Students Staff

Honorary Graduates

Orations and responses

Ian Martin

Oration given on Thursday 3 April 2003

Vice-Chancellor, the Senate has resolved that the degree of doctor of the University be conferred upon Ian Martin.

Just as there are said to be "generations" of human rights, so there seem to be generations of human rights activists. The first generation, who started work immediately after the second world war, had to do the difficult work of breaking the ground. They legitimated the concept of human rights. They helped build the edifice of universal international human rights standards and treaties including the International Bill of Rights. The international community was able to address serious human rights concerns within particular States. The State was no longer entitled to do whatever it wanted to its own citizens, without fear of there being international repercussions. Two doctors of the University, Leah Levin and Helen Bamber belong to this generation. I am delighted to say that they are still as active as ever.

Ian Martin belongs to the second generation of human rights activists. To this generation has fallen the task of operationalising human rights. How could the monitoring functions of human rights treaty bodies be effectively performed, so as to promote change at the national level? What was meant by the implementation of human rights obligations? How could those States which were slow to accept treaty obligations nevertheless be called to account? How could the activities of human rights groups within States be encouraged? It is clear that what was needed was activity at both the national and the international level. Ian Martin has been involved in both. It is as a human rights activist that Ian Martin is being honoured today.

Ian Martin has an additional claim to being honoured by this particular University. He was educated at Brentwood School. In other words, he is a "local boy made good". He then leapfrogged over Colchester to go to that other local institution, Emmanuel College Cambridge, from which he graduated with first class honours in history and economics. This was followed by a year at Harvard, where he engaged in graduate study in development economics. It is worth highlighting Ian Martin’s academic background. In some quarters, there is a perception that lawyers have hijacked human rights. Ian Martin’s career shows that a legal background is not a prerequisite to such a career. Having said that, and speaking as a lawyer, you cannot tell that he does not have a legal background. That is intended not as an insult but as a compliment to his interdisciplinarity.

Over the next three years, from 1969 to 1972, Ian Martin worked for the Ford Foundation in the Indian sub-continent. He worked successively in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. That reflects something often found in the curriculum vitae of human rights workers. It is not simply that they seem to travel a great deal. They often serve in places which, politically, may seem to be hostile to one another. The reason for that is simple. A genuine concern for human rights is universal and even-handed. In that sense, there are parallels with humanitarian concerns. In practice, some authorities exploit human rights concerns for political ends. Human rights activists, however, are living proof that such concerns are not inherently political when they insist on applying the same standards to all States.

Ian Martin then came back to the United Kingdom to work as a Community Relations Officer with Redbridge Community Relations Council in London, followed by six years at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, the last five as its General Secretary. He was then the General Secretary of the Fabian Society for three years.

It was on account of his experience in the Indian Sub-Continent that, in 1985, Ian Martin became Head of the Asia Region in the Research Department of Amnesty International. A year later the post of Secretary-General of Amnesty International became vacant. International voluntary organisations are as professional as the commercial sector when it comes to making senior appointments. The International Executive Committee of Amnesty receive training in how to make such an appointment. Ordinary references were not enough. The referees were contacted and, in effect, interviewed themselves. They had to explain in detail what they saw as the strengths of the candidate. They were also asked to say what they thought the relevant weaknesses were. In Ian Martin’s case, a referee scratched his head at this point. He knew that, to be credible, he had to come up with some weakness. In the end, he said, "Well, there’s one thing. He’s too tall." Ian Martin got the job and was Secretary General of Amnesty for six years.

Amongst international human rights organisations, Amnesty International is unusual in being a membership organisation. Whilst this undoubtedly positively affects the organisation’s effectiveness, it does also give rise to organisational challenges. Ian Martin was Secretary General between 1986 and 1992, a period of unprecedented growth in the size of the organisation and of an extraordinary rate of change in the international environment, particularly in the field of human rights. That period includes the ending of the Cold War, the changes in the former Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact countries, the start of the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia and the last Gulf War in 1990-91. Ian Martin had the challenge of managing the organisation of change, within Amnesty International against the backdrop of this transformed international environment. At the same time, he needed to maintain the effectiveness of the organisation. Speaking to people who worked in Amnesty at that time, what is striking is the way they describe Ian Martin’s management style. One said that Ian Martin created an environment in which he could just get on with his work. If it wasn’t broke, he didn’t fix it. When he did fix something, it happened so smoothly that it did not disrupt the work being done. That must be the highest tribute that can be paid to a senior administrator. Another said simply, "He’s a class act."

