Marking 50 Years Of Amnesty International In 1961, British lawyer Peter Benenson published an appeal in the London Observer on behalf of prisoners of conscience, and began a campaign that became Amnesty International. Amnesty USA secretary general Larry Cox talks about 50 years of human rights and how the movement has changed over time.
NPR logo

Marking 50 Years Of Amnesty International

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Marking 50 Years Of Amnesty International

Marking 50 Years Of Amnesty International

Marking 50 Years Of Amnesty International

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

In 1961, British lawyer Peter Benenson published an appeal in the London Observer on behalf of prisoners of conscience, and began a campaign that became Amnesty International. Amnesty USA secretary general Larry Cox talks about 50 years of human rights and how the movement has changed over time.


In 1961, a British lawyer, Peter Benenson, launched an appeal on behalf of what he called prisoners of conscience in the London Observer. The case in point: two Portuguese students thrown in jail after raising their glasses in a toast to freedom. The organization that emerged from that outrage came to be known as Amnesty International.

Today, the group has almost three million members and supporters in about 150 countries. All work on a specific mandate to protect human rights and abolish the death penalty. Next year the organization turns 50.

Amnesty International USA executive director Larry Cox joins us in a moment. We also want to hear from you. If you've been affected by Amnesty International or worked on any of their campaigns, call, tell us your story: 800-989-8255. Email: Join the conversation at our website. That's at, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

AI USA Executive Director Larry Cox joins us here in Studio 3A. Larry Cox, nice to have you back in the program.

Mr. LARRY COX (Executive Director, Amnesty International USA): It's great to be here.

CONAN: You've had a long involvement with Amnesty International. What motivated you to get involved in the first place?

Mr. COX: Well, I started out as many people did in the'60s, being against almost everything and got increasingly radical and ideological. And then finally sort of burned out and got very tired of talking a lot but not getting any results. And I bumped into this organization. And I met somebody, a man named Pavel Litvinov, who had been arrested in Moscow for protesting the invasion of Czechoslovakia. And he told me the story. He told me how important it was to his survival that Amnesty International had taken up his case. And that convinced me that there was a way to change the world that actually got results. And so I became addicted and I spent the next 14 years working at Amnesty.

CONAN: Case by case by case?

Mr. COX: Well, yes. We go case by case by case. There's always a human being behind every human rights issue. But as you take up a case, especially of somebody who's been arrested because they've been fighting for human rights and you get them out of prison, they continue that fight. And that becomes the spark that can often lead to the fall of dictatorships, complete transformation of societies.

As we saw over the years, dictatorships fall in the southern cone of Latin America, the Soviet Union, around the world, really. Human rights was, as Dr. King called it, a revolution.

CONAN: Human rights was a revolution and it was deeply involved in some of the campaigns. Amnesty International - can you specifically site cases that you think helped to tip things over in favor of human rights?

Mr. COX: Well, I can give you lots of cases - in fact, with more than 40,000 cases. But individuals that people would know - the campaign, for example, for Vaclav Havel, who is now, you know, went on to become the head of Czechoslovakia and was a major campaign by Amnesty that led not only to his freedom but to the freedom of others and eventual the fall of the dictatorship.

Just most recently, you know, Aung San Suu Kyi, somebody we worked on for decades and who when she was just released, a Nobel Prize winner in Burma, said that without international pressure, she probably would not have been freed.

We see that every week, every month. And the important thing is that it's not the organization that does it, it's people around the world. It's people just like the people who are listening to this program, who take the time to write a letter, send an email, take an action, take part in a vigil that results in a human being being freed or staying alive instead of being killed.

CONAN: You've had - you've led international delegations abroad. How do you -how are you usually received? Are you seen as someone who's helping to solve problems or as somebody creating them?

