Human Rights Watch - a voice for victims
by Laura Harpham
When you think of human rights activism it may conjures up one of a miscellany of images in your mind. Investigators at the site of a massacre perhaps. Smartly dressed spokespeople negotiating with governments or executives in the commercial sector. New York Fashion Week? Perhaps not. The international organisation ‘Human Rights Watch’ works in all the areas we instinctively associate with human rights activism. Their team of investigators objectively collate on-the-ground evidence and testimonies of human right abuses. They work with governments all over the world as an advisory body to ensure human rights are observed. They work closely with the media to raise awareness and encourage action against breaches of human rights and they gain access to areas which no other objective organisations can reach. The impact of their work can be seen in some unusual places.
New York Fashion Week
In 2010 Gulmana Karimov, daughter of Uzbekistan’s autocratic leader Islam Karimov, was due to launch her spring fashion line ‘Guli’ at New York’s Spring Fashion Week. Each year the Uzbek government, in addition to various other human rights abuses relating to religious and political freedoms, forces its children to leave school for 2 months to pick cotton, often for little or no pay. This cotton, the country’s main cash crop, is widely used in the ‘Guli’ fashion line. Human Rights Watch played a large part in a group of organisations petitioning and persuading NY Fashion Week and its supporters to exclude such a line from involvement in the event, thus sending a clear message that fashion was not to be bought at the price of human rights.
A force for good in the world
It is action such as this that distinguishes Human Rights Watch as a force for good in the world. By collecting credible evidence of human rights abuses and bringing this to the forefront of the world’s considerations, be they political, commercial or in the media, they give victims a voice. We all know the old adage ‘Knowledge is power’. The flip side of this platitude is ‘ignorance is impotence’. It is the lack of reliable information on instances of human rights abuse which Human Rights Watch fights to address. The fact is human rights abusers rely on this ‘ignorance is impotence’ principle to avoid being held to account for their offences.
Shining a light into dark places
For this reason the Human Rights Watch staff are faced with refutation and denial at every step, as Christiane Amanpour found when reporting on the mass exodus from Kosovo in 1999. After filming tens of thousands of people fleeing across the Kosovo border Amanpour, international correspondent, was accused by the Serbian Minister for Information at the time of paying refugees to walk in circles around her camera to create the illusion of numbers. Human rights abusers will fight hard to keep their atrocities in the dark and this is why the work of Human Rights Watch is so crucial. They shine a light into dark places; illuminating the dirty secrets of human rights abusers.
With less than 300 staff, Human Rights Watch exert an impressive amount of influence. Their workers can gain access to sites journalists and aid workers are unwilling or unable to approach. Their reports are essential in forming cases against governments or other organisations in breach of international human rights regulations. Some of their current work involves child marriage in Yemen, where girls as young as 8 are forced to marry, forced prison labour in Cambodia and the lack of judicial response to the post-election violence in Kenya in 2007.
To learn more about the work of Human Rights Watch, read their news and reports, or support them HERE