Amnesty: 50 years of fighting for human rights

One man started the group in 1961; now it has 80,000 volunteers in 85 countries. Paul Bignell unearths 50 facts to mark a half-century as the world's conscience
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1 Peter Benenson, barrister and founder of Amnesty International, previously worked at wartime Britain's code-breaking centre, Bletchley Park, famous for cracking the Enigma code.

2 As a child, Benenson was privately tutored by the poet WH Auden.

3 Sir Louis Blom-Cooper QC, one of Britain's most high-profile lawyers, was one of AI's founders. He later went on to take a leading role in Northern Ireland's Saville Inquiry, and is a former chair of the Press Complaints Commission.

4 Amnesty now has three million members in 150 countries.

5 Its logo – a candle wrapped in barbed wire – was inspired by the ancient Chinese proverb "it's better to light a candle than to curse the darkness".

6 Such is the charity's global reach, its annual report is now reproduced in more than 25 languages.

7 Canadian rockers Nickelback pay tribute to Benenson in the song "If Everyone Cared".

8 Bruce Springsteen, Annie Lennox, Mick Jagger and Sting are among hundreds of celebrities who have supported the group publicly.

9 Many of Amnesty's founding principles were sketched out on napkins in bars in London.

10 By 1977, only 16 countries had abolished the death penalty. Thirty years later, the number had grown to 90, largely due to pressure from Amnesty.

11 Despite receiving no money from political parties or governments, its total income in 2010 was £175m, generated by members.

12 Far from being an army of idealistic teens, the average age of Amnesty staff is 40.

13 People of 66 nationalities work at the organisation's headquarters in London.

14 In 1977, it was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its work. The citation said the charity "sprang spontaneously" from the "deep and firmly rooted conviction that the ordinary man and woman is capable of making a meaningful contribution to peace."

15 The first Secret Policeman's Ball, in 1976, Amnesty's first celebrity benefit, was known both as A Poke in ihe Eye (With a Sharp Stick) – under which it was released as an album – and Pleasure at Her Majesty's – a film.

16 Amnesty has been condemned by Moscow for alleged espionage, and Morocco denounced it as a defender of lawbreakers.

17 Bono, one of the driving forces behind Live Aid, told Rolling Stone Magazine in 1986: "I saw The Secret Policeman's Ball and it became a part of me. It sowed a seed."

18 Benenson joined the Labour Party after the Second World War and stood, unsuccessfully, as a parliamentary candidate.

19 Amnesty's likening of Guantanamo Bay to a gulag in 2005 prompted a stinging attack from President George Bush, dismissing the claim as "absurd".

20 In 2007 Catholics were urged to withhold donations to AI after it changed its neutral stance on abortion to supporting access to abortion in cases of rape, incest and when the life or the health of the mother might be threatened.

21 "I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it" – a quote usually attributed to 18th-century French writer and philosopher Voltaire, is Amnesty's core conviction, according to its founder.

22 Jean-Pierre Hocké, a former United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, praised AI, by saying: "It's a worn cliché, but if Amnesty did not exist, it would have to be invented. It is simply unique."

23 Amnesty's remit has significantly broadened over the years. Although its initial focus was to support and aid people who had been wrongly imprisoned, it now fights against any abuse of human rights.

24 The organisation recently sent a letter to US President Barack Obama, protesting at the harsh conditions of WikiLeaks source Bradley Manning's detention. Private Manning is to be moved into a new detention centre.

25 Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma's pro-democracy leader and perhaps the world's best-known political prisoner, has said how happy she will be when there is no longer any need for Amnesty.

26 Eric Baker, another of the charity's founders, was a Quaker and a conscientious objector during the Second World War.

27 Amnesty gives awards recognising excellence in human rights journalism. The Independent's Asia correspondent, Andrew Buncombe, last week received one of its accolades.

28 The charity's founder was moved to form Amnesty in 1961 after reading about two Portuguese students who were jailed for seven years for publicly "toasting freedom" in the then autocratic state.

29 Former US president George Bush cancelled a visit to Switzerland earlier this year after the group's Swiss branch called for his arrest and investigation for "criminal responsibility for acts of torture".

30 Whistleblowing website WikiLeaks was praised by Amnesty, which cited it as a catalyst for recent popular uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East.

31 North Korea, one of the most secretive countries on the planet, is holding more than 200,000 political prisoners in a series of prison camps, according to Amnesty.

32 A year after its founding, the organisation produced its first report highlighting the cases of 210 prisoners in seven countries.

33 The Secret Policeman's Ball saw Rowan Atkinson's first use of the voice now globally recognised as Mr Bean.

34 Not all of AI's campaigns end in success. Nigerian writer Ken Saro-Wiwa was framed on a murder charge and hanged in Port Harcourt in 1995.

35 Benenson resigned in 1967 after it was revealed that he took British government money to finance a fact-finding mission in Zimbabwe, in breach of his own impartiality rule.

36 The failure of British judge Lord Hoffmann to declare his and his wife's links to Amnesty before ruling on whether Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet was immune from prosecution led to the unprecedented "setting aside" of a House of Lords judgment.

37 AI has recently been criticised for excessive payouts to senior staff. In February 2011 it was revealed that Irene Khan, its seventh secretary general, received £533,103 after her resignation.

38 In its 50-year history Amnesty has conducted around 3,341 missions to research human rights abuses around the world, and has produced some 17,000 reports.

39 One of the first prisoners of conscience that AI helped to release – Constantin Noica, a philosopher from Romania – was sentenced to 25 years' forced labour for failing to abide by the terms of isolation while sent away from university as punishment. He was released after six.

40 Dr Agostinho Neto, an Angolan poet and doctor who in the 1960s was flogged in front of his family was another of the first prisoners whose plight was highlighted. He later became independent Angola's first president.

41 AI's first annual expenditure was £6,040.

42 Members are not allowed to act on cases in their own countries.

43 A network of some 80,000 volunteers in 85 countries is mobilised by email, fax, and post to send fast appeals on behalf of prisoners in immediate danger of torture or execution.

44 Amnesty was a major influence in the inauguration of the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

45 Despite the bitterness of his resignation, Peter Benenson reconciled with his former colleagues shortly before his death in 2005.

46 Irene Khan, appointed secretary general in 2001, was the first woman, first Muslim and the first person from Asia to lead the organisation.

47 At the turn of the century, a member survey found that Amnesty's membership profile was ageing. It began a campaign aimed at enlisting younger, popular celebrities, including music and fashion mogul P. Diddy, to lend "star appeal".

48 According to a former torturer from El Salvador "if there's lots of pressure – like from Amnesty International or some foreign countries – we might pass them on to a judge. But if there's no pressure, then they're dead."

49 Where reports of abuses arise in countries that deny Amnesty access, it uses outside sources such as news media, refugees and diplomats.

50 Nelson Mandela, adopted by the charity as a "Forgotten Prisoner" in 1962, later became its "Ambassador of Conscience".