Mr. COX: Well, it depends on the government. Usually we are received politely but coldly, I would say. Governments are always very interested in showing us that we're wrong. They're also, you know, very worried, and they often will plead with us to please tell our members to stop writing them all these damn letters they can't handle, and there's no need for it because they're not doing what we say we're doing. But we always are polite. We're always firm, but polite. And as we've seen, persistence - going back year after year after year, people writing letters year after year after year - eventually, they will often give in and let people out.

CONAN: We want to hear your stories of Amnesty International as the organization is on the cusp of turning 50 years old. How has it affected you? 800-989-8255. Email is Let's go Liz first, Liz calling us from East Lansing in Michigan.

LIZ (Caller): Hello?

CONAN: Hi, Liz. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

LIZ: Hi, there. My name is - yeah. I was - I'm a member of Amnesty, group 81, in Lansing. And we - for years, we wrote for a fellow named Andrei Gregorio(ph). We had a fellow in our group who could write Russian, and we wrote for this fellow. We never got any answer. We sent off, you know, eight or nine letters every month. And it was a pretty thankless task.

And then Gorbachev released 300 and something prisoners in Russia. And ours turned out to be one of the most important. And he was on the front page of the New York Times, and then he went on to write a - to start up a newsletter or newspaper called Glasnost.

And for us, this person that we thought, you know - we were really almost doing it without really knowing we've had any effect at all. And suddenly, he became real and the whole world knew about him, and it was, for us, very moving.

CONAN: Are you still engaged in activities today?

LIZ: We are. We're very much engaged. My husband and I are members. We're still members of the local group, in fact, chairs of a local group but also members of the Central African Regional Action Network is what they used to call it. And my husband it sort of a specialist in Congo and Rwanda.

CONAN: And to whom do you write letters today?

LIZ: Well, that's a - today, you know, it's changed. It used to be that you wrote on behalf of particular prisoner. And nowadays, you write for campaigns. And so we do specialize a lot in Africa. Our group specializes a lot in Africa because (unintelligible). And so we write a lot on - to officials in Congo and in Rwanda.

CONAN: Liz...

LIZ: But - yeah.

CONAN: I was just going to say thanks very much. We appreciate the phone call.

LIZ: Thanks a lot. Bye-bye.

CONAN: And good luck to you. Why the change in tactics, Larry?

Mr. COX: Well, actually, it's not so much a change in tactics as in addition of tactics. As we began to work on prisoners of conscience, a lot of regimes began to realize that locking people up in prison was not the best way to silence them. So they began to engage in disappearances or killings or, in the case of Congo, which you just mentioned, women being raped as a way to punish them for their dissidence.

So we began to have to work on, not just individual prisoners of conscience, but on these broader themes. But in every case, we continue to work on behalf of prisoners of conscience as well, but we just - there are so many thousands, if not millions, of people that couldn't be reached by just that one technique that we had to adopt many other techniques as well.

CONAN: As people might imagine, Amnesty International is more than occasionally at the center of controversy, including cases where you're writing on behalf of the release of people who are prisoners, who later turn out to return to activities many regard as terrorist.

Mr. COX: Well, I think - that does happen, of course. We never claim that the people that we work for are perfect human beings who are not capable of doing things that we would abhor. We don't write it on behalf of people because we like them or we don't like them, we write on them because they're human beings and every human being has certain basic rights.

But in the case of the war on terror, well, we have taken up the cases of people who have not been charged or, you know, convicted of any crime whatsoever. This is a question of if people are guilty, they should be tried. If they're not, they should be released. And if you can't prove that they're guilt, as in our criminal justice system, you have to let them go.

It's a question of values. It's a question of being able to have moral authority in the world, which, unfortunately, we lost in many ways during the years that we were locking people up in Guantanamo.

CONAN: Melanie is on the line, Melanie with us from Jacksonville.

MELANIE (Caller): Hi. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

MELANIE: I'm a high school teacher, and I've started an Amnesty club five years ago. And I've just found that Amnesty is such a wonderful outlet to introduce young people to accessible things they can do on a global scale. And I was wondering if Mr. Cox had any suggestions on how to keep young people involved.

