3 December 2013

Becoming a human rights activist

Today is the UN’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities, so instead of talking about how bad things are, I thought I’d put out a statement about human rights advocacy. I recently reflected on the nature of advocacy during some teaching I did in India a few weeks ago. 
With Punitha Suresh, a user and survivor of psychiatry and mental health activist from Chennai
I love teaching. It’s is a haven of human rights substance (rather than budgeting, fundraising or management!) and I get to meet some incredible people. For the past five years I’ve gone to Pune, India for a week to teach on the residential school of the year-long distance learning International Diploma in Mental Health Law and Human Rights. Each year the Law College in Pune puts on a lovely Convocation for the students who have completed the Diploma. This year’s was on 26 October and I was asked to address the audience on behalf of the Faculty. Here’s what I said.

It’s an honour for me to say a few words on behalf of the Faculty and on my own behalf. I would like to thank the Principal of the Indian Law Society – recently recognised as one of the top ten law schools in the country – for hosting the Diploma, and for supporting the Centre for Mental Health Law and Policy. I would also like to thank course coordinators Jaya Sagade and Soumitra Pathare for organising this sixth residential school. Special thanks to Kaustubh Joag, who is today graduating, albeit in absentia. Thank you to all of the support staff without whom none of us would be here: your smiles and dedication are appreciated. Thank you to the Mental Health Initiative of the Open Society Foundations and to various country offices of the World Health Organization for sponsoring several of the students. Students, thank you for choosing to take this Diploma and thank you for finishing it. You have made many sacrifices during the last year (and if you haven’t then you haven’t been working hard enough!). We are all so proud of you. Congratulations!

Students and faculty of the diploma

You now have a qualification in what can loosely be called advocacy. Advocacy comes in different shapes and sizes. Here’s poem by Martin Niemöller, an anti-Nazi German poet:


First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a socialist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me—
and there was no one left to speak out for me. 


People have different motivations in taking the diploma, in teaching on it, and in being interested in the field of mental health or human rights at all. Mine is suitably Freudian. When I was a young child, my mother could sometimes not find a babysitter to look after me during the long summer holidays in the UK. She is a psychiatrist and at that time worked in a large institution where people with intellectual disabilities lived their entire lives. So during the summers many times she took me to work. I would sit in case conferences reading books, and spend time in the occupational therapy department playing computer games with the so-called patients.

My mother took me around the wards. I remember seeing people sat in chairs lined up against a wall, rocking back and forth. “Is that because they have disability?” I asked. “No, that’s because they are bored, they have nothing to do”, said my mother.

A young dashing man was appointed as the hospital’s administrator. I’ll spare you the details, but he ended up being my step-father. Both my mother and he were instrumental in shutting the hospital down and transferring all of the patients to community-based settings. I’m not saying that the right to live in the community is completely wonderful in the UK, but I am saying that deinstitutionalising an entire institution is a big deal.

It’s possible to be a human rights advocate from the inside of a system, as well as being a human rights advocate calling for changes from the outside. Through a series of lucky flukes I’ve ended up a lawyer working in a human rights organisation where we do advocacy on a daily basis. I thought I would share with you a few ideas for you to think about now that you have your Diploma. So here are my top ten advocacy tips.


1. Speak up about what you care about, and care about what you speak up about.

2. Search out silence rather than noise. Voiceless people need your attention and support more than those who ask for it.

3. Voice is power. You have both so use them, and use them judiciously. Don’t shout or condemn unnecessarily.

4. Investigate the root causes of a problem, but don’t treat the problem as an academic exercise.

5. If you cannot offer a solution because of complexities, articulate the problem clearly. This will agitate others to help you find a solution. 

6. Clicking “Like” is not advocacy. Use Facebook as a source of information and inspiration and a means to collaborate.  

7. Recognise that your deeply-held principles will sometimes conflict with other people’s. Climb down from your ivory tower, and discuss grassroots situations involving real people. This will enable you to find synergies rather than differences.

8. If you find yourself speaking on behalf of someone whose opinion is different from yours, stop and re-evaluate what you are doing because you have entered dangerous territory.

9. Hamlet said that there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. Think about whether that was a good recommendation.  

10. And while we’re thinking about thinking, think deeply and critically. Use logical reasoning and deploy rational arguments from science and social science. What you think will have wider resonance, and is undoubtedly more relevant, than what you believe.


When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted, Eleanor Roosevelt famously asked, “Where do human rights begin?” and answered “In small places, close to home”. Nearly seven decades later the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was adopted and a ceremony was held when it was opened for signature. Addressing the roomful of dignitaries, Louise Arbour, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, remarked that Eleanor Roosevelt’s observation was “as true in the area of human rights and disability as with any other area of human rights.”

When you go back home from Pune you will have begun your own human rights journey. So whether you reduce pain for people receiving medications in a forensic hospital, whether you integrate human rights into your mental health first aid training, whether you take on the discriminatory banking system which denies people with psycho-social disabilities the opportunity to open an account, whether you help people access justice by representing them in court, whether you investigate and expose the sexual and reproductive rights, whether you change government policy from within a ministry – whatever you do, you can be a human rights advocate.

Over the last year you have learned about various promising practices from countries other than your own. You have learned that things can be different. Materially-poor countries are still rich in human resources. You have new knowledge and skills to enable you achieve change in whichever country you come from. And you don’t have to do it alone: there’s a network of friends and colleagues to guide and assist you, so reach out. 

Human rights do not happen on paper. They do not happen in the corridors of the UN or the high court of Bombay. Human rights begin close to home. So on your way home take a few moments to reflect on how you will use your power, your skills and your knowledge to make small changes which will improve people’s lives. At the end of our lives, augmenting other people’s happiness is surely the greatest gift that we can give.

On behalf of the Faculty, I commend and congratulate you for completing the Diploma. Make the transition from studying human rights to becoming a human rights advocate. Go out and change the world. 

A painting in the President room in the Law College


Gandhi’s ashes at the Agakhan Palace, Pune