Elaine Pearson, director of Human Rights Watch, Asia Pacific addressed about 60 people at the Hepburn U3A Annual General Meeting covering themes from her recent books ‘Chasing Wrongs and Rights‘.

Human Rights Watch is an international agency that promotes and protects human rights around the world. It has a about 550 staff world wide, including 10 in Australia. It is funded from donations and philanthropy to maintain its independence.

Pearson outlined the variety of challenges and projects she has been involved in from the early inspiration of her grand mother’s resilience in China, sold to an opera company when she was 10, to working in the Phillipines, Myanmar and other parts of the region to combat human trafficking, extra judicial killings, arbitrary detention, mass surveillance and the suppression of free speech. She highlighted the courage and commitment of those who have taken action on human rights against oppressive regimes and institutions at the expense of their own safety and security.

Human rights abuses do not only occur elsewhere. Pearson noted that Australia is guilty of human rights abuses too, including offshore detainment of refugees and the treatment of prisoners with disabilities and mental health conditions.

She outlined the work of Human Rights Watch in Australian prisons where they found excessive use of force and solitary confinement, often against indigenous prisoners and others with disabilities and mental health issues. That included people locked in solitary confinement for up to 22 hours a day, sometimes for months and years. For some this is punishment, for others protection from themselves or others. In most cases, it is an abuse of human rights.

Human Rights acts to shine a light on problems that are often ‘out of sight and out of mind’. It highlights the transgressions of governments and institutions driving them to improve their policies and actions.

The audience had many questions ranging across China, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Russia and the case of Julian Assange. Engaging with the audience Pearson demonstrated passion, intelligence and commitment at its best, addressing topics and challenges often showing human action at its worst.