"The newspaper reader feels a sickening sense of impotence. Yet if these feelings of disgust could be united into common action, something effective could be done."
So said Peter Benenson, a barrister working in London in the 1960s and the founder of Amnesty International. He was right of course. Right, to imagine that he was not alone in feeling angry and powerless when reading about injustice -people jailed just for speaking out against their government, or facing execution on death row.
He was also right that something could be done if enough people came together, and took 'action'.
Forty years ago today, Amnesty's first ever urgent action was issued on March 19, 1973 following the arrest of Professor Luiz Basilio Rossi, a professor of economics at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil and a trade union leader. There had been worrying reports of a clampdown on political opponents of the military dictatorship in power in Brazil at the time. On the evening of 15 February 1973 Professor Rossi's home was surrounded by military police armed with machine guns. Rossi was arrested without explanation.
His wife was confined to the house, and so had difficulty in notifying anyone about her husband's arrest. Eventually she smuggled a note to a neighbour, and the information ultimately reached Amnesty's offices in London. Concerned about reports of people being tortured during their detention in Brazil, Tracy Ultveit-Moe, a researcher at Amnesty, felt that something radical should be done to protect Professor Rossi. She pioneered the idea of suddenly inundating the Brazilian authorities with letters demanding information about Rossi, and seeking his immediate release. It proved effective.
The letters caused his captor, the Department of Public Order and Security Headquarter's Director, to comment to Professor Rossi's wife: "Your husband must be more important than we thought, because we've got all these letters from all over the world."
Professor Rossi was freed on October 24, 1973. Following his release, Rossi said he credited Amnesty's activists with securing his release. Rossi said:
"I knew that my case had become public, I knew they could no longer kill me. Then the pressure on me decreased and conditions improved."
The tenacity and forthrightness of Amnesty's founding members is truly remarkable and admirable. These were ordinary people with ordinary jobs, who appointed themselves as moonlighting human rights defenders. They picked up their pens and wrote to heads of state, demanding that they release prisoners.
It was a revolutionary new dawn, wherein normal people refused to allow diplomacy and lobbying to remain the reserve of politicians and governments. It worked. Even though the authorities did not publically accept it, bags of letters relating to political prisoners made them think again about how they would proceed.
Once a prisoner had gained international notoriety, they were protected by it, as their government could no longer sweep them under the carpet. They would have to account for what had happened to them -to Amnesty.
Just as papers continue to be filled with unjust cases, of the sort that first moved Peter Benenson to appeal for common action, I am confident that they continue to be read by people who insist on being heard. If the bad news is that we still need Amnesty 's urgent actions, the good news is, we're going strong. You can join the urgent action network at www.amnesty.org.uk/ua