One person who changed the world

Thursday, March 17, 2005


Written by Scott Piatkowski

Normally when I write, I have a pretty good idea of who my audience is, both in terms of newspaper readers and website visitors. In the case of what I regard as some of my most important writing, however, I can’t even say for sure that anyone is reading it at all. I’m talking about the letters that I write to as a member of Amnesty International (which may be read by the intended recipient, by a junior official working for them, or simply consigned to the trash bin).

I initially signed on with Amnesty over twenty years ago when I was young and idealistic, and intent on making a difference in the world. Now that I’m (only slightly) less young and not a bit less idealistic, it’s an involvement that continues to fulfill my personal need to contribute. While I no longer attend group meetings (they don’t fit into my hectic schedule, and I’ve never really thought of writing as a group process), I value the opportunity to do something. Simply put, in the face of egregious human rights abuses around the world (including the continued application of the death penalty in the United States, which is my own pet project), doing something is better than doing nothing.

Amnesty International, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977 and the United Nations Human Rights Prize in 1978, now has nearly two million members. But, it all started because one person had an idea. British lawyer Peter Benenson, who died on February 25 at the age of 83, was no stranger to human rights activism. He had helped Jews to escape Nazi Germany and raised money to find them homes in England. Subsequently, he had spoken out against human rights abuses in Franco’s Spain, Soviet-controlled Hungary, and apartheid South Africa.

But, in 1961, Benenson took that activism a step further. After reading about two Portuguese students who had been jailed for the “crime” of raising their glasses in a toast to freedom, Benenson published an article in The Observer (which was republished around the world). Entitled “The Forgotten Prisoners”, it asked readers to join him in speaking out for prisoners of conscience around the world. Thousands of people responded, from many different countries. He initially envisaged a one-year campaign, but it was soon clear that a permanent campaign would be necessary.

“Once the concentration camps and the hellholes of the world were in darkness,” Benenson said at the time. “Now they are lit by the light of the Amnesty candle; the candle in barbed wire. When I first lit the Amnesty candle, I had in mind the old Chinese proverb: ‘Better light a candle than curse the darkness.’” The candle wrapped in barbed wire continues to serve as the symbol of Amnesty International. According to the group’s website, “the candle represents:

a.. The light of public attention that Amnesty members shine on the hidden abuses (the barbed wire) of human rights violators.
b.. The spark of public pressure that Amnesty members create in order to bring about positive change in people’s lives.
c.. The beacon of hope and solidarity for people who defend human rights, often at great personal risk, and for the many who become the targets of human rights abuse.”
Irene Khan, secretary general of Amnesty International, summed up Benenson's life as “a courageous testament to his visionary commitment to fight injustice around the world. 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. In 1961 his vision gave birth to human rights activism. In 2005, his legacy is a worldwide movement for human rights which will never die.”

Peter Benenson’s contribution to civilization can be measured in lives saved, in numbers of prisoners freed or spared torture. Amnesty’s strength is that it enlists the support of ordinary individuals who care about other ordinary individuals. They either adopt a particular prisoner and harangue the responsible authorities until they agree to release them, or they respond to “urgent action” appeals. It doesn’t always work, but sometimes it does.

Staunchly non-partisan (as great a challenge today as it was at the height of the Cold War), Amnesty doesn’t shy away from taking tough stands on issues. It is against the death penalty without reservation. It speaks out against torture no matter who is applying it. It advocates for women’s rights regardless of how open a particular culture is to hearing about those rights. Its annual country-by-country reports are required reading for anyone who is concerned about the protection of human rights.

I’m proud to be a part of Amnesty International. In the aftermath of the sad departure of its founder, why not pick up a pen (or click on your mouse) and join me in putting Peter Benenson’s idea into action?

For more information on Amnesty International’s Canadian Section (English Speaking), visit http://www.amnesty.ca/ or call one of the section’s three offices in Canada:

National office
Telephone: (613) 744-7667 or 1-800-AMNESTY (266-3789)
Fax: (613) 746-2411 E-mail:

Toronto Office
Telephone: (416) 363-9933 Fax: (416) 363-3103

Pacific Regional Office
Telephone: (604) 294-5160 Fax: (604) 294-5130

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