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Speech to the Human Rights Watch Parliamentary Reception, November 29

Good evening everyone. My name is David Mepham and I am the UK Director of Human Rights Watch. It gives me great pleasure to welcome you to the first Human Rights Watch parliamentary reception.

It is tremendous to see so many parliamentarians here, as well as representatives from the media, the civil service, NGOs, think tanks and academia. It is also terrific to see so many of our supporters here, including members of the Human Rights Watch London Committee. We are grateful to you all for your great generosity and deep commitment to our cause.

Not all of you here tonight will be totally familiar with the work of Human Rights Watch, so let me give you a very quick overview of who we are and what we do.

Human Rights Watch is an independent, international human rights organisation. We carry out research into human rights situations in some 90 countries around the world. We also look at human rights abuses experienced by particular groups - children, women, gays and lesbians, ethnic and religious minorities.

Human Rights Watch exposes abuses and helps to get the truth out. We press for rights abusers to be held accountable for their crimes. And we push for policies that will better protect and promote human rights.

I joined Human Rights Watch in April of this year. More than anything else, what attracted me to the organisation was the momentous change unfolding in the Middle East, and Human Rights Watch's extraordinarily impressive response to these events. As we meet tonight, millions of people across that region continue to struggle for an end to repression and abuse, and for rights, dignity and democracy. I believe that human rights activism in support of their efforts has never been more important or more urgent. A little later, we will show a short video that describes some of the work that Human Rights Watch has been doing in that region. I hope you will find it inspiring. But of course, human rights abuses are happening in many other parts of the world also. And we work there too – in Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, Europe and Central Asia, and Latin America.

As UK Director of Human Rights Watch, I lead the organisation’s advocacy, media and representational work here in the UK. I try to identify opportunities for the UK to better protect and promote human rights, as well as instances in which UK policy falls short of international standards or its own declared policy.

There are three particular points that I want to make in front of this audience tonight.

Firstly, at a time when the concept of human rights is so frequently misrepresented, I think it is important to restate what human rights are and why they matter. To believe in human rights is to believe that there are a set of things that it is wrong to do someone, no matter what, and a set of things that everyone should be entitled to, no matter what. These core entitlements are set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the associated international human rights covenants.

Human rights are important because in the absence of these specified entitlements, governing authorities are capable of treating human beings with great brutality and cruelty. Human rights are a check on abusive government and abusive power, and help to safeguard human autonomy and dignity.

That is why a growing number of people across the world are now demanding these rights, and the protections and opportunities they provide.

The benefits of this are obvious in places like Iran, Congo, Uzbekistan or China. But rights matter here at home, too. Contrary to the claims of some leader writers in our national newspapers, human rights are not an obstacle to tackling crime, addressing illegal immigration or dealing with the threat of terrorism. Rights are perfectly consistent with all of those things. But they are also the essential underpinning of a free and just society.

Secondly, I want to flag the importance of this country upholding international human rights standards, especially in respect of torture. Human Rights Watch believes that the UK Government should practice what it preaches on torture. The UK’s international standing is grievously damaged when we don’t. Although successive UK governments have stated that they oppose torture under all circumstances, there is strong evidence to suggest that over the last decade, some people working for the UK government were complicit in torture. They were involved, for example, in rendition, sending individuals back to countries where they knew, or should have known, that they would be tortured. For example, MI6 documents discovered by Human Rights Watch in Libya a few months back reveal an extensive and intimate relationship between UK intelligence services and those working for the Gaddafi regime. Yet Gaddafi’s regime was notorious for torture.

That’s why Human Rights Watch believes that it is so essential for there to be a genuinely independent investigation into UK involvement in torture and rendition, with those guilty of wrongdoing held to account.

Thirdly, I want to say something about human rights and international development policy. The UK has a well-deserved reputation for its direct efforts and its global leadership role in combating poverty and promoting development in some of the poorest countries in the world. As someone who has spent many years working on international development issues, I am strongly supportive of the best aspects of this agenda. I want to see this country doing more to ensure that the poorest children can access education and adequate nutrition and that women are not dying in childbirth from the absence of basic healthcare.

But progress against economic and human development indicators cannot excuse gross violations of civil and political rights. Nor can development policy be blind to the discrimination and exclusion that often results from authoritarian governance, the absence of the rule of law and restrictions on free expression and access to information. Some of the UK’s strongest development partners in Africa – Ethiopia and Rwanda, for example – perform well against certain economic and human development indicators, but they severely repress and intimidate political opponents and stifle independent media and civil society.

This is not an argument for crude conditionality or for reducing the commitment to development. But it is an argument for DFID and other parts of government to push more assertively on human rights issues, assessing the impact of its development programmes on human rights, particularly on the most marginalised communities, using development resources to help build rights-respecting institutions and providing greater support for independent media and independent human rights organisations. We need UK development policy to combat tyranny as well as poverty, and to recognise the relationship between the two.

In conclusion, I want to say something about the work of Human Rights Defenders – those courageous human rights activists, working in the most difficult of circumstances, often at great personal risk, to expose human rights violations and to press for reform.

Earlier this month, Human Rights Watch honoured two human rights activists in London. Hossam Bahgat runs the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. He has been a really central figure in the movement for human rights in Egypt. Elena Milashina is a journalist with Russia’s only independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta. Five of her journalist colleagues, including the globally renowned Anna Politkovskaya, have been brutally murdered in the last decade, by sinister forces amongst the Russian elite. But Elena continues to expose rights abuses and corruption in Russian society.

To meet both of them is a humbling experience, a remainder of the remarkable courage of which people are capable, and a reaffirmation of the enduring relevance and appeal of human rights. Human rights activists like these are amongst the true heroes and heroines of our time and the only honourable course is to stand with them. That is what Human Rights Watch strives to do.


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