year Benenson published a book detailing several cases of prisoners of conscience. The whole thing was originally intended to be very short term, but it soon became clear it wouldn’t be, the name was changed from “Appeal For Amnesty, 1961” to “Amnesty” and then to “Amnesty International” in 1962.
Amnesty International became pretty much the first modern human rights organization, and has had many imitators since. In the 70s it broadened its purview to include violations of UDHR article 9 (long detention without trial) and article 5 (torture). In 1977, Amnesty International won the Nobel Peace Prize for their “campaign against torture.” Amnesty International has been an important force in pushing for many UN reforms, including the creation of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the International Criminal Court.
I’m grateful for social organizations which pressure governments to live up to their highest ideals
I’m grateful for social organizations which help us transform individual desire for justice into collective pressure for justice.
I’m grateful for the Universal Declaration on Human Rights
I’m grateful that I’ve never been tortured, extra-judicially executed, disappeared, rendered
Other Notables for me for this day:
The death of Noah Webster (of dictionary fame), Alfred Adler (psychologist), the First Continental Congress convened for the first time to organize the US revolution