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'Climate change is going to bring the worst human rights violations of all time' - interview with Andrew Gilmour

'Climate change is going to bring the worst human rights violations of all time' - interview with Andrew Gilmour

The recently retired head of human rights at the UN speaks about climate change, Brexit, Scotland’s approach to human rights, and his old friend, Boris Johnson

Since stepping down as the United Nations’ Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights in December, Andrew Gilmour has planted over 200 trees. 

Gilmour, who rose to become the most senior Scot in the UN, has moved back to his family home in Dumfriesshire and is focusing, for the time being, on countering the noticeable decline in wildlife in the area while he puts down his roots.

His very localised effort to have a positive impact on the environment fits with a new focus that he hopes will twin his lifelong interests in conservation and human rights.

Gilmour plans to dedicate himself to getting climate-change campaigners and human-rights defenders to better work together because, as he sees it, “they have the same enemies”.

“I have officially retired from the UN,” he says. “But I’ve not retired in life at all.”

This task will draw on the three decades of experience Gilmour had at the UN, where he held postings around the world, directing humanitarian and peacekeeping efforts in countries from Serbia to South Sudan, before becoming the head of human rights at the secretary-general’s office in 2016.

But for the moment, the 55-year-old intends to make the most of his time in his family home in Scotland’s rural south-west.

He says: “That’s actually one of the reasons I wanted to leave the UN. I’ve been coming here all my life, but I’ve never lived here.”

Gilmour at home near Thornhill, Dumfriesshire

Gilmour in his home near Thornhill, Dumfriesshire

Gilmour described himself as a young conservationist, “obsessed” with wildlife, having joined WWF aged 10. On the winding drive to his house, Gilmour jumped on the brakes as a red squirrel darted across the road. Such sightings are, he said, “one of the great joys of life”.

“That’s why this place means so much to me. I’d be out even in this weather, actually,” he says, nodding towards the window, a February snow-storm sweeping over the hills.

Newly freed from any political constraints, Gilmour instead spends the afternoon talking to Holyrood about his passions and fears to do with human rights, climate change, Brexit and his old friend, Boris Johnson.

Gilmour’s father, Sir Ian Gilmour, was a Conservative MP as well as an heir to the title Lord of Craigmillar. Politically, Gilmour described his father as “the archetypal Tory wet” for his liberal voting record.

He grew up near London and, like his father, was schooled at Eton and studied at Balliol College, Oxford, alongside a number of prominent peers, including David Cameron and Boris Johnson.

Gilmour first got involved with human rights when he joined Amnesty International, aged 16, earnestly taking part in letter-writing campaigns to political prisoners in the Soviet Union and Greece.

Gilmour arrived “at the bottom rungs” of the UN, aged 25, in the very week the Berlin Wall fell. There was a great feeling of optimism in those end-of-history days, he recalls, seeing international cooperation begin to flourish after the stagnation of the Cold War.

As bureaucratic and legalistic as the UN can be, Gilmour, not himself a lawyer, feels that human rights are best understood in simple terms.

“The word ‘dignity’ means a lot to me,” he says.

“And another constant is just hating bullies.”

In his whole career, one cause in particular has captured his passion for defending human rights.

“That always brings me back to the Palestinians,” he says.

“That’s why I have such strong views about that issue.”

In all his postings around the world, Gilmour says, he has witnessed areas of greater violence and worse deprivation.

“But I’ve never seen a greater injustice and an entire people just being humiliated than in Palestine.

“I mean, I’ve seen an old man at a checkpoint, in front of his grandchildren, having to drop his trousers to show that he hasn’t got a suicide bomb,” he says.

The humiliation of Palestinians is, for Israel, “part of the plan”, Gilmour thinks.

He used his final address to the UN in November 2019 to discuss the “appalling” situation created in Gaza, highlighting the imbalance of violance inflicted by Israeli forces. 

Sharing the clip on social media, Gilmour wrote: “Yesterday I spoke at the UN on Palestine-Israel and its impact on human rights for what is likely to be the last time. So, I didn’t go out of my way to conceal what I really feel about it.”

In his most recent role at the UN, Gilmour was tasked with reporting on reprisals against human rights defenders (documenting an increase in recent years). He also championed an internal UN initiative called Human Rights Up Front, which was meant as a reaffirmation of the organisation’s founding principles.

Photo credit: United Nations Photo

Gilmour was seen as one of the more outspoken senior leaders at the UN. He has called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights “the noblest document ever written” and regards it as essential to use the office to call out abuses.

But this is something the current Secretary-General, António Guterres, has come in for harsh criticism over.

In February, Foreign Policy magazine published a story that described a culture of legal and political timidity at the very top of the UN. Human Rights Watch has even said that Guterres risks being “defined by his silence” on human rights.

Gilmour’s farewell email to senior staff was quoted in the Foreign Policy piece. In it, he said that standing up for “charter values” seemed to have somehow become seen as “a bit quaint, even a sign of zealotry and political imbecility.”

Gilmour denies that he quit out of frustration, but does confirm his view that “there’s sometimes too much expediency and not enough principle,” at the top.

“I do absolutely get why the current climate is such that the Secretary-General isn’t able to speak out...but there are some things, I think, he should speak out about, yes.”

While the UN has “insuperable” problems, like the composition of the Security Council, Gilmour is still a believer.

“There has to be something like the UN,” he says.

“I feel that it is so glaringly obvious that today’s problems clearly require a global solution. There is no one country, not even a group of countries like the EU, that can solve them.”

Gilmour has spoken for years about a “global backlash” against human rights. He sees the past decade as being a low-point across the world, including in Europe and America.

At the root of this backlash, he says, is economic crisis.

“Austerity. The disastrous policies of Cameron in this country,” Gilmour says, pointing to similar measures in Germany and other countries.

