Peter Benenson

Founder of Amnesty International
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Peter Solomon (Peter Benenson), barrister and human-rights campaigner: born London 31 July 1921; married first Margaret Anderson (two daughters; marriage dissolved 1972), second 1973 Susan Booth (one son, one daughter); died Oxford 25 February 2005.

Peter Benenson founded Amnesty (later Amnesty International) in 1961 and thereby became the creator of a human-rights movement which now counts more than a million members in 150 countries. His warmth and generosity of spirit gained him friends round the globe. His modesty was such that decades later many, even at Amnesty, did not realise he was the founder of the organisation.

The Benensons were a Russian Jewish family and Peter Benenson's maternal grandfather, Grigori Benenson, earned a fortune in Tsarist times from banking and oil. The family left Russia at the time of the Revolution. In London Grigori's daughter Flora met and married Harold Solomon, a member of a City stockbroking family who had risen to Brigadier-General in the First World War. Their only child, Peter Solomon, was born in London in 1921.

Despite the family riches, his was not a happy childhood. In 1920 Harold was attached to the staff of Sir Herbert Samuel, High Commissioner in Palestine, and they went to live in Jerusalem, an entrancing development for the passionately Zionist and untiringly party-mad Flora.

At Christmas 1923 Harold Solomon, whom Peter adored, suffered a serious riding accident outside Jerusalem and was confined to a wheelchair. The family returned to London, where the marriage collapsed. Flora in 1927 became the mistress of the former Russian leader Alexander Kerensky. In her autobiography, Baku to Baker Street (written with Barnet Litvinoff, 1984), littered with the names of the prominent from Eleanor Roosevelt to Chaim Weizmann, she confessed to being an unsatisfactory mother; indeed she was to cause Peter much anguish throughout her life.

Harold died in Switzerland, the day before Peter's ninth birthday. The boy was inconsolable: Flora wrote of her son's relationship with his father, "He had been the limbs the man on the first floor never possessed, and I believe he prayed daily for the miracle to make his father whole."

Certainly the young W.H. Auden, who had been engaged as a tutor for him, was little comfort. In the family's house in Hornton Street, Kensington, Auden was continuing his relationship with a male lover. Flora packed the young boy off to boarding school.

Despite all, his innate idealism soon emerged. At Eton the 15-year-old King's Scholar organised support for the Spanish republican government as it fought the military uprising and he himself "adopted" a Spanish baby, undertaking to pay for its upkeep. Arthur Koestler was a particular inspiration to the young man. He and his school friends also raised the large sum of £4,000 to bring two young German Jewish teenagers to school in Britain in 1939. He went to meet them at Dover. At Eton he had became a Roman Catholic, as two of Flora's sisters had already done.

When Grigori died in March 1939 his grandson acceded to his wish that he adopt his name. He therefore went briefly to Balliol College, Oxford, and later into military service under the name of Peter Solomon-Benenson. To his chagrin he was rejected for the Royal Navy because of his Russian connection but joined the Army, where he met and married Margaret Anderson, a mathematician. He was sent to the Ultra code-breaking unit at Bletchley Park and the couple later settled on the surname of Benenson. He and Margaret had two daughters and he proved to be a much better parent and grandparent than his mother had been.

Awaiting the demobilisation which eventually came in 1947 Benenson studied law, preparing himself for a career as a barrister. He joined the Labour Party and the Society of Labour Lawyers. Without success, he tried three times to win a seat in the Commons despite the help given by such as Clement Attlee, Roy Jenkins and Anthony Wedgwood Benn.

In the early 1950s he went to Spain for the Trades Union Congress as its observer at trials of trade unionists and was shocked by Generalissimo Franco's courts and prisons. He went to Cyprus, in the years before the island's independence, and aided Greek Cypriot lawyers whose clients had fallen foul of the British. He got together an all-party mission to Hungary in the throes of the 1956 uprising and ensuing trials, and to South Africa where a major "treason trial" was due to take place. The relative success of these two schemes led to his establishing and initially helping to finance Justice, the British section of the International Commission of Jurists.

The genesis of the movement which was to be Benenson's principal legacy to the world came when, reading a newspaper on the London Underground, he learnt of two students in Antonio Salazar's Portugal who committed the imprudence of toasting liberty in a café in Lisbon. Arrested and tried, they were sentenced to seven years' imprisonment. His first impulse - and he was always an impulsive person - was to alight at Trafalgar Square and protest at the Portuguese embassy. He thought better of it and went to sit in St Martin-in-the-Fields, where the seed of an idea for worldwide human-rights movement germinated.

