Peter Benenson

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Peter Benenson
A smiling bespectacled 70-year-old man lights a candle
Benenson lighting a candle in 1991
Born Peter James Henry Solomon
(1921-07-31)31 July 1921
London, England
Died 25 February 2005(2005-02-25) (aged 83)
Oxford, England
Nationality British
Known for Founding the human rights group Amnesty International
Spouse(s) Margaret Anderson (?-1972; divorced; 2 children)
Susan Booth (1973[1]-2005; his death; 2 children)[2]
Parents Flora Benenson
Harold Solomon

Peter Benenson (31 July 1921 – 25 February 2005) was a British lawyer and the founder of human rights group Amnesty International (AI). In 2001, Benenson received the Pride of Britain Award for Lifetime Achievement.[3]

Life and career[edit]

He was born in London as Peter James Henry Solomon, to a Jewish family,[4] the only son of Harold Solomon and Flora Benenson, Peter Benenson adopted his mother's maiden name later in life. His army officer father died when Benenson was aged nine from a long-term injury, and he was tutored privately by W. H. Auden before going to Eton. At the age of sixteen he helped to establish a relief fund with other schoolboys for children orphaned by the Spanish Civil War. He took his mother's maiden name of Benenson as a tribute to his grandfather, the Russian gold tycoon Grigori Benenson, following his grandfather's death.

He enrolled for study at Balliol College, Oxford but World War II interrupted his education. From 1941 to 1945, Benenson worked at Bletchley Park, the British codebreaking centre, in the "Testery", a section tasked with breaking German teleprinter ciphers.[5] It was at this time when he met his first wife, Margaret Anderson. After demobilisation in 1946, Benenson began practising as a barrister before joining the Labour Party and standing unsuccessfully for election. He was one of a group of British lawyers who founded JUSTICE in 1957, the UK-based human rights and law reform organisation. In 1958, he fell ill and moved to Italy in order to convalesce. In the same year, he converted to the Roman Catholic Church.[6]

In 1961, Benenson was shocked and angered by a newspaper report of two Portuguese students from Coimbra sentenced to seven years in prison for raising their glasses in a toast to freedom[7] during the autocratic regime of António de Oliveira Salazar - the Estado Novo. In 1961, Portugal was ruled by the authoritarian Estado Novo regime, and anti-regime conspiracies were vigorously repressed by the Portuguese state police and deemed anti-Portuguese. He wrote to David Astor, editor of The Observer. On 28 May, Benenson's article, entitled "The Forgotten Prisoners", was published. The letter asked readers to write letters showing support for the students. To co-ordinate such letter-writing campaigns, Amnesty International was founded in London in July 1961 at a meeting of Benenson and six other men, who included a Tory, a Liberal and a Labour MP.[8][9] The response was so overwhelming that within a year groups of letter-writers had formed in more than a dozen countries.

Initially appointed general secretary of AI, Benenson stood down in 1964 owing to ill health. By 1966, Amnesty International faced an internal crisis and Benenson alleged that the organization he founded was being infiltrated by British intelligence. The advisory position of president of the International Executive was then created for him. In 1966, he began to make allegations of improper conduct against other members of the executive. An inquiry was set up which reported at Elsinore in Denmark in 1967. The allegations were rejected and Benenson resigned from AI.

While never again active in the organization, Benenson was later personally reconciled with other executives, including Seán MacBride. He died of pneumonia on 25 February 2005 at the John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford, aged 83.[10]

In pop culture[edit]

Benenson is featured/honored in the song If Everyone Cared, a 2006 single by Canadian rock band Nickelback.

References[edit]

  1. ^ [1]
  2. ^ [2]
  3. ^ The Pride of Britain Awards - Lifetime Achievement, Peter Benenson, Founder of Amnesty InternationaL Retrieved October 14, 2011
  4. ^ "Peter Benenson hero file". Moreorless : Heroes and killers of the 20th century. Retrieved 2011-10-12. 
  5. ^ "GCHQ, Atlas and Virginia Tech: Jack Good". Computing at Chilton: 1961-2003. Retrieved 2011-10-12. 
  6. ^ "Peter Benenson". Pax Christi. Retrieved 2009-04-18. 
  7. ^ "Peter Benenson - Biography". Amnesty International. Retrieved 2010-11-02. 
  8. ^ Tracy McVeigh. "Amnesty International marks 50 years of fighting for free speech", The Observer, 29 May 2011. Retrieved 16 June 2012.
  9. ^ Childs, Peter; Storry, Mike, eds. (2002). "Amnesty International". Encyclopedia of Contemporary British Culture. London: Routledge. pp. 22–23.
  10. ^ McFadden, Robert D. (February 28, 2005). "Peter Benenson, Founder of Amnesty Group, Dies at 83". The New York Times. 

Source[edit]

  • Pincock, S.: Peter James Henry Solomon Benenson (obituary). Lancet, April 2, 2005; 365: 1224.

External links[edit]

Non-profit organization positions
Preceded by
None
President of Amnesty International
1961–1966
Succeeded by
Eric Baker