‘We must always stay true to our values’ – Rita French at Chevening Orientation 2019

Rita French

Rita French

Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva and International Ambassador for Human Rights

Chevening Orientation 2019 marked the start of a challenging and exciting year for the 1,750-strong Chevening Scholarships class of 2019. It was an opportunity for them to meet and network with each other, prepare themselves for the year ahead, and take in the knowledge and advice of our illustrious keynote speakers. Rita French, the UK’s first ever international human rights ambassador, shared the following words of wisdom for our scholars…

Rita French at Chevening Orientation 2019

Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen.

My name is Rita French and I am the UK’s International Ambassador for Human Rights.

On behalf of the British Government, I would like to warmly welcome you all to London and, in particular, to East London which, seven years ago, played host to the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

These games remain dear to my heart. I am proud to say that I was directly involved in preparing and delivering this spectacular event.

204 countries were represented in London 2012, a vision of vibrancy, colour, and competitiveness. The participation and personal achievements of the athletes uplifted the nation, and inspired people all around the world.

With Chevening Scholars from over 140 countries and territories represented today – there is a similar buzz in the room. Individuals proud to represent their countries, driven to succeed, and to be an inspiration to others both here, and back home.

Now, just as London 2012 was a huge celebration, so is today.

I genuinely mean this, when I say that it is a real honour to be in the presence of you all. You are exceptional individuals, here because of the contributions you have already made in your communities.

You have been specially selected to embark on this journey that is the Chevening Scholarship. A journey that will be life-changing for you. So, be sure to pause, take a breath and look around. Your Chevening journey has officially begun. Congratulations!

You will look back at this moment in years to come and remember it – I hope – as a defining moment. Yes, there are lots of ‘unknowns’ ahead which can be unsettling. You have just moved to a new city and new country. You are about to start – if you haven’t already – a new course at a new institution with a different group of people.

But there is one thing you can count on. As of now, you are part of the Chevening community. You are now part of an exclusive, supportive network. You should take comfort in the fact that you have a ready-made peer group who want you to succeed, and who are all going through a similar – albeit unique – journey.

On that note, how well do you know the person sat next to you? Before you leave this hall, make sure you’ve introduced yourself. Shake hands, swap numbers. Add each other on Facebook, Instagram, or Snapchat. Or even better, talk to each other and exchange views. And stay in touch over the coming weeks and months.

You may not know it yet, but you are sitting amongst future presidents, prime ministers, chief executives, judges, entrepreneurs, activists, and leading scientists. These are the destinations that Chevening Scholarships can lead to.

Today I would like to share my story, and share my own experience. And I’m sure it comes as no surprise that I would like to talk about human rights. Not only because it is my job, but because it affects all of us, wherever we come from.

I will also talk about some of the global challenges we face, and why education and global leadership is more important than ever before to help tackle these.

And of course, I will talk about how this all relates to you, as Chevening Scholars.

My story

So let me begin with my story. The title on the screen behind me says Ambassador for Human Rights. It sounds like a vast job and it is. But I didn’t begin here, nor was it even on my career plan.

Some 22 years ago, I too was in the same position as you, beginning my postgraduate master’s in economics at the University of Reading.

I began my career working for Her Majesty’s Treasury as an economist. I provided expert advice on tax – specifically how we could raise tax revenues for public programmes. I helped design the first ever UK Climate Change Levy on business, to incentivise energy efficiency and reduce carbon emissions.

But I wanted to see the bigger picture and understand how democratically elected ministers made decisions. I wanted to be the one that advised across the policy piece. The parliamentary handling. The media handling. The wider presentation to the British public.

While working at the Treasury I decided to apply for a position as an adviser to the chancellor of the exchequer – our finance minister – arguably the second most important person in government after the prime minister. As you can imagine these are popular jobs. I was attending a friend’s wedding in Kenya when I received the call. The head of the chancellor’s office, Mark, wanted to offer me a job. It was not,, however, the job I had applied for. He wanted me to be speechwriter to the chancellor. This completely threw me. I was an economist by trade.

