An interview with Niall Couper


As part of Assembly For Change, this weekend Head of Media for Amnesty International UK, Niall Couper, delivered an engaging speech on campaigning and human rights journalism. After his speech Couper, a Grizedale alumnus and former SCAN News Editor, spoke to his former newspaper about what it is like to campaign for human rights.

Within his speech he told an enthused audience that it was his, and the charity’s, desire for truth which acts as the drive to promote human rights issues and raise awareness of the horrific abuses regularly taking place across the world. Couper declared a desire to “detoxify” human rights in the UK, describing the integral role that Amnesty UK plays in this objective. “There are issues that are very UK specific which will run from our own offices. We will be looking at things such as arms control here, such as the use of tasers. We look at refugees, we will be looking at the government, for example at the Human Rights Act, and all sort of issues which we will analyse on a national level.”

Couper was fiercely passionate about human rights, describing the frustration of his job when he is unable to reach out and publicize the heinous abuses of human rights happening to people around the globe. “The horrible things I get to hear about and I get to see. I can get absolutely frustrated, ‘Why are people not interested in this?’ We’ve had stories where there’s been a pile of dead bodies outside a morgue because they’ve not been able to deal with them. 50 odd bodies. They had been executed outside there, and there was actually a couple of people that were alive at the bottom of that pile, and we’ve had a researcher who’s documented these people who actually survived.

“Sometimes in a very bad situation we get to see video footage for things like this, and we will go, ‘how can a national newspaper not be concerned about that sort of issue and not be concerned that this sort of horror is going on?’” Moreover, Couper described the difficulties of being responsible for making sure that these devastating personal stories are given the platform necessary to improve the lives of them, and others suffering the same situation. “You do feel responsibility because what you really want to do is make a difference for those guys, because they’re actually without a voice in their country because they are being persecuted, normally by their government.

“One of the hardest things that amnesty has to do is choose who we work on, because we probably get around three thousand cases a year, and we can’t work on all of them so we only work on a select few. We have to choose which cases to really escalate.” Of those many cases of human rights injustice brought before him, Couper said that they are only able work on thirty of these, and only about ten of these would be likely to make significant progress.

“How do you make that effectively life or death decision for some of these people? Realistically it’s a question of whether someone will be spending a 95 year prison sentence or whether they will be released by presidential pardon. That is the difference that Amnesty can make and we’ve seen that. It’s quite common that we might put 7 people down as one case and they will get released by presidential pardon because Amnesty has been campaigning for them. You do feel responsibility for all of those stories but you live on the fact that we do make a difference for some people, and if we didn’t do it, how bad would it be?”

During Assembly For Change, Couper also delivered a workshop with students on human rights and the importance of effective campaigning. Speaking about how Amnesty UK effectively campaigns, Couper said, “it is about being the most creative and innovative we possibly can be. So we have to create a space for that, and try to constantly seem interesting and relevant. It means we have to find the cases that people are going to connect with; you have to be able to identify with particular examples for people”to take notice and give support to the issue.

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