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Speech to the Human Rights Watch Global Council Summit Reception, 6 June 2013

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Good evening everyone. My name is David Mepham and I am UK Director of Human Rights Watch. Welcome, all of you, to this Human Rights Watch reception.  I’m going to make some brief introductory remarks, to set this event in context, and then it will be my pleasure to introduce our keynote speaker, the Foreign Secretary William Hague.We greatly appreciate the opportunity to hold our reception here in the Locarno room of the Foreign Office and I want to thank Foreign Office staff and officials for facilitating this.  Foreign Secretary, we are also very grateful that you have taken time out of your busy schedule to speak to us this evening.

This reception forms part of the Human Rights Watch Global Council Summit that is taking place in London this week. The Summit is an annual event that brings together senior HRW staff, members of the organisation’s Board, representatives from our 18 city-based committees from around the world and other supporters. There are also many parliamentarians and journalists here this evening.  We are delighted that you could join us. There is a strong concern with human rights issues in the British parliament and in the British media, something which we at Human Rights Watch are keen to further strengthen.

I joined Human Rights Watch two years ago. More than anything else, what attracted me to the organisation was the momentous change unfolding in the Middle East and North Africa, and Human Rights Watch’s remarkably impressive response to these events.  Two years on, our collective mood is much more sombre and less euphoric.  As we meet tonight, millions of people across that region, above all in Syria, are experiencing terrible suffering and vast numbers are subject to gross human rights abuses.  There is no higher priority for us - or for you - than galvanising concerted international action to address the humanitarian and human rights crisis in Syria.

But there are three broader points that I want to make in front of this audience tonight.  Firstly, at a time when the concept of human rights is frequently misrepresented in the UK media and – dare I say it - by some politicians, 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 some things that it is simply wrong to do to another human being, no matter what, and some things that every human being – whoever they are, wherever they live – should be entitled to, no matter what.

It is wrong to torture people or subject them to degrading treatment. Wrong to prevent them from expressing themselves peacefully or associating with others. Wrong to deny people fairness and equality before the law. Wrong to discriminate against them on grounds of gender, sexuality, ethnicity or disability. These are just some of the core entitlements set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the associated international human rights covenants.

Why are human rights important?  Because we know from history that without them, governing authorities are capable of treating human beings with great brutality and great cruelty. Human rights are a check on abusive government and abusive power and they safeguard human autonomy and dignity. In short, they are the essential underpinning of a decent and just society.

Secondly, I want to make a specific pitch to the British government and the Foreign Secretary.  I suspect that there are few foreign ministries in the world where the declaratory commitment to human rights is as strong as in Britain.  Foreign Secretary, you have spoken of human rights as being at the heart of British foreign policy and said that you will press human rights concerns “whenever and wherever they arise”.

You have set the bar at a commendably high level, and you would expect Human Rights Watch and others to hold you to these commitments. There are many areas where the Foreign Office is doing very good work to defend and promote human rights, towards particular countries, through the UN Security Council and other forums, and on thematic issues like LGBT rights and the death penalty, or indeed your very important new initiative on tackling sexual violence in conflict.

Human Rights Watch staff meet regularly with FCO officials, advisers and Ministers and your staff in embassies across the world. We welcome the access and we hope our research and analysis is useful as you formulate your own response on particular issues.

But there are also issues where we disagree – sometimes strongly – with your stance and where we urge the UK to take a stronger position. We would urge you, for instance, to press human rights concerns more strongly with the authorities in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and UAE – countries described as close friends and allies of the UK, but where rights abuses are widespread, where the crackdown on dissent is brutal and where there is a real culture of impunity for these abuses.

On Burma, our recent research has documented crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims in Arakan state.   So while you deepen your engagement with the Thein Sein government, we urge you to press strongly for concerted action to address abuses in Arakan and elsewhere in Burma and to hold the perpetrators accountable.

Towards Ethiopia, we recognise that government’s progress in tackling poverty and the importance of the UK development programme there in helping them to do so. But we urge greater pressure by the UK to address serious abuses carried out by the Ethiopian government against civil society, journalists and political opponents, and a proper investigation into abuses associated with Ethiopia’s forced resettlement programme.

And we urge you to institute a fully independent inquiry into the UK’s role in rendition and torture, including returns to Gaddafi’s Libya, and hold to account those responsible for these abuses.

The third and final thing I want to say this evening concerns human rights defenders – courageous men and women, working in the most difficult of circumstances, often at great personal risk, to expose human rights violations. Last year, I met a Russian journalist, working for a newpaper there, where five of her colleagues have been brutally murdered in the last decade. Despite the real risks, she continues to expose rights abuses in Russian society. And just last month in Zimbabwe, I met a group of women human rights activists who told me how they are routinely beaten by ZANU-PF security forces for holding peaceful demonstrations on the streets of Harare and Bulawayo.

To meet such people is a humbling experience. A reminder of the remarkable courage of which people are capable. And a reaffirmation of the enduring appeal and relevance of human rights to people everywhere.

I suggest that human rights activists like these are amongst the true heroes and heroines of our time and that the only honourable course is to stand with them and support their struggle for freedom and justice.  That is what Human Rights Watch strives to do. 

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