Human Rights in the Age of Brexit and Trump

Last Wednesday, the LaFayette Club of St Andrews welcomed David Mepham, UK Director of Human Rights Watch, to deliver a talk on the current status of human rights in front of an attentive audience of over a hundred people at Hotel du Vin’s Ballroom. With an impressive career within policy and advocacy that has included four years as senior policy adviser to the UK’s Department for International Development, as well as working for Save the Children UK, Mr Mepham joined Human Rights Watch in 2011. He offered an intriguing insight into the work of a human rights organisation, as well as presenting his take on the most pressing challenges to this area.

Mr Mepham started by offering his definition of what human rights are – a core set of entitlements, freedoms and protections that every human being should enjoy. He raised an important point, to which he would return, on the need for improved communication on these issues with the general public. He believes that there is a general lack of understanding on what human rights are and why they are important. Often they are seen as relevant only for those who break the law, for example when they are used to justify avoidance of deportation of criminals, but Mr Mepham was right to point out a need to make a more positive case for their importance.

He went on to give a whistle-stop tour of a few areas of Human Rights Watch’s ongoing international work. In each case, the organisation has three main tasks: to investigate specific issues on the ground, to expose violations of international law when they are found, and to try to bring about change based on these findings by seeking to influence governments to address these problems.

The first site was Yemen, where a civil war is being fought between Houthi revolutionaries (with alleged support from Iran and Hezbollah) and the Yemeni government, supported by a Saudi-led coalition. Mr Mepham was keen to stress that Human Rights Watch takes no side in the conflict, but are instead concerned with documenting the extent to which all belligerents are upholding international humanitarian laws. They have found that there have been violations of this law on both sides. A primary issue of concern for their organisation is that the British government continues to supply Saudi Arabia with arms, despite their poor record for human rights. They have been involved with an ongoing court case which is determining the legality of this, the result of which is expected soon.

Human Rights Watch video encouraging the suspension of arms sales to Saudi Arabia

Next, Mr Mepham explained the ongoing issue of the persecution of the Rohingya ethnic minority in Myanmar, and how Human Rights Watch UK is seeking to persuade the British government to put more of an emphasis on human rights in its dealings with the Burmese government, with whom they have a strong relationship. Mr Mepham argued that with regards to Myanmar, many have been swept along with a romantic view of the country, that has seen Aung San Suu Kyi rise to the role of State Counsellor; it is clear that this has not suddenly transformed the country into a liberal democracy.

Ethiopia has been described as a development success story, but Mr Mepham argued that the reality is not so simple. The country’s ‘villagization’ process, which is intended to bring its nomadic peoples into communities which can offer amenities and opportunities, has, according to Human Rights Watch, resulted in a series of human rights offences. The program is ostensibly voluntary, but they have found that if individuals refuse to relocate, they risk being beaten, tortured, or raped. These three cases offered a fascinating insight into the work that Mr Mepham’s organisation does and the challenges they face. Moving closer to home, he then came to the crux of his talk – the implications of Brexit and Trump.

Although his organisation is distinctly non-partisan, in this section, Mr Mepham’s arguments belied his liberal inclination. He sees Trump as one of a number of ‘authoritarian populists’ around the world, standing alongside Vladimir Putin and Xi Jingping as the main actors in what, for him, is a troubling phenomenon. These politicians have all been accused of threatening freedom of speech by trying to eliminate their opposition. Mr Mepham was particularly concerned about Trump’s discourse – the way he has talked about women, disabled people, and minorities is alarming and legitimises this kind of language in politics, both nationally and internationally. The rise of populism is a grave concern for the human rights movement.

Brexit offers further challenges for human rights, as I have argued. For Mr Mepham, the primary issue is legislation, as so many of the protections that we enjoy in the UK are underpinned by EU law – when we leave they EU, these will no longer apply. While he was right to identify this as a cause of concern, he could perhaps have mentioned that EU law will in large part be replaced by domestic law, as set out in the Great Repeal Bill that was published just days ago. Mr Mepham then returned to his theme of a need for better communication around these issues – in this case, there is a degree of confusion about the difference between the EU and the European Convention of Human Rights, which are separate entities. Leaving the EU will not immediately affect Britain’s status as signatories to the latter.

David Mepham (right) with the Lafayette Club’s founders, Daniel Rey (left) and Benjamin Thrasher (centre), by Devika Himatsingka

The take-home message from Mr Mepham’s talk and the discussion that followed was a need for better communication on human rights. One question came from an American member of the audience, who asked how she could talk about these issues without sounding like a member of the ‘liberal elite’. The question of how to improve engagement with human rights is a difficult one, but a crucial one; Mr Mepham reiterated the need to build up a constituency of support in order to gain international traction on these issues. While he did not offer any clear solutions on how to go about this, he did stress the need to focus on issues that will have resonance with ordinary people, and, in an age of ‘alternative facts’, to deal in truth and hard facts. He concluded with the humbling story of a women’s organisation from Bulawayo in Zimbabwe, who went out each weekend to protest against a variety of issues, such as corruption. Each time they do this, they are beaten up and/or tortured, yet the next weekend they do the same. If they can confront these issues in the face of such treatment, then surely we must also.

It was encouraging to see human rights being discussed in this kind of environment here in St Andrews – events like these are great ways of bringing these issues into the mainstream, and help to create a network of ideas and support for these causes. This was the LaFayette Club’s second, and unfortunately last, event of the semester, having welcomed Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign manager, Robby Mook, to speak in February. There are big things to come next year – you can keep up to date with upcoming events on their website.

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