From newspaper article to global organisation: how 1 Londoner started a global human rights movement

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It all started with a newspaper article.

On May 28, 1961, Londoner Peter Benenson’s article in The Observer, ‘The Forgotten Prisoners’, left people wondering what they could do for prisoners of conscience.

From this article, the global human rights organization Amnesty International was founded and this year the charity celebrates its 60th anniversary.

Over the years, Amnesty has done incredible work.

As well as operating as a global organization, Amnesty has local groups of volunteers who come together to take action, launch campaigns and fundraise on behalf of the charity.

A group of Indian journalists, lawyers and trade unionists imprisoned for defending the human rights of the weakest members of society.

A farming community in Colombia subjected to threats and violence from paramilitary organizations.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, unjustly imprisoned in Iran.

These are just some of the people Amnesty Mayfair and Soho have worked for recently, for example.

People often think that activism is only done by noble individuals who already have a lot of fame and power when they start campaigning. But that’s not true at all.

Much of Amnesty’s work over the past 60 years has been carried out by ordinary members of local groups.

The Mayfair and Soho group is made up of ordinary Londoners and the members have met in all sorts of places over the years, starting at Liddon House in Mayfair and passing through churches and most recently at the Central YMCA near the station from Tottenham Court Rd. The group has also continued to operate during the pandemic, with meetings currently being held online.

Amnesty campaigns for the release of prisoners of conscience, those imprisoned for the peaceful expression of their rights to freedom of expression, belief and assembly; for fair trials for all; for an end to torture and the death penalty; for the protection of those who defend human rights.

Nick Hodgson, Group Secretary of Amnesty Mayfair and Soho, said: “We have worked for individual prisoners of conscience in Morocco, North Korea, Yemen, the Philippines and the former German Democratic Republic and have played our part in establishing a global arms trade treaty, with a Guns Destruction event in Trafalgar Square.”

Nick added that the groups also “challenge jewelers over conflict diamonds; run a simultaneous event with Amnesty groups across Europe to commemorate the rescue of Kindertransport in 1938; held writing sessions letters to local libraries; lobbied MPs and embassies; sent an item of a member’s wedding cake to a prisoner in Morocco; and, through our annual testimonial act (once with Vanessa Redgrave), we have collected thousands of books for Amnesty’s work”.

Nick added that new people are always welcome to join Amnesty’s Mayfair and Soho group or check out other local Amnesty groups.

And a fact that you may not have known? Amnesty’s symbol is a candle surrounded by barbed wire because members believe “it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness”.

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