When Ian Martin left Amnesty, he joined the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, as a Senior Associate. During his time there, he was asked to join the United Nations mission in Haiti. He was first with the OAS/UN International Civilian Mission in Haiti and, subsequently, Director of Human Rights and Deputy Executive Director of the mission. That type of field work is significantly different from the work done by non-governmental groups. Whilst the latter principally monitor violations, the UN has to put in place mechanisms to prevent the violations from occurring and, sometimes, to try to determine what should happen about past violations. It might appear that Ian Martin has made the change from poacher to gamekeeper but that is misleading. UN human rights work and non-governmental work are different ways of doing the same thing. That said, there are very different forms of UN work. The Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights can provide technical cooperation programmes in the field of human rights. They depend, however, on the closest cooperation with the State concerned. A UN field presence is, at least potentially, more independent. There was no real precedent for a field operation such as the one in Haiti, occurring as it did after serious and protracted internal disturbances. Within a couple of months of leaving Haiti, Ian Martin was in charge of the United Nations Human Rights Field Operation in Rwanda. Again, there was no precedent for a field presence in the immediate aftermath of genocide. In addition to all the practical and policy questions, leadership of human rights staff in this kind of situation also demands an awareness of the strain imposed on those staff.

Following his time in Rwanda, Ian Martin took the time to reflect upon his experience of field missions in emergency situations and to write articles and reports based on that experience. The importance of such reflection cannot be over-emphasised. Too often, staff are sent from one mission to another without the time and opportunity to consider the lessons learnt, so as to improve things the next time. It was during this period that Ian Martin was based at the Human Rights Centre, of which he is a Fellow and took part in the conference co-organised by DFID and the Human Rights Centre on Human Rights in Situations of Acute Crisis. It is his reports that represent what might be termed the doctrine of human rights field operations in emergency situations. Not surprisingly, this led to an appointment as Special Adviser on Human Rights Field Operations to the High Commissioner on Human Rights. He was then able to put his thoughts into practice in his appointment as Deputy High Representative for Human Rights in the Office of the High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina.

This was followed by a mission that attracted world-wide attention. Ian Martin was the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for the East Timor Popular Consultation. In the co-ordinated rampage and destruction which followed the announcement of the result, the Secretary-General ordered the UN staff out. Ian Martin was confronted with an appalling dilemma. The population of East Timor needed outside witnesses to what was going on but Ian Martin had a responsibility towards his staff. The staff then came and said that they wished to stay. He could simply have followed orders and told them to leave. Instead, he chose to stay, together with his staff. Such decisions may be quickly forgotten by the outside world but they are not forgotten by the communities in crisis themselves. One person who has worked with Ian Martin in different UN operations told me, "Ian Martin is the kind of person you want to have leading a major UN mission in crisis/complex situations. With Ian, you know you are in good hands - not only in terms of the work but also in terms of security and doing the 'right thing' for the people you are working for and for the staff. Ian has had the same impact wherever he has worked. He has obtained great respect not only from his staff, but especially from the populations and authorities of the countries where he has worked."

His mission in East Timor was followed by appointment as the Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General in the United Nations Peacekeeping Mission in Eritrea and Ethiopia, with special responsibility for humanitarian issues. The length of the title seems to be in inverse proportion to the degree of physical comfort. Whilst clearly UN officials do not suffer the same living conditions as the local population, no one should be under any illusion that they enjoy normal western comforts. Both the living conditions and the working conditions are primitive and yet the staff are expected to do much more than merely survive.

In the light of his experience in UN field missions, Ian Martin was an obvious choice as Vice-President of the International Center for Transitional Justice, based in New York. The principal aim of the organisation is to promote accountability by helping countries to develop effective responses to human rights abuses occurring under repressive regimes or armed conflict. The staff of the Center have been involved in providing assistance all over Asia, Africa and Europe. Ian Martin himself is currently involved in advising the peace process in Sri Lanka.

Ian Martin’s contribution to the operationalisation of human rights, both within and outside the United Nations has been phenomenal. It is not just that he has done it but that he has thought about it and written up his experience, enabling the whole human rights community to obtain, at second hand, the benefit of his experience. Without that process of operationalisation, human rights remain words on the page. What happens in practice is far from ideal but the past fifty years have shown that progress in the effective delivery of human rights and accountability happens in small steps. Those small steps require the combination of vision, diplomacy and inordinate patience. It is for these achievements that the Senate has resolved to confer upon Ian Martin the degree of Doctor of the University.

Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Ian Martin.