Skip to main content

Iconic images mark Amnesty International's 50th anniversary

By Elizabeth Joseph, CNN
  • Amnesty International was founded by a UK lawyer outraged at the imprisonment of two Portuguese students
  • The organization works to secure the release of political prisoners around the world
  • Each year, supporters meet to toast to freedom, in tribute to the students who inspired them

(CNN) -- Amnesty International's demand for the release of Eynulla Fatullayev, a journalist from Azerbaijan, was met just two days after the organization's UK branch launched a social media campaign.

"[He] was freed after we launched a Twitter campaign tweeting the President from Azerbaijan with hundreds and hundreds and hundreds, if not thousands of messages, saying this man does not deserve to be held in jail," Larry Cox, Executive Director of Amnesty International U.S. tells CNN.

"He's a journalist, he wrote an article. You can't put people in jail for that."

Mr. Fataullayev is just one of the many individuals Amnesty International has supported over its 50 year history.

The organization is made up of three million supporters, members and activists from around the globe. It has offices in 80 countries and produces between four and five hundred reports on human rights annually.

50 years of Amnesty International

Its aim is to hold governments accountable; to demand that they adhere to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948.

"What makes the Universal Declaration of Human Rights relevant is what has always made it relevant. That's the struggle of people for freedom and dignity," says Cox.

"Governments have never wanted to live up to the promises they made more than 60 years ago. It's when people take to the streets, people bring pressure to bear, people insist we want our rights to be respected, that the world has to take notice."

Listen to CNN's interview with Larry Cox

It's hard to believe an organization that operates on a global scale came from such simple beginnings: In 1961 British lawyer Peter Beneson was outraged after he learned of two Portuguese students sentenced to jail for no other reason but for toasting to liberty in a Lisbon restaurant.

Beneson wrote an article about political prisoners that was published on the front page of the UK's Observer newspaper. He encouraged others to join his cause -- to learn of political prisoners and write letters to the regimes that imprisoned them.

"It began with people sitting down at their desk and writing letters, and knowing that thousands, tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of other people were doing the same," explains Cox.

"Dictators and oppressors from around the world were being flooded by these messages, making them aware that they had to change or they were going to get increasingly isolated."

As a tribute to the two students in Lisbon who sparked the idea in the organization's founder, supporters of Amnesty international still meet annually to toast to freedom.

"Every year around this time, people gather in all parts of the world to also raise a toast to freedom," says Cox.

"It's not really a toast to Amnesty International. It's a toast to all those people who are risking their lives, risking their freedom, in this fight for human rights. That's who the toast is for. It reminds us of what we still have to do and it keeps us going."