He discussed the idea with his friend and fellow lawyer Louis Blom-Cooper (now Sir Louis Blom-Cooper QC), who suggested they visit David Astor, the editor of The Observer. Within a few weeks, on 28 May 1961, the newspaper carried a long article, "The Forgotten Prisoners", which suggested a worldwide "Appeal for Amnesty 1961" to governments to let their political prisoners go, or at least, give them a fair trial.

As the Cold War was coming to a crescendo Benenson highlighted the fate of a wide variety of captives, from the Angolan anti-colonialist poet and resistance leader Agostinho Neto and the Greek Communist Toni Ambatielos and Archbishop Josef Beran of Prague and Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty of Budapest, both imprisoned by Communist dictatorships, and Ashton Jones, a campaigner for rights for blacks in Louisiana.

The article, reproduced worldwide, had an immediate effect. A number of us, including Blom-Cooper, Eric Baker, a leading Quaker, Peter Archer and Peggy Crane were conscripted on to a committee to guide what was to be no more than a 12-month campaign. Groups of volunteers, working out of Benenson's chambers in Mitre Court in the Temple, struggled to organise sympathisers in many countries in "threes", groups who would adopt a political prisoner, or "prisoner of conscience" in the West, the East and the developing worlds who was imprisoned on a political charge but who did not espouse violence. Diana Redhouse, a British artist, invented a symbol for the new organisation, the enduring figure of a candle surrounded by barbed wire.

Amnesty, soon to be known as Amnesty International, was established in a dozen countries within a year. As it increased rapidly in influence and geographical reach, its carefully researched findings created bitter animosity for it among the governments of many countries, not least the British. It also put to the test the commitment of the staff (most of whom for years were volunteers) to rigorous honesty with the facts for the sake of Amnesty's reputation, even when these proved uncomfortable to the powerful; and to great discretion with the use of information often gathered and transmitted by informants in danger of their lives.

At the same time, as Jonathan Power, a historian of Amnesty, wrote,

There was little in the way of organisation or administration - budgets were so small that they were often worked out on the back of a cigarette packet in a pub. Everything hinged on Benenson's personality.

Even his best friends, those who loved his selflessness, modesty and devotion to humanity, felt his spark of genius rendered his judgements at times precarious. His financial independence also relieved him of the restraints less wealthy people felt.

The strains of working for Amnesty were a potential source of paranoia, even for the most equanimous member of staff. There was, for instance, dissent over support for Nelson Mandela, who had been sentenced by the apartheid regime in South Africa to life imprisonment on sabotage charges. Many felt this meant he could not be seen as a prisoner of conscience and a poll of Amnesty members confirmed their desire that a commitment to non-violence should be a sine qua non for anyone to be adopted as a prisoner of conscience. Nevertheless ways were found of supporting Mandela.

Major crises shook the organisation. In 1966 Benenson suspected that the British government, in collusion with Robert Swann, the Catholic Old Etonian and a former diplomat whom Benenson himself had chosen as general secretary, had suppressed a report on British atrocities in Aden. Peter Calvocoressi, an academic lawyer, produced a report which found the suspicions of Swann baseless. The same year there were further frictions when US claims came that Sean MacBride, the former Irish foreign minister, winner of the Nobel and Lenin peace prizes and Amnesty's first chairman, had been involved with a Central Intelligence Agency funding operation.

For her part the Guardian journalist Polly Toynbee, then 19, who had served as secretary on an Amnesty mission to Nigeria and the Rhodesias, said there was evidence that Benenson himself had accepted British government funds. He riposted that the money was for political prisoners and their families and not for Amnesty. By then the tensions in the organisation were virtually unbearable. An emergency meeting of the executive was held in Elsinore, which Benenson refused to attend but which resulted in severe criticism of him and his resignation.

After a period of mental exhaustion he retired to land he had bought near Aylesbury. There he attempted the farmer's life, taking great pains but achieving little success except with his lawns. In the 1980s his relations with the organisation he had started were restored under the encouragement of the Swedish secretary-general Thomas Hammarberg and Richard Reoch.

Benenson never tired of his commitment to human rights, in latter years taking up to cause of Mordechai Vanunu, kidnapped from Rome and illegally imprisoned in Israel for revealing details of Israel's nuclear weapons.

Attractive to women and imbued with a strong sexual drive, Benenson was divorced from Margaret in 1972 and the following year he married Susan Booth, who worked at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and with whom he had a son and daughter. Some years later they separated, though did not divorce; they became reconciled when he was in his sixties.

In his later years Peter Benenson lived out of the public gaze, at Nuneham Courtenay outside Oxford. He rejected successive governments' offers of a knighthood, as he did offers of honorary degrees. Long after he left Amnesty his extraordinary personality suffused it.

Injured in a serious motor accident and suffering from coeliac disease, he was constantly visited by Margaret, Susan, his children and grandchildren and numerous friends.

Hugh O'Shaughnessy

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