“Austerity policies made people desperate, which is a very human reaction, and populists have been very good at building on this human reaction. That is, to find somebody to blame.

“It’s often immigrants or people of some other minority who are somehow blamed,” he says.

America’s “ruthless” persecution of central American asylum seekers and Europe’s response to Syrian refugees is having a knock-on effect across the world, Gilmour says.

“Europe’s one of the group of countries that has been driving forward the human-rights agenda.

“So, when we Europeans are seen as not actually standing up for human rights, it is regarded as utterly hypocritical” or even appearing to “give license” to abusers, he says. 

“Theresa May said something in her [2017] election campaign that was definitely used.

“She said – and I’m not quoting literally – but she said that if there’s a conflict between human-rights laws and our efforts to fight terrorism, then to hell with human-rights laws.

“One of the suspected war criminals of Myanmar actually quoted her, saying, ‘if the British Prime Minister is doing this – we are fighting the same battle against terrorism’,” Gilmour says with exasperation.

Gilmour has serious misgivings about Brexit. He fears Britain might shirk its leading role in human-rights promotion in this new ‘Global Britain’ approach, as the UK Government finds it’s much harder to get trade deals than claimed during the Brexit campaign.

“They’re going to say, ‘this is really embarrassing. We’re struggling to get any deals apart from with minor countries’,” he imagines.

“Then the other countries say, ‘we don’t like these clauses about human rights, take them out’.

“And we might do it. That is my fear.”

I doubt any member of the government has a true understanding of human rights”

One of the curious things about Gilmour is how he is able to hold such strongly critical views of the Brexit project, and indeed the Johnson government, while maintaining his 40-year friendship with the now Prime Minister.

Gilmour recalls, from their college days, how he and Boris Johnson would argue over Israel and Palestine.

The disagreements continue. Gilmour described one of the Johnson government’s first acts, the stripping out of the Dubs amendment from the Brexit bill, as “one of the most despicable things I’ve seen”.

“There’s no reason to target the desperate children and refugees,” he says.

“I mean, I don’t know what they were thinking.”

So, what does this say about Johnson – does he really care about human rights? Can his government be counted on to prioritise it?

No government can be counted on, Gilmour says, tentatively.

“Boris Johnson, I think, understands some of the key points,” he begins.

“And I know from issues that we’ve discussed recently that he has, for example, a deep sympathy for the plight of Yemenis who are the victims of our Gulf allies.

“So, he certainly is not devoid of compassion.

“But I doubt any member of the government has a true understanding of human rights,” he concludes.


Photo credit: Scottish Parliament Flickr

The Scottish Government’s words and policies on human rights, though, have impressed Gilmour.

In February 2019, at the UN’s New York headquarters, an enthusiastic Gilmour chaired a discussion on human rights with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

Sturgeon discussed such topics as the Scottish Government’s aspiration to embed the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child into domestic law. But not before broaching an obvious question with the international delegates.

“Nationalism elsewhere is a deeply unprogressive, illiberal force, particularly in today’s world,” Gilmour says.

“[Being there] gave her the opportunity, and she took the opportunity very nicely, to explain how Scottish nationalism isn’t like the nationalism that we see elsewhere in Europe,” Gilmour says.

“She basically tried to explain that this nationalism just means ‘we want to run our own affairs’.”

Although not a supporter of the SNP, Gilmour says there are at least three things Sturgeon has said on human rights that he finds very impressive.

“She wrote that letter [to EU nationals] saying, ‘don’t worry, you’re welcome’ and I was very moved by that.”

He also admired her offer to explore ways to pay for women from Northern Ireland to get access to abortions in Scotland.

“I thought that showed tremendous solidarity with people in desperate need,” Gilmour says, warmly.

And Sturgeon’s apology to LGBT people for “centuries of Scottish homophobia”, too, moved him.

These, he says, are examples of a leader giving a “very compassionate response to what [I was] discussing earlier about the need to respect people’s dignity.

“That is something I find very appealing about where she’s taken this,” he says.

But he does not think that Scotland needs independence to be a leader on human rights.

“I genuinely believe that it isn’t necessary. I want people who believe in independence and people who don’t to still feel there’s something to be done in order to promote human rights causes,” he says.

I think that it is not nearly well enough understood that climate change is going to bring the worst human rights violations of all time”

Looking to the future, the big overarching challenge facing human rights across the globe is impending climate catastrophe, which Gilmour warns could lead to the “obliteration of human rights”.

“I think that it is not nearly well enough understood that climate change is going to bring the worst human rights violations of all time,” he says, darkly.

“Comparable to the worst wars, in terms of mass movement of people, unliveable conditions, loss of life, food, education – the obliteration of human rights.”

Gilmour is confident that climate change deniers will soon be voted out of office, although he concedes it might not happen straight away.

“It might not even happen this year,” he says, with the upcoming US election in mind.

While the mass displacement of people is a widely discussed feature of climate change, Gilmour fears there could be further crackdowns on human rights when states finally do scramble to respond.

“At which point, there will be a move to declare states of emergency. And we know from history that states of emergency just lead to the obliteration of human rights; they get put entirely to one side.”

Building networks and coordinating responses between the two historically separate groups of environmental and human rights activism is to be Gilmour’s work now. In September, he will take up a fellowship at Oxford’s All Souls College, where he will begin looking at how this can most effectively be done.

It’s a wonder, as someone whose life’s work has focused on the very worst aspects of humanity, that Gilmour can feel any hope for the future.

“In the last three years, where I’ve encountered tremendous human suffering and violations of human rights and spoken to countless victims, it’s often hard to feel hope,” he says.

“But I’m hopeful that the young generation will pick up the human-rights issues with as much energy and enthusiasm as they have done the environmental ones.

“That does give me some hope.”

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