Mr. COX: Yeah. It's really good that you mentioned young people, because they are really flocking to this work. I think people are hungry, not just to read about terrible things going on - people being tortured, people being killed, people being locked up - but to be able to do something about it, especially young people. And some of the - we have more than hundreds, and hundreds and hundreds of student groups, high school groups, university groups.

If anybody is listening and they want to get involved, they can go to and we will help them hook up with a group in their area. But young people, in particular, are hungry to make a difference, to change the world, not just to watch it and observe it. That's how I got involved, you know, nearly 30 - more than 30 years ago, and that's how people get involved today.

CONAN: Melanie, thanks very much.

MELANIE: Thank you.

CONAN: Here's an email from Judith in Berkeley, California. Would you please ask your guest why Amnesty International constantly cites Israel as a great violator of human rights but does not cite the Palestinians, the Saudis, Hamas, Hezbollah? I find this one sided reporting very disturbing.

Mr. COX: Well, I'm very happy to correct that information because that's not true. If you go to our annual report, which we publish every year so that people can see exactly what we say about every single country, you'll see that all of those countries, including the Palestinians, have been the subject of very strong Amnesty reports, very critical Amnesty reports.

We try very hard, as much as any human organization can do, to apply the same standard to all countries. But we don't back off from any country because it's going to make us, as you said earlier, controversial or unpopular. And often when we criticize Israel - that is one country where we get most of these charges. But I think if you look at the record, we have increasingly done reporting on all of the countries in the region and are very proud of our record on that.

CONAN: Let's go next to Dave(ph), Dave with us from St. Louis.

DAVE (Caller): Hi. I'm just curious on I think Amnesty does a wonderful job. I'm curious how you separate the real human rights cases from, you know, fakes, if you will, or people that aren't being persecuted but are actually being prosecuted.

Mr. COX: Yeah. The answer to that the short answer is with great care. Because increasingly, again, governments, in response to the success of groups like Amnesty International, have begun to charge people with criminal offenses rather than just lock them up, say, because they are guilty of threatening the state. And so, you have to do a lot of investigation to make sure that they aren't guilty of criminal offenses.

We often will take up cases where the real issue is a fair trial, for example, where we're not sure whether they're guilty but we are sure that nobody can know because they have not received a fair trial. So we're extremely careful in trying to do just what you said, to separate out those who are truly being persecuted for their beliefs from those who have committed real crimes.

CONAN: Have you ever made a mistake?

Mr. COX: We make mistakes all the time. I think one of the things that makes us different from so many of the governments that we criticize, is that we have always admitted our mistakes as quickly as we can. We do that because lives depend on it. It's not an abstract thing for us. If we make a mistake and we don't correct it, the next time we bring up a case, someone is likely to doubt what we're saying. So it's very important for us to have the credibility. And when we make a mistake and found out about it, yeah, we immediately go public with it and say the information we have is wrong and here's the correction.

CONAN: Dave, thanks very much. And this email from Karen(ph). My husband, Jimi Simmons, was charged with first-degree murder. The judge wanted him handcuffed in the courtroom during the trial. We felt they sent a message that he was a dangerous man. When the judge discovered that Amnesty International did not approve of this, he reversed his ruling and my husband was able to appear before the jury without being chained. He was acquitted. I think the fact that the jury did not see him in chained chains helped them to consider that he might not be a dangerous man.

So Larry Cox has been with us here in Studio 3A, executive director of Amnesty International USA, which turns 50 next year. Happy Birthday, Larry.

Mr. COX: Well, thank you very much. And we're, as so many mentioned, that we're celebrating that birthday by issuing a new call to action, by engaging in what we call a Global Write-a-Thon, which involve people from throughout the country taking actions, coming together to write letters. And, again, I hope people will take the time to check it out and get involved, because more than ever we need people to take action for human rights.

CONAN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.