“From here to home” – Valedictory address to graduating students of the International Diploma on Mental Health, Human Rights and Law.

Oliver Lewis
Indian Law Society, Pune, India
11 November 2017

  1. Graduates, alumni, students, faculty, distinguished guests including parents who are very welcome – it is my privilege to address you on behalf of the Faculty, and on my own behalf. Many people have made this programme possible and I want to convey the faculty’s thanks especially to the local team: Jaya, Soumitra, Harshada and Kaustubh and their colleagues at the Centre for Mental Health Law and Policy for getting us all here and coping with our moans, mosquitoes and Delhi belly. Your smiles and patience are appreciated.
  2. Graduates, today is your day and it is an auspicious one. The 11th of November is known as armistice day, marking the moment of peace following the First World War in 1918. On this day, we commemorate those who gave their lives for us to live in peace. One catastrophe was not enough for humanity to learn the lessons, and it was only from the ashes of the Second World War that the modern human rights framework was born. The world came together to establish a global legal framework that prefers peace over violence. Since then many millions of people have benefitted from peace and human rights education and today you join that line of tradition.
  3. It was as a reflection on the Second World War that Martin Niemöller, anti-Nazi German theologian and Lutheran pastor, wrote this poem: First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a communist; Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a socialist; Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist; Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— because I was not a Jew; Then they came for me— and there was no one left to speak out for me.
  4. Graduates, you have learned this year and in my class this week that advocacy means speaking out. You have your own motivation in taking the diploma. And we have different motivations to teach it. This being a mental health course, mine is suitably Freudian. When I was a child, my mother could sometimes not find a child-minder to look after me during the long summer holidays. She worked as a psychiatrist in a large institution where people with intellectual disabilities lived their entire lives. During the summer holidays, she sometimes took me to work. I sat in case conferences reading books, and spent time in the occupational therapy department playing computer games on enormous and slow computers with the “patients”.
  5. My mother took me to the wards. I remember seeing people sitting in chairs lined up against a wall, rocking back and forth. “Is that because they have a disability?” I asked. “No, that’s because they are bored, they have nothing to do”, said my mother. A young man was appointed as the hospital’s administrator. I won’t go into ’ll spare you the details, but he ended up being my step-father. Both my mother and he were instrumental in shutting the hospital down and transferring all of the patients to community-based settings. Of course, living in the community is difficult, but it is a better default than being locked up for life.
  6. I learned that it is possible to be a human rights advocate from inside the system. I went on to work for and on behalf of people inside mental health and social care systems but from the outside and using the law. What tips can I pass on to you as you graduate from your diploma? Here are not so much ten commandments written on a tablet, but ten provocations written on an iPad:
    1. Speak up about what you care about, and care about what you speak up about.
    2. Seek silence in the noise. Voiceless people may need your assistance more than those who call for attention.
    3. Voice is power, so use yours judiciously. Don’t shout or condemn unnecessarily.
    4. Investigate the root causes of a problem by asking why, why and why again, but do not treat the problem as an academic exercise.
    5. If a situation is so complex you cannot imagine a solution, articulate the problem clearly. This will agitate others to help you find a solution.
    6. Clicking “Like” is not advocacy. Use social media as a source of information and a means to collaborate.
    7. Recognise that your deeply-held principles will sometimes conflict with other people’s. Keep your ego in check.
    8. If you find yourself speaking on behalf of someone whose opinion is different from yours, stop and re-evaluate.
    9. As Hamlet said, there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.
    10. Think deeply and critically. Use logical reasoning and deploy rational arguments from philosophy, science and social science. What you think will have wider resonance, and is undoubtedly more relevant, than a dogmatic belief.
  7. When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted, Eleanor Roosevelt famously asked, “Where do human rights begin?” and answered, “In small places, close to home”. Nearly seven decades later the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was adopted. A ceremony was held when it opened for signature in 2006. Addressing the roomful of dignitaries, Canadian jurist and then UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour remarked that Eleanor Roosevelt’s observation was “as true in the area of human rights and disability as with any other area of human rights.”
  8. When you go back to the small place you call home, you will have begun your own human rights journey. Whether you reduce restraints in a hospital, integrate human rights into training mental health professionals, increase funds to the mental health sector, help to close beds in segregated settings, expose the sexual and reproductive rights violations, change government policy from within a ministry – whatever you do, you are a human rights advocate.
  9. Over the last year you have learned about various promising practices from countries other than your own. You have learned that things can be different and that materially-poor countries are rich in human resources. You have new knowledge and skills to change something back home. You’ve heard today that you don’t have to do it alone: you have here a network of friends and colleagues to guide and assist you, so reach out.
  10. You have learned that human rights do not happen on paper. They do not happen in the corridors of the UN, the high court of Bombay or the classroom of the ILS. Human rights begin close to home. So, as you make your way home, please reflect on how you will use your power, your newly-learned skills and knowledge to make small changes to improve other people’s lives. At the end of our lives, improving other people’s happiness is a great gift to give.
  11. You are making the transition from studying human rights to becoming a human rights activist. Wherever your career takes you, we are confident in your abilities to change the world. We are proud of you. We congratulate you. And we wish you every success.