Speaking at a Human Rights Day event on 10th December, 1961, the English lawyer Peter Benenson, the founder of Amnesty International, said that it is “better to light a candle than curse the darkness”.
What he ignited has since conflagrated across the world. Amnesty now has over 3,000,000 members and activists, and over 100 offices worldwide.
Amnesty International began after Benenson sat in a London underground train and read of two Portuguese students imprisoned for raising “a toast to freedom”. He later published an article in The Observer called “The Forgotten Prisoners”.
The article launched the “Appeal for Amnesty 1961”, a worldwide campaign that triggered a remarkable response. Reprinted in newspapers across the world, his call to action resonated with the values and aspirations of people everywhere. Thus was Amnesty International born.
Amnesty International’s iconic candle looped in barbed wire is one of the most widely recognised, non-commercial symbols in the world.
Not long after the foundation of Amnesty International, Peter Benenson invited Diana Redhouse, a British artist, to design an emblem for Amnesty based on a candle encircled in barbed wire. He had conceived of the image when after using the "Better to light a candle…” proverb.
By 1966, Amnesty had adopted 1,500 prisoners of conscience, for whose release its members and friends campaigned. By this date its activities had resulted in over 1,000 political prisoners being released.
In 1977, Amnesty International was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for "having contributed to securing the ground for freedom, for justice, and thereby also for peace in the world".
Amnesty has now been responsible for the release of tens of thousands of political prisoners, the reduction of torture and the improvement of human rights across the world. Its activities now extend to opposition of the death penalty, and the promotion of freedom of expression, reproductive rights, international justice, and stopping corporate abuse.
The development of human rights is a long and complex story whose longest roots can be traced to a variety of sources including, arguably, Hammurabi’s Code in Babylon around 1780 BC. More modern developments can be found in the Magna Carta of 1215, the Bill of Rights in 1689, and Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man in 1791. The foundation and work of Amnesty International is a very important part of this story.
The story of the development of human rights is, like science, music and literature, a story of continuing organic development: it cannot be terminated. Whatever its detractors think, the human rights project will not cease abruptly if a particular piece of legislation or a code is repealed.
Amnesty is a unique example in modern history of how an organisation begun by one person has resounded so well with people across the world that the operation of law has been substantially changed across many countries as a result.
The law is everyone’s law, not the government’s, and it is right that large, influential demotic groups should be able to exercise sway over its contents and application.
Rarely in human history has so much been illuminated and changed by the lighting of a single candle.