Remembering David Mepham: Charity leader who stayed ahead of the curve at the helm of Human Rights Watch

His track record of applying sharp wits to pressure for change, along with his OBE for services to human rights, boiled down to a fact: Mepham was one who cared

Stephanie Hancock
Friday 26 October 2018 12:28
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Even in illness, Mepham held himself to the highest of standards and was not afraid to turn his critical lens inwards
Even in illness, Mepham held himself to the highest of standards and was not afraid to turn his critical lens inwards

“I do not believe that human rights are a magic bullet that can solve all the world’s problems.” These were some of the final words written by David Mepham before his death from cancer, aged 50, this week. They are perhaps unexpected from someone awarded an OBE for services to human rights. But they reflect an honesty and pragmatism for which Mepham was well known, and which became a hallmark of his work in the human rights movement.

Mepham was no purist. He knew there is no such thing as a perfect world, and rather than preach lofty ideals, he challenged himself to work out how terrible crises could be made a little less awful. Coupled with his shrewd political savvy, it proved an incredibly effective tool for pressure – squeezing the UK government on everything from the plight of the Rohingya to arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and for change – such as persuading the Foreign Office to endorse a global treaty protecting schools from military use and attack.

And Mepham was a man in a hurry for change. He did everything at lightning speed. Walking to meetings, colleagues would struggle to match his pace. In phone calls, he’d talk so fast people would struggle to keep up. He’d read entire books in a single day, and complex briefing papers in minutes. Computers were a constant frustration, because his mind always worked faster than he could type.

Mepham got a taste for politics early on in life. Growing up in Leicestershire, he was five when he and his two siblings lost their mother to cancer – mealtimes with their father, a Nottingham University scientist and bioethicist, often involved lively political debate. After an undergraduate degree at the London School of Economics, Mepham studied at St Antony’s College, Oxford.

After three years advising the Labour Party on international policy during its time in opposition, when Labour came to power Mepham stepped into a role in government as a senior policy advisor to Clare Short in the Department for International Development. In 2002, after four years with DfID, he joined the Institute for Public Policy Research as director of its international programme.

The next natural step was to put his development work into practice with a major international charity, and in 2007 he was appointed director of policy and advocacy for Save the Children, a position he held for four years.

As the Arab Spring took off, the human rights movement came calling, and he joined Human Rights Watch in April 2011.

In an organisation known for employing some of the sector’s sharpest legal minds, Mepham stood out for his piercing intellect, his passion and his stamina. His persistent advocacy with the UK government paid off on many occasions – for example, then foreign secretary William Hague’s call to Rwandan president Paul Kagame was central to Rwanda ending its support for the murderous M23 rebel group in eastern Congo. There was also work that required sensitive collaboration, like his role advising Angelina Jolie and Hague on Britain’s initiative to prevent sexual violence in conflict.

He was awarded an OBE for his work on human rights in 2017.

Mepham held himself to the highest of standards and was not afraid to turn his critical lens inwards, to examine the shortfalls of both his own organisation as well as the broader human rights movement. In 2015 he led a strategic review at Human Rights Watch, an arduous and sometimes thankless task which, under his steady stewardship, sparked important reforms. He also believed passionately in the need to engage with public perceptions of human rights issues.

Yet while Mepham’s standards were exacting, he was compassionate and scrupulously fair. While renowned for his eloquence, he always knew when to sit back and just listen. One new colleague who’d heard of Mepham’s reputation finally met him and declared with relief that “this scary genius turned out to be a real mensch.”

After his diagnosis of terminal cancer in the summer of 2016, Mepham threw himself with vigour back into the human rights cause. He juggled chemotherapy and oncology appointments with government advocacy and donor briefings. Many who met him in the months before his death had no idea he was ill. Colleagues 20 years his junior would marvel at his energy levels. “Not bad for a guy who’s supposed to be dying,” he joked.

One of Mepham’s biggest worries was how his illness would affect his young family. He met his wife, Charlotte, in 2001 and as well as walks and weekend travel, they enjoyed endless discussions about everything from medical ethics to foreign policy.

After setting up home in south London and marrying in 2004, their daughter Hannah arrived in 2005, and son Ben in 2007. Mepham took to fatherhood instantly. Parenting toddlers played to his key strengths: kindness and stamina. Everyone who knew him understood that those were the happiest times.

It was not always easy working with Mepham while he was ill. Making plans would inevitably drift into the world of ifs. “If I’m well enough.” “If I’m still here.” He hated the notion of being “brave”, but was remarkably open about death, and faced it with matter-of-fact resignation and dignity, even as those of us around him wobbled.

More than anything, David will be remembered for his genuine warmth, evident in his deep love for his family, and in his steadfast support of colleagues and friends as they navigated the sometimes unforgiving world where activism and politics collide. But it was also clear from his principles: his unwavering belief that the world should be – can be – a fairer, kinder place.

David John Mepham OBE, charity leader, born 24 December 1967, died 21 October 2018

Stephanie Hancock is media manager at the Human Rights Watch London office

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