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A Magazine for Sheffield

The Sheffield son who co-founded Amnesty – and helped define the concept of human rights

My father Eric Baker was the co-founder of Amnesty International. Sheffield was a strong influence on his life, which saw him spend much of his time developing ideas about human rights, “lifting the carpet to see what’s been swept beneath.”

Eric Baker on holiday in Norway 1974

Eric Baker on holiday in Norway, 1974.

My father was a man of many parts. He even had two names. The following account is partly based on my own memory, but also on discussions with Joyce Baker, as well as material passed to me after her death in 2001.

The arrival of a baby boy at the home of Ruth and Albert Baker in February 1921 was a moment of great joy. Their life in the Highfield area of Sheffield would be enlivened and enriched.

But this was no ordinary scene of domestic bliss at the birth of a child. Legal negotiations had been completed and papers signed for adopting the boy - named Eric Carnelly on the birth certificate - who from that point became their son, with a change of surname.

The family soon moved to a small caretaker’s flat in the middle of Sheffield. By the time this building was taken down to make way for the new Sheffield Polytechnic in the early 1960s, Eric had become a Quaker, graduated from Cambridge University, married Joyce Hargreave from Woodhouse, and worked in Edinburgh, New Delhi and finally London.

Following the demolition of their home, Ruth and Albert were in need of temporary accommodation, which Eric offered while he enjoyed life as the father of three children in a pleasant suburb of London. He had fulfilled his parents’ great expectations for him, though in ways they could not have imagined.

By the time of his death in 1976, Eric had an international reputation as an inspired thinker, speaker, writer and organiser on matters to do with human rights. He was involved in launching the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and later co-founded the human rights organisation Amnesty International.

On the news of his passing, letters, phone calls and telegrams poured in from Iceland to India expressing regrets, condolences and memories of his achievements in the cause of peace. Few of those sending messages would have been aware of Eric’s Sheffield background, or what that meant.

From nearly 300 letters and telegrams, two in particular stand out:

Eric inspired admiration, affection, love and sometimes anger.

Martin Ennals, Secretary General of Amnesty International

At times of stress, it was always to Eric that I turned for advice.

Sean MacBride, Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations
Eric Joyce Baker at their wedding Woodhouse Quaker Meeting House 1942

Eric and Joyce Baker at their wedding at Woodhouse Quaker Meeting House, 1942.

Many of the messages came from people in Amnesty International groups abroad who would never have met Eric but were aware of his hand on the tiller from the beginning, or his role in guiding the organisation through difficult times in the early years.

Eric’s feelings on war developed from an early age, possibly starting with an impromptu sermon on pacifism from an unknown speaker on the beach at Cleethorpes.

The move towards Quakers and their ‘peace testimony’ became a path of enlightenment for him. A seventeenth-century Quaker expression of this talks of removing the ‘occasion’ (causes) of war, a phrase that rang true to Eric, and he was registered as a conscientious objector during the Second World War.

The lessons of the failed pacifist movement in the inter-war years in Sheffield, and the sight of the city burning after a Luftwaffe raid in 1940, were not lost on him. It was a sometimes gruelling search to identify and expose the causes of war that underlay much of Eric’s work for Amnesty, CND and other groups in the post-war era.

Other achievements attributed to my father include the phrase ‘Prisoner of Conscience’, used to describe those imprisoned solely on the grounds of political or religious beliefs, which was popularised through a regular column in The Times in the 1960s. He also initiated and drove the campaign for the abolition of torture from the late 1960s, both through Amnesty and the Quakers; a Convention Against Torture was finally adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1984.

A summary of his life shows that it provided Eric with many disappointments, almost from the start, though these were generally a prelude to success. He became adept at using failure and disappointment to sharpen his vision for peace.

The disturbing effect of witnessing a Nazi rally in Berlin at the age of 15, and a disappointing and inconclusive peace mission to Cyprus in the 1960s, were events he had difficulty accepting, but there was often a silver lining. In the latter case this was a meeting with the lawyer Peter Benenson, who together with Eric set up Amnesty in 1961, launching with a spread in The Observer under the title ‘The Forgotten Prisoners’.

Pressure of opinion a hundred years ago brought about the emancipation of the slaves. It is now for man to insist upon the same freedom for his mind as he has won for his body.

Peter Benenson, ‘The Forgotten Prisoners’, 28 May 1961
Eric Baker at home 1973

Eric Baker at home, c. 1973.

Joyce meanwhile became not only Eric’s wife but also his closest friend and ally, someone whose opinions he valued and frequently sought (letters between them whilst Eric was away from home make this particularly clear). Doubt and feelings of uncertainty about his life affected him deeply from time to time and Joyce’s emotional strength at low points was always a source of inspiration that helped him overcome them.

Three attitudes which, while certainly not unique, are strongly linked to Sheffield are stubbornness, wit and compassion. The first makes its presence felt in a refusal to be pushed around, the second in pithy comments which, like a Sheffield knife, cut straight to the heart of the matter, and the third in the welcome we give to strangers from different parts of the world. All three found rich expression in Eric’s life.

Once asked how he saw Amnesty’s job, without hesitating Eric replied, “Lifting the carpet to see what’s been swept beneath.”

Eric Baker died in Southminster, Essex in July 1976, aged 55. The following year Amnesty International was granted the Nobel Peace Prize for its "defence of human dignity against torture" – with explicit recognition of Eric’s life-long commitment to human rights.

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