The 'faces of human rights' are explored at the British Institute of Human Rights conference

*New: Voxpops from our conference on YouTube!*

On 28 January 2009, the British Institute of Human Rights held its annual national conference 'Changing the Face of Human Rights.' It brought academics, actors, artists, community representatives, journalists, lawyers, NGO workers, politicians and public officials together to discuss how to present human rights in fresh, innovative and attractive ways. Participants also explored how to engage all groups in society in the development of a British Bill of Rights.

The event - the first of its kind - examined how human rights are currently portrayed and discussed new strategies on how to communicate the value of human rights through the arts, media, campaigning, marketing and 'branding'. Images of the event can be viewed here.

The conference was skilfully chaired by Anna Ford, former journalist and newsreader.


Opening the conference, Ceri Goddard, Acting Director of BIHR, said that 'as long as human rights are viewed narrowly, negatively or unambitiously they will not be able to fulfil their purpose - to bring about a society where we are all equally valued, can participate fully and are treated fairly, with dignity and respect'. A copy of Ceri's speech can be viewed here.

The Chief Commissioner for Human Rights in Northern Ireland, Professor Monica McWilliams, gave a stimulating speech describing the development of a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland, emphasising the need to engage the public in the process of developing a Bill of Rights and the importance of including economic and social rights. 'For human rights to be real,' she said, 'they must be owned and understood by all.'

In the second keynote speech of the day, Trevor Phillips, Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said that is necessary to find ways to debate human rights in everyday language. Ultimately, he said, human rights are about 'freedom to make our own choices' - they are for all of us, including vulnerable and marginalised people and unpopular groups.


For questions, the morning speakers were joined by Professor Francesca Klug, Edward Adams from the Ministry of Justice and Andrew Dismore MP, Chair of the Joint Committee of Human Rights.

Andrew Dismore MP called for a Bill of Rights to include economic, social and environmental rights. Quoting Justice Albie Sachs from South Africa, he said that 'a country without economic and social rights is a country without aspiration'.

Professor Francesca Klug described human rights as the 'inspirational part of a constitution'.

In the afternoon, a high profile media panel including Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Clare Short MP, Roy Greenslade, Kevin Maguire and Bob Satchwell took part in a 'question time' style debate, inspiring the audience to give journalists positive stories about human rights and find creative ways to use new media. Kevin Maguire warned us to be mindful that not all the media are against the Human Rights Act. Some of the national press is supportive of the Human Rights Act - such as the Guardian, Financial Times, Independent and Daily Mirror.

All the discussions were lively and informative, enhanced by the wide variety of perspectives from delegates. BIHR was committed to ensuring that the voices of the most excluded were heard and was able to provide free places to 30 people from voluntary and community organisations with little or no income, thanks to support from the Equality and Human Rights Commission and National Council of Voluntary Organisations. They also attended a pre-conference training day run by BIHR to ensure they had the skills and knowledge to make their voices heard most effectively.

The day climaxed with a speech from Justice Secretary Jack Straw MP, who reminded delegates of the need to address people's concerns about the Human Rights Act and to ensure the debate is realistic. The Government's intentions for a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, he told us, are to build on the Human Rights Act. He quoted the leading human rights expert Philip Alston that a Bill of Rights would be 'a combination of law, symbolism and aspiration'. Jack Straw talked individually to some delegates about their human rights issues and concerns after the conference closed. For a transcript of Jack Straw's speech please visit the Ministry of Justice website.

The conference was kindly sponsored by the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the Ministry of Justice.

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