Ennals, Martin

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Ennals, Martin

[JULY 27, 1927–1991]

Human rights activist

Charismatic but modest, Martin Ennals was one of a handful of figures who catapulted human rights from the fringes of transnational political relevance into the center of international relations in the second half of the twentieth century. This he did primarily by transforming a small, recently formed body, Amnesty International (AI), into the premier human rights organization.

Educated at Walsall Grammar School (in England, 1935–1945) and the London School of Economics (where he pursued a B.S. in international relations, 1945–1949), Ennals was present at the 1948 United Nations (UN) General Assembly when it adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Not long afterward he began working at the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris (1951–1959), where he found himself prominently involved in a historic human rights issue. As secretary and then president of the UNESCO staff association, he defended U.S. citizens, members of the international civil service, who risked dismissal because they, in his words, "refused to break the UNESCO and UN staff rules by completing political questionnaires demanded of them by the U.S. State Department during the McCarthy period."

Ennals left UNESCO to become general secretary (1960–1966) of the prominent human rights activist group in the United Kingdom, the National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL, now known as Liberty). Among the issues NCCL concentrated on during his tenure (with some success) was the need for legislation against racial discrimination and the incitement of racial hatred. Ennals continued working on race relations after departing from the NCCL, and in 1968, appalled by the adoption of the Commonwealth Immigration Act, which deprived nonresident British passport holders without British ancestry of the right to live in the United Kingdom, he undertook a study on the predicaments of the East African Asians with UK passports who were affected by the act.

That same year Ennals began his twelve-year tenure as secretary general of AI (1968–1980). At the inception of his tenure, the organization's international secretariat had a staff of seven and an annual budget of £17,000. By the time Ennals resigned, AI had a staff of 150 and an annual budget of approximately £2,000,000; AI also received the Nobel Peace Price in 1977. For Ennals, effectiveness demanded professionalism. His special skill was mobilizing a truly international movement of activists through the leadership of a professional core. The work of AI ranges from grass-roots work on behalf of imprisoned individuals, to the development of international standards and implementation mechanisms at the highest intergovernmental levels. Ennals led all this with a pervasive institutional commitment to factual accuracy and political impartiality.

After his tenure at AI, Ennals was associated with various nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), several of which he helped found. These included the International Human Rights Information and Documentation System (HURIDOCS), Article 19 (the freedom of expression and information organization) and International Alert (IA). The latter was the merged result of two initiatives: the Standing International Forum on Ethnic Conflict, and International Alert on Genocide and Massacres, and Ennals was its first secretary general (1985–1990). Not shirking the greatest challenges, IA started to promote cross-community contacts in Sri Lanka.

Ennals died of cancer on October 15, 1991, in Saskatoon, Canada, where he had recently begun a year's residency at the University of Saskatchewan as the Ariel Fellows Chair of Human Rights.

SEE ALSO Nongovernmental Organizations


Martin Ennals Foundation "Martin Ennals: A Giant Human Rights Defender." Available from http://www.martinennalsaward.org/en/martinennals/index.html.

Nigel S. Rodley