Human rights chic

Observations on activism by <strong>Katrina Manson and James Knight</strong>

With so many beautiful young things in a room you would expect at least canapés, champagne and a film première. But no, the 65 people gathered at Chelsea Cloisters in South Kensington (just around the corner from the Bibendum Oyster Bar and Joseph, darling) had international justice on their minds.

Human Rights Watch (HRW), the organisation that records abuses and lobbies for lasting change worldwide, was on a recruitment drive among the brightest and the best London can offer. Lawyers, writers, financiers, actors, diplomats and designers were there to hear how they could help as London catches up with Los Angeles, New York and Toronto, which all have HRW branches for young advocates.

"The idea is to get more young people involved, to encourage debate and take an interest in the broader issues of international justice and human rights," says Daniel Hahn, a volunteer on the steering committee of HRW's London network. "There was a really lovely buzz at the launch, with people asking, 'What can I do?' They are all interested in shaping something that might make a difference."

These days activism can be more subtle than sit-ins, placards and letter-writing, and London's bright young things are as valuable for their CVs and contacts books as for their raw commitment. HRW wants their skills, whether they are designers who can lay out a pamphlet or business executives who can lobby their companies.

Another steering committee member is the actor Christian Coulson, 27, who among other things played the young Lord Voldemort in the second Harry Potter film. He became interested when he took part in an HRW event at which actors and artists dramatised human-rights cases through music and readings. He read testimonials about Darfur and street children in the Congo. "The piece about street children was particularly interesting because it generally goes unreported," he says. "That's the way HRW works; bringing things to a wider audience that might otherwise be unremarked on."

As well as raising funds through cocktail parties, the London Network will hold briefings by researchers just back from the field. "The idea that people could hear from someone who just got off a plane from the Democratic Republic of Congo is very compelling," says Hahn. At the launch, Tiseke Kasambala, a researcher, spoke of her efforts to uncover HIV/Aids abuses in Zimbabwe, where one in five people has the virus.

HRW has usually raised funds at gala events, charging prices ranging from £300 for a seat at the annual dinner to £25,000 for a table, but tickets for London Network events are likely to be roughly £10, and don't worry if you're feeling long in the tooth. The suggested age range is 18-35, but "we're being very vague about that", says Hahn. So long as you're young at heart, you're in.

This article first appeared in the 11 September 2006 issue of the New Statesman, It must be Gordon, Gordon, Gordon