Some troubling connections contradict Amnesty’s image as a benevolent defender of human rights and reveal key figures at the organization during its early years to be less concerned with human dignity and more concerned with the dignity of the US and UK’s image in the world.
by Alexander Rubinstein
Part 4 - A tangled web
As all of this was unfolding, a similar funding scandal was developing that would rock Amnesty to its core. Polly Toynbee, a 20-year-old Amnesty volunteer, was in Nigeria and Southern Rhodesia, the British colony in Zimbabwe, which was at the time ruled by the white settler minority. There, Toynbee delivered funds to prisoner families with a seemingly endless supply of cash. Toynbee said that Benenson met with her there and admitted that the money was coming from the British government.
Toynbee and others were forced to leave Rhodesia in March 1966. On her way out, she grabbed documents from an abandoned safe including letters from Benenson to senior Amnesty officials working in the country that detailed Benenson’s request to Prime Minister Wilson for money, which had been received months prior.
In 1967 it was revealed that the CIA had established and was covertly funding another human rights organization founded in the early 1960s, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) through an American affiliate, the American Fund for Free Jurists Inc.
Benenson had founded, alongside Amnesty, the U.K. branch of the ICJ, called Justice. Amnesty international secretariat, Sean MacBride, was also the secretary-general of ICJ.
Then, the “Harry letters” hit the press. Officially, Amnesty denied knowledge of the payments from Wilson’s government. But Benenson admitted that their work in Rhodesia had been funded by the government, and returned the funds out of his own pocket. He wrote to Lord Chancellor Gardiner that he did it so as not to “jeopardize the political reputation” of those involved. Benenson then returned unspent funds from his two other human-rights organizations, Justice (the U.K. branch of the CIA-founded ICJ) and the Human Rights Advisory Service.
Benenson’s behavior in the wake of the revelations about the “Harry letters” infuriated his Amnesty colleagues. Some of them would go on to claim that he suffered from mental illness. One staffer wrote: “Peter Benenson has been levelling accusations, which can only have the result of discrediting the organisation which he has founded and to which he dedicated himself. …All this began after soon after he came back from Aden, and it seems likely that the nervous shock which he felt at the brutality shown by some elements of the British army there had some unbalancing effect on his judgment.”
Later that year, Benenson stepped down as president of Amnesty in protest of its London office being surveilled and infiltrated by British intelligence — at least according to him. Later that month, Sean MacBride, the Amnesty official and ICJ operative, submitted a report to an Amnesty conference that denounced Benenson’s “erratic actions.” Benenson boycotted the conference, opting to submit a resolution demanding MacBride’s resignation over the CIA funding of ICJ.
Amnesty and the British government then suspended ties. The rights group then promised to “not only be independent and impartial but must not be put into a position where anything else could even be alleged” about its collusion with governments in 1967.