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The Policy Ask with Quinn McKew: “The government must stop its attempt to throw away our human rights”

The freedom of expression campaigner on protecting our liberties, supporting Ukraine and rescuing a colleague in crisis.

By Spotlight

Quinn McKew is the executive director of Article 19, which campaigns for freedom of expression. Prior to joining the human rights organisation, McKew worked for the Management Center, the largest non-profit management consultancy in Europe, and was a campaign manager for leading environmental organisations in the United States.

How do you start your working day?

Rather boringly, by making myself a cup of chai and reading the papers to get caught up on global politics and trends. I like to mix in reading the traditional broadsheets in the US and UK with the technology press. This can be an energising or depressing activity in equal measure.

What has been your career high?

There are two, actually.

A couple of years ago one of Article 19’s staff was trapped in a country that had experienced a military coup, which I can’t name for security reasons. That person was a pro-democracy and human rights activist, and we received word that they were on a list of people being sought by the military and police, at a time when people were being detained, tortured and murdered. We had to get them out of the country as refugees from this country were being turned back at the border. It took a major team effort: calling on help from governments we have worked with for years, connecting with other human rights groups, speaking with lawyers in other countries, and setting up fraught communication channels when bombs were literally falling from the sky. But we worked quickly and methodically, and brought that person to safety in the US. Meeting them at the airport and seeing their bravery in the face of starting a whole new life after losing so much was one of my proudest and most humbling moments.

Back in another life when I was working on environmental policy in the US, I set an ambitious target with my organisation of getting 40 pro-environment pieces of legislation through Congress within three years. We ended up getting over 50, in a legislative environment that was not pro-environment, protecting incredibly fragile and unique places for future generations. It took years of bringing together non-traditional allies both on the ground and in Washington – corporations and businesses, tribes, local sportsmen, local politicians and activists. But we did it.

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[See also: Free speech means supporting the right to criticise the monarchy]

What has been the most challenging moment of your career?

Shortly after beginning as executive director we discovered significant financial malfeasance in one of our offices. Two months later the pandemic hit and Article 19 closed its offices worldwide. We had to change the way we worked overnight, while managing a delicate financial situation without the ability to be there in person. It was a real baptism by fire! Fortunately I have great colleagues in senior management who stepped up to work as a team to get us through the difficult period stronger than before.

If you could give your younger self career advice, what would it be?

Be open to change. Every major career advancement and interesting challenge I’ve had has been as a result of seizing an opportunity, and not as a result of a five-year plan.

Which political figure inspires you?

The first person to really inspire me to reach beyond expectations was Madeleine Albright, the first woman secretary of state in the US. Madeleine personified success over struggle, at a time when there were not many women political role models in the States. She was a trailblazer in so many ways, and an honestly funny and warm person. Years after reading her biography and starting a career in policy, I met her in person and was an unabashed fangirl.

What UK policy or fund is the government getting right?

The UK is absolutely right in saying that the war in Ukraine is not just about Ukraine, but is a battle over the future of democracy and the rule of law. Its strong support for Ukraine is crucial.

And what policy should the government scrap?

So many to choose from! But the government must stop the deeply misguided and retrograde attempt to throw out the Human Rights Act in favour of the draft Bill of Rights. It is threatening to undermine the fundamental rights that ensure Britain is a liberal, tolerant and supportive society for the sake of cheap political posturing on migrants. A true Bill of Rights would look 100 years ahead to ensure the rights of all individuals, not just to the next election.

What piece of international government policy could the UK learn from?

Europe has become the regulatory powerhouse globally on technology issues, and they are doing it in a way that seriously seeks to balance rights. For example the Digital Services Act (DSA). One of the main positive aspects of the DSA is that it will not prescribe what type of content needs to be restricted or removed (unlike other legislative proposals currently considered, namely the UK Online Safety Bill). Instead, it focuses on processes and transparency. Article 19 believes that thanks to this, many of its provisions will open up online platforms to scrutiny and significantly improve the protection of human rights online.

If you could pass one law this year, what would it be?

A bill that commits the UK to major decarbonisation of the economy over the next ten years. The climate crisis is serious, and the Ukraine war has emphasised how vulnerable we are due to the reliance on fossil fuels. We have to change now.

[See also: The quiet consensus: How Labour and the Tories are converging]

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