Honorary Graduates

Orations and responses

Response by Ian Martin

Vice-Chancellor, graduates, ladies and gentlemen:

When I hesitated before accepting the invitation to be honoured in this way, the factor which overcame my hesitation was the pleasure I have taken, and continue to take, in my association with the University of Essex through its Human Rights Centre. This has consisted not just in my rather occasional presences on this campus. Far more significant has been the fact that I have worked with many students of this University in the field, in countries of conflict, after they have studied human rights and humanitarian law here. In many cases I have encouraged those with whom I have worked to come on to study here; and from this I can testify to the commitment and quality of the students who come to these courses, and to the practical value in real life human rights protection which they derive from them. I have no doubt that those graduating today will represent another contribution of this University to the defence of human rights and humanitarian standards around the World.

Such a contribution could not be more necessary. At another time I could have been lighter in my response than I feel I have to be today. I did not imagine when this invitation was extended to me that I would stand here at a moment when the principles I regard as most fundamental would be so deeply threatened. Over many of the years since it has been my chosen field of work, I was able to believe that we were making at least gradual progress in the worldwide respect for human rights. As has been said, it was a particular privilege to be Secretary General of Amnesty International as the Cold War came to an end. I began working for the United Nations when the possibilities of principled and effective multi-lateral action for peace and human rights seemed greatly enlarged. My greatest privilege has been to work in East Timor, where the United Nations finally upheld its Charter principle of self-determination, and where, when this was challenged by the Indonesian army’s crimes against humanity, the Security Council authorised, unanimously, a genuinely humanitarian military intervention. I now work for an organisation which seeks to promote accountability for past human rights abuses. The Pinochet case, and the coming into existence of the International Criminal Court, are indicators of real progress in that field.

But now I am afraid we are in terrible times for respect for international law in general and for international human rights law and humanitarian law in particular. In the reaction to September 11th governments around the world, including our own, have torn up their human rights commitments, in the name of fighting terrorism, when in fact respect for human rights is essential if we are not to breed future generations of terrorists. I live and work now in the USA - a country with the most highly developed constitutional protection of civil liberties, yet whose government can claim that by labelling its own citizen an enemy combatant, it can exclude him from access to lawyers, and that by holding captives on a base outside its territory, they are outside any legal protection. The fact that these captives include British citizens appears of little concern to our Government. Terrorist suspects are deliberately delivered for interrogation to countries we criticise, or used to criticise, for the use of torture. Those seeking asylum are increasingly abused, and when our courts find this unlawful, ministers display contempt for the judgement of the courts, and for the Human Rights Act this Government was once proud to have introduced.

And that was before the current war, in which the support of our Government has been invaluable, perhaps even decisive, in encouraging the United States administration to launch war in defiance of international law. I have less right to offer legal opinions, as you have heard, than those graduating today, after more legal education than I have ever had. Indeed I have always regarded human rights as too important to be left to lawyers. But I have no doubt that we can disregard the self-justifying contrivances of law officers of belligerent governments in favour of the opinions of those teachers of international law, who have declared that there is no justification under international law for the use of military force against Iraq.

All my work has taught me that human rights are not promoted by the powerful, despite their rhetoric, but depend on genuine internationalism, on real multi-lateralism. Our Government presents itself as standing for multi-lateralism, but in New York in recent weeks I watched with dismay the way the United Nations has in fact been abused in the interests of the superpower.

So those graduates here who have equipped themselves with a training in international law, with the ability to apply in practice the principles of human rights and humanitarian law, and I trust with a commitment to genuine multi-lateralism, set out with a heavy task: the responsibility to stem and then reverse the setbacks to these values. I hope those graduating, and I congratulate them all, whose field is not in law and human rights will none-the-less share the same responsibility we all have as citizens of the World. Ultimately this is not a pessimistic conclusion, because I know from my work with those who have graduated here before you, the real contribution that you are capable of making. For that reason I am proud of my association with this University, which is being deepened today. I thank you very much.

Ian Martin
3 April 2003