Peter Benenson

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Person.png Peter Benenson   WikiquoteRdf-entity.pngRdf-icon.png
(lawyer, spook)
Peter Benenson.jpg
BornPeter James Henry Solomon
London, England
Died2005-02-25 (Age 83)
Oxford, England
Alma materEton
Parents • Flora Benenson
• Harold Solomon
Spouse • Margaret Anderson
• Susan Booth
Founder ofAmnesty International
British lawyer and co-founder of Amnesty International.

Peter Benenson was a British lawyer and co-founder, with six others including Seán MacBride, of human rights group Amnesty International (AI) in 1961.

Large Jewish family

He was born in London as Peter James Henry Solomon, to a large Jewish family, 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. 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.

Spooky mother

Flora Benenson was a long-time friend of British intelligence officer Kim Philby. She introduced him to his second wife Aileen. Whilst working in Spain as the Times correspondent on Franco’s side of the Civil War, Philby proposed that she become a Soviet agent. His friend from Cambridge Guy Burgess was simultaneously trying to recruit her into MI6. But the Soviet resident in Paris, Ozolin-Haskin (code-name Pierre) rejected this as a provocation. Had both moves succeeded she would have become a double agent. In 1962 when Philby was the correspondent of the London Observer in Beirut, she objected to the anti-Israeli tone of his articles. She related the details of the contact to Victor (later Lord) Rothschild, who had worked for MI5.[1]

Army intelligence

Peter Benenson enrolled for study at Balliol College, University of Oxford but World War II interrupted his education. He worked in Army Intelligence at the Ministry of Information where he met his first wife, Margaret Anderson. Benenson then worked at Bletchley Park, the British codebreaking centre, in the "Testery", a section tasked with breaking German teleprinter ciphers.[2]

Writing for justice

After demobilisation in 1946, Benenson began practising as a barrister before joining the Labour Party and standing unsuccessfully for election at Streatham in the 1950 General 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 to convalesce. In the same year, he converted to the Roman Catholic Church.[3]

In 1961, Benenson was shocked and angered by a newspaper report of two Portuguese students from Coimbra, Portugal sentenced to seven years in prison for raising their glasses in a toast to freedom[4] during the regime of António de Oliveira Salazar. He wrote to David Astor, editor of The Observer. On 28 May 1961, Benenson's article, entitled "The Forgotten Prisoners", was published.[5] 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 Conservative, a Liberal and a Labour MP.[6][7] 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. Two years later, Amnesty International faced an internal crisis and Benenson alleged that the organisation he co-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 making 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 organisation, Benenson was later personally reconciled with other executives, including Seán MacBride.[8]

Evolution to AI

  • 1937 - While at Eton Benenson organises support for the Spanish Relief Committee, which is providing assistance to orphans of republican war dead. He "adopts" one of the babies himself, helping to pay for its upbringing. Meanwhile, as the situation for Jews in Nazi Germany deteriorates, Benenson looks for ways to help. He convinces his school friends and their families to raise £4,000 to bring two young German Jews to Britain. Later, he helps his mother find homes for refugee children who have fled to London.
  • 1939 - When Benenson's grandfather Grigori dies in March Benenson agrees to adopt his surname. He is known for a while as Solomon-Benenson, but later shortens this to Benenson. The Second World War begins on 1 September when German forces invade Poland. Benenson interrupts his studies at Oxford University to join the military, settling on the army after the navy rejects him because of his family's Russian background. He works first in the Ministry of Information press office and then at the Bletchley Park code-breaking centre, where he is assigned to the 'Testery', a section responsible for cracking German teleprinter ciphers. While in the army he meets and marries Margaret Anderson. The couple will have two daughters.
  • 1946 - While he waits to be demobilised from the army Benenson studies law. He takes his bar exams and becomes a practising lawyer, specialising in human rights cases. He also joins the Labour Party, becoming a leading member of the Society of Labour Lawyers, and helps found Labour's Spanish Democrats Defence Committee.
  • He seeks election to House of Commons as a Labour candidate four times - in 1950 for the seat of Streatham, and in 1951, 1955 and 1959 for Hitchin - but each time is unsuccessful.
  • 1950s - The Labour Party sends Benenson to Spain to observe the trial of 17 Basque nationalists in 1954. He is also dispatched to Spain by the Trades Union Congress to observe trials of trade unionists. Benenson is appalled by what he witnesses at the trials of the trade unionists and draws up a list of complaints with which he confronts the trial judge. The trials end with acquittals. Across the Mediterranean in British-administered Cyprus, Benenson helps and advises Greek Cypriot lawyers whose clients are facing prosecution under British law.

The relative success of these missions leads to the formation of Justice, a British arm of the International Commission of Jurists.

  • 1959 - Benenson develops coeliac disease, an irritation of the bowl caused by intolerance to gluten. He takes a break from law and moves to Italy to recuperate. He will later establish a society for people with the disease.
  • 1960 - In November, while commuting on the London underground, Benenson reads a short newspaper article about an incident in Portugal, which is then under the regime of dictator António de Oliveira Salazar. According to the article, two Portuguese students had been arrested and sentenced to seven years in jail after drinking a toast to liberty in a café in Lisbon. Outraged by the trammelling of the students' human rights he decides to "see what could really be done effectively to mobilise world opinion":
"I became aware that lawyers themselves were not able sufficiently to influence the course of justice in undemocratic countries," Benenson later says. "It was necessary to think of a larger group which would harness the enthusiasm of people all over the world who were anxious to see a wider respect for human rights."

After discussing the matter with his friend and fellow barrister, Louis Blom-Cooper, Benenson visits the editor of the The Observer newspaper.

  • 1961 - On Sunday, 28 May The Observer publishes an article by Benenson titled "The Forgotten Prisoners" on the front of its Weekend Review section. The article calls for a one-year Appeal for Amnesty to obtain the release of "prisoners of conscience". The article begins, "Open your newspaper - any day of the week - and you will find a report from somewhere in the world of someone being imprisoned, tortured or executed because his opinions or religion are unacceptable to his government. ... The newspaper reader feels a sickening sense of impotence. Yet if these feelings of disgust all over the world could be united into common action, something effective could be done:
"That is why we have started Appeal for Amnesty, 1961. The campaign, which opens today, is the result of an initiative by a group of lawyers, writers and publishers in London, who share the underlying conviction expressed by Voltaire: 'I detest your views, but am prepared to die for your right to express them.' We have set up an office in London to collect information about the names, numbers and conditions of what we have decided to call Prisoners of Conscience, and we define them thus: 'Any person who is physically restrained (by imprisonment or otherwise) from expressing (in any form of words or symbols) an opinion which he honestly holds and which does not advocate or condone personal violence."[9]


In 2001, Benenson received the Daily Mirror's "Pride of Britain" award for Lifetime Achievement.


Related Document

TitleTypePublication dateAuthor(s)Description
Document:Amnesty International: Imperialist ToolArticle23 October 2012Francis BoyleEffectively, Amnesty International and AIUSA function as tools for the imperialist, colonial and genocidal policies of the United States, Britain, and Israel.
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