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UN Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch Outlines Role of NGOs at Glendon’s Holmes Lecture

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UN Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch, Steve Crawshaw, the keynote speaker at Glendon’s Autumn 2009 John W. Holmes Lecture on November 17, informed a standing-room-only audience about the many ways that Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) can make a difference in helping those most in need in the world.

In his welcoming address, principal Kenneth McRoberts spoke of Glendon’s special ethos as a bilingual liberal arts college with an emphasis on public affairs and public service. “Forty-three years after the opening of this college, we still aspire to the same goals [defined by first Principal Escott Reid], and the John Holmes Lectures on public affairs and current events have become an institution here.”


L-r: Glendon principal Kenneth McRoberts, UN advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, Steve Crawshaw, Glendon professor Stanislav Kirschbaum and Mark Hyatt, great-nephew of John Holmes

International Studies professor Stanislav Kirschbaum hosted the lecture, with the title “Making an Impact: The Role of Non-Governmental Organizations in a Changing World”. Kirschbaum presented an eloquent history of the annual John W. Holmes Lecture series - now celebrating its 20th anniversary - and the outstanding individual whose name it bears. (For more about the John Holmes Memorial Lecture at Glendon, please consult the section below.)

In his keynote address, Steve Crawshaw provided an overview of the role of NGOs and the work of his organization, Human Rights Watch. “Throughout history, there have been acts by individual organizations which were significant in protecting human rights”, said Crawshaw. He gave the example of the Congo Reform Association, formed in 1904 by Edmond Morel, whose aim was to help the cause of the exploited, enslaved workforce in the Belgian Congo of the time. The association gained the support of several famous writers such as Joseph Conrad, Anatole France, Arthur Conan Doyle and Mark Twain who brought the cause to public attention through their literary production.

Left: L-r: Stanislav Kirschbaum, student award winner Jennifer Bush and Caroline Appathurai

Human Rights Watch (HRW) was founded under the name Helsinki Watch in 1978, in order to monitor the former Soviet Union's compliance with the Helsinki Accords. These were signed by 35 states, among them Canada, in an attempt to improve relations between the Communist bloc and the West. Their work enabled Eastern European protesters, and later, protesters from other parts of the world, to make their voices heard.

Following the Helsinki Accords, a number of different organizations sprang up such as Americas Watch, Asia Watch, Africa Watch and Middle East Watch, known collectively as "The Watch Committees." All of these groups were finally united under the name Human Rights Watch in 1988.

HRW continues to bring basic human rights violations to the attention of the world and, through fact-based reporting, to organizations such as the International Criminal Court. Some of these included the mass killings in Cambodia, the Rwandan genocide, the Bosnian genocide, human rights violations in China, and others. “NGOs have the ability to bring these crimes to the world’s attention and ultimately to justice in ways that diplomacy would never be able to achieve”, said Crawshaw. “By putting together all the facts and by ‘triangulating’, that is to say, by finding other organizations as allies, these organizations can apply pressure and bring these criminals to justice.” Crawshaw praised the significant role of Canadian organizations in bringing human rights violators to the attention of the International Criminal Court. Indictments against Darfur and Rwanada for war crimes in a range of activities, such as the use of landmines and weapons directed at civilians, rape and genocide were successful through their participation.

“We live in a rapidly changing world and the challenges that NGOs face are changing with it”, said Crawshaw. The events of September 11, 2001 had a direct impact on Human Rights Watch, because its New York office is located in the Empire State Building and members of its staff assumed that they would be the next targets. “It was clear, though, that rules needed to be adhered to, even during such an emergency. We understood, then, that we must not be swayed by the ‘short-term’, but have to be accountable to human rights laws under any circumstances. There should never be a time when it is not the right time to worry about rules and laws. ”

Right: The new Holmes biography by Dr. Adam Chapnick

Crawshaw provided many examples where diplomacy could not go forward, yet NGOs were able to bring serious human rights violations to the public’s attention, forcing organizations and governments to act. “We must engage in public discussion and the support of human rights issues so that societies understand the realities and support the rules of law and accountability”, he said. “Human Rights Watch has partnerships all over the world, and it is a great place to get involved and make a difference.” 

