In 1961, British lawyer Peter Benenson learned of two Portuguese students sentenced to seven years in prison for simply raising a toast to freedom in their country. In response to such an injustice, Benenson wrote an article, “The Forgotten Prisoners,” in The Observer. The article was reprinted in newspapers across the world, launching the campaign Appeal for Amnesty 1961. Amnesty International was born.
Fifty years later, the organization’s 3 million members toast to freedom in more than 150 countries. These 3 million people are the heart of Amnesty International.
“The whole idea of Amnesty International is how we got our start 50 years ago with one person trying to be heard, and now we can see that the more people speak out to defend civil rights, the likelier you are to have an impact,” says Suzanne Trimel, media relations director of Amnesty International USA. “The organization depends on its volunteers. It’s the power of numbers; it’s the only way things have ever changed.”
In 2007, a Hispanic woman named Liliana, threatened with deportation, sought refuge in a Simi Valley church. Accused of falsely claiming to be a U.S. citizen, Liliana was the mother of three children, all born in California and therefore American citizens; her husband, too, had become a citizen through naturalization. If deported back to Mexico, she would have been all alone.
This is the type of cause that the Ventura Chapter of Amnesty International champions. The Ventura Chapter meets once a month, and focuses on writing letters to heads of state about people subjected to inhumane and unfair behavior.
Frank Santes, a member for 15 years, explains how letter-writing works.
“Chapters all write the same thing simultaneously, and when heads of state get 5,000 or 10,000 letters all saying the same thing, they can’t ignore that,” he says. “They are bombarded with the fact that they’re under a microscope, putting pressure on them to rethink their decisions. Our famous letter-writing campaign is an urgent action network for people put in jail for defending human rights. Letters flood officials overnight.”
Bob Gips, a Ventura County chapter member since 1987, points out that enacting change is difficult, relating that he spent four years attempting to free a man in Benin who was imprisoned for distributing leaflets in protest of not getting paid for his work.
“It takes a lot of patience,” Gips says. “We very rarely get responses directly, so you just have to keep persisting. But it gives me great satisfaction to be able to accomplish something. I am very concerned about people imprisoned for nonviolent political actions.”
Santes, too, says he feels immense gratification when his letter-writing efforts are successful, stating that “When someone is freed, and they thank you, that feeling can’t be beat. However little time we have on earth, if there’s something you leave behind that makes you really proud, it’s the work I’ve done with Amnesty International. It’s the way I am touched by the voices of the people I’ve helped.”
Santes calls Amnesty International the “watchdog of the world,” and that is truly what the organization has become in the last 50 years. As Trimel notes, “Sometimes our work can literally mean the difference between life and death. To hear directly from people whose lives are on the line, it’s chilling. Emotionally, it hits you, hearing people say it’s just made such a difference.”
“Human rights are the authority to express oneself,” Gips says. According to the international organization, almost two-thirds of humanity lacks access to justice. Thankfully, however, the Ventura County Chapter, along with 3 million other Amnesty International supporters, works hard to change that.