05/26/2011 07:42 pm ET | Updated Jul 26, 2011

50 Years of Standing Up for Freedom

Words are power. In a nation where speech is restricted, words can be a weapon and a danger. Throughout the world there are people imprisoned, tortured, and killed by their own governments for words -- for pointing out injustice, for asking questions, for just speaking their mind.

As frightening and deadly as the consequences are, today millions across the Middle East and North Africa are using their voices, in their own words, to demand their rights and freedoms -- and are effecting transformative change. This amazing movement was started by one Tunisian man who had had enough and whose extreme protest action sparked a peaceful movement of ordinary people demanding their rights. The Arab Spring showcases both the power of words and the power of individuals working together to demand freedom.

In some ways the unfolding drama of the Arab Spring mirrors Amnesty International's story. This extraordinary social movement was born on May 28, 1961, when a London lawyer named Peter Benenson transformed a personal protest into something more, by urging others to join him in "righteous indignation" and disgust at brutality and injustice.

Outraged by the tale of two Portuguese students imprisoned for drinking a toast to liberty during the dark days of the Salazar regime, he came up with an idea that was as simple as it was original -- a network of individuals that would write letters to other individuals and to the governments that were imprisoning them simply for their beliefs -- people he defined as prisoners of conscience.

Amnesty International was, in effect, one of the world's first social networks -- although few recognized it at the time. Indeed, the idea that letter writing could be an effective way of bringing people together in common action was as challenged in its day as the idea of using wall posts, tweets and downloading YouTube videos for social change is now.

Today, the work of protecting the use of words and other freedoms is carried out by Amnesty International, now with 3 million supporters around the globe in 150 countries and a Nobel Peace Prize. In addition to defending prisoners of conscience and others in jeopardy of persecution, we fight to end torture and executions, violence against women, discrimination based on sexual orientation, and the denial of rights such as health care, education, shelter, water, food and other basic necessities. At the core of these injustices is the fight for a voice, the belief that each and every human being has the right to be heard. With this growth and expansion, our strategy has remained the same: unite the words of people around the world to form a strong voice in the face of tyranny.

In a nation where the words we speak will not lock us in a jail cell or get us tortured, we do not just have the ability, but the obligation to speak up for those without a voice. Oppressive governments may try to cover up the cries of disenfranchised humanity. We must all be citizens of the world and tell leaders that we not only hear these cries, but that we will not forget or turn away as time and repression muffle the calls for freedom.

This year, Amnesty International celebrates 50 years of speaking up for human rights and freedom. To commemorate this anniversary, Eallin Motion Art & DreamLife Studio has, with composers Hans Zimmer and Lorne Balfe, created a powerful animated video, Standing Up for Freedom, that vividly evokes the power of individuals to persevere in support of freedom. It is the first in a series of creative projects from artists around the globe who are contributing their talents to bolstering Amnesty International's call for freedom and human rights.

Each individual voice has added to the volume of our calls for action. As we move forward from this landmark, we must remember our mission and our power. Together we must speak up and shine a light on human rights throughout the world.

Larry Cox is executive director of Amnesty International USA.