Several special guests were honoured at the lecture. Among these, Mark Hyatt, a great-nephew of John Holmes, who was in the audience. The biographer of John W. Holmes, Dr Adam Chapnick was also in attendance. His book, Canada’s Voice: The Public Life of John Wendell Holmes has just been published by UBC Press (November 2009).

Mrs. Caroline Appathurai was also present to give out the Edward R. and Caroline Appathurai Scholarships in International Studies to this year’s winners, who achieved the highest averages in their third year of international studies. Fourth-year Glendon student Jennifer Bush thanked Mrs. Appathurai for the award, expressing her appreciation of the honour as well as the funds, which represent an important contribution to her school expenses. The other winner, Mélissa Gélinas, is currently on a study year in Spain and will receive her award there. (For more about the Edward R. and Caroline Appathurai Scholarships in International Studies, please consult the section below.)

More about Steve Crawshaw

Steve Crawshaw joined Human Rights Watch as London director in 2002, and became the organization's United Nations advocacy director in 2006. Before joining Human Rights Watch, he worked for many years as a journalist with The Independent, which he joined at launch, including as Germany bureau chief, chief foreign correspondent, and foreign news editor. Stories he covered included the East European revolutions, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the Balkan wars. He studied Russian and German at the universities of Oxford and Leningrad Universities.

Crawshaw is the author of Goodbye to the USSR (1992) and of Easier Fatherland: Germany and the Twenty-First Century (2004). He was the co-presenter of the 2002 BBC television series Germany Inside Out. He is co-author of Small Acts of Resistance: How Courage, Tenacity and a Bit of Ingenuity Can Change the World, to be published in 2010.

More about the John Holmes Memorial Lecture at Glendon

The annual John Holmes Memorial Lecture at Glendon honours the late John W. Holmes, O.C., Canadian diplomat, writer, administrator, and professor of International Relations at Glendon from 1971 to 1981. Holmes was a tireless promoter of Canada at home and abroad, in political, diplomatic and educational circles. He also participated in the founding of the United Nations and attended its first General Assembly in 1945.

Shortly after Holmes’ death in 1988, a memorial fund was set up at Glendon under the leadership of
Professor Albert Tucker, Principal of Glendon from 1970 to 1975 and Chair of the History Department at the time, to create a series of annual lectures honouring Holmes, sponsored by Glendon's International Studies Program. It was launched in 1989 by the late Edward Appathurai, who established international studies at Glendon, Tucker, and three Glendon graduates, Jim Dow, Marshall Leslie, and Martin Shadwick, who had attended Holmes’ course on Canadian foreign and defence policy.

The first John Holmes Memorial Lecture was delivered by Sir Brian Urquhart, retired Under-Secretary General of the United Nations in 1989. Other distinguished speakers have included former Prime Minister of Canada, Kim Campbell; Deputy Secretary General of the United Nations, Louise Fréchette; Canadian ambassadors Geoffrey Pearson and Anne Leahy; renowned author and public figure John Ralston Saul; retired Supreme Court Justice Peter deCarteret Cory; former Deputy Secretary-General of Amnesty International (and Glendon alumnus) Vincent del Buono; lawyer and retired Justice of the B.C. Supreme Court Thomas R. Berger O.C., Q.C., O.B.C. and others.

More about the Edward R. and Caroline Appathurai Scholarships in International Studies

The awards were established in memory of Professor Edward Appathurai, a former Ceylonese diplomat who joined York University in 1968, taught courses in international relations and diplomacy, and created Glendon’s International Studies Program, which has since become the Department of International Studies. As Prof. Kirschbaum has pointed out at the Holmes lecture, “…John Holmes enjoyed immensely interacting with university students and he was particularly enthusiastic to teach those who were highly motivated and hard-working. Without a doubt, he would have found it totally appropriate to use an event like this one to reward students who have achieved excellence in the Department of International Studies.” The scholarships are thus traditionally disbursed each year at the John Holmes Lecture, to the two students who achieved the highest averages in their third year, and who are completing the final year in the international studies program.


Published on December 7, 2009