(London) – With profound sadness we share the news that David Mepham OBE, UK director at Human Rights Watch, has died of cancer at the age of 50, after two years of illness. His wife, Charlotte, was at his side. It is a testament to David’s courage and dedication that he insisted on continuing to work as much as he was physically able between difficult treatments and his gradually diminishing health.
“David was a superb advocate, combining a piercing intellect, an extraordinary eloquence, and a deep personal commitment to the human rights cause,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “Our hearts go out to David’s family – Charlotte and their two children, Hannah and Ben. We stand with them at this difficult time.”
David, who came to Human Rights Watch after years working on foreign policy and development issues, did not see human rights as a magic bullet. But he believed they were critical to achieving his aim to make the world a fairer and kinder place. He worked with relentless drive, honesty, and pragmatism to advance the cause of rights for all.
During his seven years at Human Rights Watch, he achieved great impact. David’s persistent advocacy with the UK government paid off on many occasions – for example, former Foreign Secretary William Hague’s call to Rwandan President Paul Kagame was central to Rwanda ending its support for the murderous M23 rebel group in eastern Congo. His sensitivity shone in his role advising Angelina Jolie and Hague on Britain’s initiative to prevent sexual violence in conflict. He successfully persuaded the Foreign Office to commit to signing a global treaty to protect schools from military attack. And he was particularly concerned with the crisis in Myanmar, pressuring the UK government to change gears and seek justice for the crimes committed against the Rohingya.
In June 2017, David was awarded a state honor for services to human rights. Upon receiving his medal, he tweeted: “Proud to receive OBE today for work on human rights. Will continue to press #UKGOV to respect rights at home & abroad.” And so he did, until his health forced him to take medical leave this summer.
David, the second of three children, was born in Cambridge in 1967 but spent most of his childhood in Leicestershire, where he attended comprehensive schools before leaving to study at the London School of Economics and Oxford University. After graduating, he spent three years advising the Labour Party on international policy during its time in opposition; when Labour came to power, he was appointed as a senior policy advisor in the Department for International Development.
In 2002, he joined the Institute for Public Policy Research as director of its international programme. His next move was to the humanitarian organization Save the Children, where he was director of policy and advocacy for four years.
In April 2011, as the Arab Spring was upending the Middle East and North Africa, David joined Human Rights Watch as UK director. He swiftly made his mark, proving himself a smart and effective advocate and media operator, and a caring, thoughtful leader of our UK team. Just as David held himself to the highest of standards, he was not afraid to turn his critical lens inwards, to examine the shortfalls of his own organization as well as the broader human rights movement. In 2015, he led a strategic review at Human Rights Watch, an arduous and sometimes thankless task that, under his steady stewardship, sparked important reforms. While renowned for his eloquence, he always knew when to sit back and just listen.
Colleagues around the world recall David’s sharp mind, the depth and scope of his knowledge, his willingness to go the extra mile, and his determination to challenge those in power and do so with unfailing courtesy. We will perhaps remember David most for his genuine warmth, evident in his deep love for his family, and his steadfast support of colleagues and friends as they navigated the sometimes unforgiving world where activism and politics collide. We’re so grateful for all that David achieved. He will be sorely missed at Human Rights Watch and within the broader human rights movement. We extend our deepest sympathies to his family, friends, and colleagues around the world.