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Interview: Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director of Human Rights Watch

31 January 2020

‘What takes courage is standing up for things when your own well-being is on the line’

I’ve always felt drawn to being part of social movements. My first jobs after university were for non-governmental organisations standing up for the rights of workers: the first one in the UK, the second for an NGO in Hong Kong that supports labour movements across Asia.

Later, I felt I needed a profession. I’d started doing freelance journalism and worked for Germany’s international radio, Deutsche Welle. Then I had 11 enjoyable years writing for The Financial Times, mostly as a foreign correspondent.

I worked for the FT in the Philippines when there was a coup and kidnappings of Western tourists by Islamist rebels. Then I was in Berlin for seven years and interviewed Chancellor Merkel during her first years in power. I started my final stint, in the FT’s London headquarters, in the week Lehman Brothers collapsed, at the start of the 2008 financial crash.

When I was in my mid-forties, I knew I wanted to go back to NGO work. I’d long admired Human Rights Watch (HRW), and was lucky to get my current job.

My parents and my upbringing helped prepare me for this job. I’ve always been inquisitive about other cultures. That’s why I’ve lived most of my adult life abroad, much of the time in Germany. I now live with my family in Berlin. And working every day with people from different countries and backgrounds also gives you an understanding of how different cultures work.

Also, working as a foreign correspondent, handling fast-changing, sometimes uncertain situations gave me skills and experience, as did managing the FT’s European correspondents and its global news coverage. My team at Human Rights Watch are based in the former Soviet Union, Turkey, the Balkans, and Europe, and often work in difficult and potentially dangerous situations.

Leaders such as Donald Trump and Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán have been successful at getting votes by undermining human rights. It’s a relatively new phenomenon. We need to show the awful impact of their policies on ordinary people, and also try to understand why people vote for such leaders. These are new challenges.

I live in Berlin and travel a lot, for instance to Central Asia. Countries such as Uzbekistan are rarely in our news headlines, but severe human-rights abuses, such as torture and arbitrary detention, are sadly common there. But there are also very courageous people. One of them is Erkin Musaev. He used to be a senior Uzbek government official, then was accused wrongly of spying, and was jailed for 11 years. He was severely tortured. I met him in Tashkent in 2017, a few weeks after he’d been released. I was so impressed by how optimistic and engaged he was, despite still being harassed by the government. He was already lobbying the government to make Uzbek prisons more humane.

Others face much tougher challenges than I do to get through life. I’m privileged, as a white middle-class man living in a rich country. What can take courage is standing up for things when your own well-being is on the line. I admire this in people every day.

If I had just a little bit of Erkin Musaev’s courage, I’d be happy.

My team’s commitment and spirit keep me going, but their safety is a constant concern. They’re often monitoring protests or interviewing survivors of human-rights abuses in risky situations, or travelling to remote regions, or in refugee camps on Europe’s borders.

In some areas, there is an erosion of human rights in the UK. Last year, we published a report on “food poverty” there — why more and more people are dependent on foodbanks to get by. Many people realised for the first time that this is also a human-rights issue.

This is a crucial moment for Britain. The direction that the country takes on human rights will certainly be one defining factor on what Brexit really means. People in Britain need and deserve a government that stands up for human rights at home and abroad.

The idea that everyone has the same “equal and inalienable rights” is rooted in efforts after the Second World War to rebuild a better world and to enshrine such principles in international treaties such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Morals and religion are important for some human-rights activists, but the ideas have a legal grounding. That gives them their strength, and the basis of the mandate of groups such as HRW.

Gaps between the rich and poor, and how the economy and business work, are all connected to human rights. HRW has, for instance, experts on how businesses should respect rights, on inequality, and on how people’s rights suffer due to climate change.

My father, Canon Tony Williamson took the unusual decision in the late 1950s, even before he was ordained, not to seek a parish, but to take a manual job, in a car factory in Oxford, where I grew up (Obituary, 22 March 2019). He worked there for 30 years. Tony, along with my mother, Barbara, were among the founders of the “worker-priest” movement in the UK (Feature, 6 September 2019). I realise now that my parents’ choices influenced my later life, in particular the importance my dad placed on finding practical ways to stand alongside those disadvantaged in society.

My father was, in turn, influenced by his dad, who was also an Anglican priest. Known as “Father Joe” Williamson, he grew up in poverty in London’s East End. Later, in the 1950s, he campaigned in Stepney to clear slum housing and help women to escape prostitution. He was well known at the time — in fact, one of the characters in Call the Midwife is based on him.

I grew up going to church every week; so the institution feels familiar. Faith means more to me now than for many years, especially since the deaths of both of my parents in recent years. I’ve started volunteering in a drop-in centre for homeless people run by churches in Berlin. Through my father’s former work, I’ve got to know worker priests across Europe, from his generation and mine, which has been fulfilling. I currently spend some of my spare time writing about their lives.

My proudest achievement, along with my wife, Anke, is our two children: Lucas, who is now grown up, and Helen, who was born in Ethiopia, and who we adopted ten years ago. I’m happiest spending relaxed holiday time with my family.

I like the sound of the sea, but also the ambient sounds of pubs and fish-and-chip shops: places that I miss now that I’m not living in the UK.

It makes me angry when people with power put their own interests above those of the people for whom they bear responsibility.

In the future, I’d like to play my part for human rights and other causes. The world is changing so fast, why not for the better? For instance, my friend Erkin Musaev should be able to live a normal life again, and his friends who are political prisoners should be out of jail. That’s not too much to ask.

I get hope from meeting people who are doing good things in their lives to make their communities better places, because they know it’s right, without seeking recognition for it. We need more humble heroes.

If readers were to take one step, it would be to think about and act on the “human” in human rights. Protecting human rights can be tough — dealing with awful abuses and their consequences. But it’s really about doing something positive every day to respect another human, be they a neighbour, a newcomer in your community, or someone in a distant country.

If I were locked in a church, I would pick my parents — but I’d go back in time and be with them when they were building their lives together, in their early thirties, about the time I was born. It would be fascinating to sit with them to understand how they were together, and why they decided to do what they did.

Hugh Williamson was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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