My response ‘Can I think about it?’ wasn’t the excitement that Mark was hoping to get. He was obviously surprised. He said ‘there are 12 other individuals who are ready and suitable for taking this job and you want to think about it? You have 24 hours’.

I went and had dinner with my friends – who were obviously perplexed by my decision. The reason for my hesitancy? I wasn’t sure I could do the job. But Mark, and others who had interviewed me, had seen differently.

I am pleased to say that I did accept the job. It took me out of my comfort zone at the time, but I enjoyed it. And if I may say so, I was pretty good at it.

Fast-forward some 15 years, and again I faced a similar reckoning when considering applying for my current role as Ambassador for Human Rights. Can I do international relations?  Can I change political opinion? Make a difference where subtlety and tact are often the name of the game?

Back to my training as an economist. I am accustomed to being analytical. I like dealing with facts, with data.

But today, I am much more confident in who I am, what I can bring and what I can deliver. I know that the analytical rigour instilled in me from my Treasury days, the political awareness I have from serving five different cabinet ministers as their principal adviser, securing the strategic direction for the BBC, and working in partnership with a diverse range of stakeholders whilst working on the London Olympics, are all relevant skills to transfer into this new role. That doesn’t mean I’m complacent. Of course, there is learning to do.

I am quickly learning about delivering through the multilateral system. Seeing the world through different lenses. Recognising the domestic and international tensions that exist when championing and promoting human rights. And finding ways to provide a platform for the voices of individuals and marginalised communities that may not be heard.

Careers, and ambitions can change, they can change dramatically or they can evolve over time. In fact, it is expected that most of us here are likely to change careers at least 2 to 3 times in our lifetimes, if not more. The world is changing rapidly – and likewise what we do will also need to adapt. We need to build on our core attributes, and continue to learn and develop new skills.

The guiding principle of all this? Be true to yourself. Be true to your values. Know what sets you apart. Identify what your je ne sais quoi is.  Have the courage to take risks, and make the most of the opportunities that will come your way. Have the belief that you can do whatever you put your mind to.

Let me now turn to some of the big global challenges that we face.

Global challenges

Without a doubt, one of the biggest global challenges the world is facing today is climate change. Global temperatures are set to rise by three degrees. In the last decade alone, the rate of Antarctica ice mass loss has tripled. And global sea levels are rising quicker and quicker each year.

Now, if climate change is the biggest global challenge that we face, requiring an international response, then it could be argued that gender inequality is perhaps the biggest domestic challenge that every nation needs to address.

The Economist publication reported earlier this year that the global sustainable development goal that is furthest from being achieved is that on gender equality. At the current rate of action, bridging the gap to deliver equal participation in society by men and women will take some 200 years. I certainly won’t live to see this achievement, nor my children, my grandchildren, or even my great-great grandchildren.

Last year was the 13th consecutive year of global decline in political rights and civil liberties. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.’ We all have the right to life, to liberty and security. We are all equal before the law, regardless of race, colour, sex or language, regardless of religion, political or other opinion.

As leaders, and as individuals, it is imperative that we continue to champion and promote – at home and abroad – these hard fought rights, and the messages of civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Millicent Fawcett, to name just a few.

And I hope, in years to come, some of your names will be added to this list. People who spoke out. People who championed equality, freedom and the right to live in a world without fear or discrimination.

The right to education

Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights talks about the universal right to education. This is a right that the UK is particularly keen to champion.

I would like to begin with a quote: ‘Children should have hugs and be able to go to school.’

These are the words of my six-year-old daughter on her understanding of her rights and the rights of all other children. Simple words, and extremely difficult to disagree with.

For her, the important things in her world, are feeling safe and being loved, and being able to go to school.

Her reflection after reading the book Malala’s Magic Pencil was ‘Mummy, why are girls not allowed to go to school in some countries?’

She perhaps doesn’t understand the importance of education, but she knows about fairness. She clearly enjoys her right to education, and already knows, instinctively, that every child should have the opportunity to the same experience and the same opportunity.

However, access to education is not enjoyed by all in many parts of the world.

Over 130 million girls are currently missing out on getting the education that they have the right to have.

We are the lucky ones.

Yesterday was the International Day of the Girl Child – a day to remind people about the challenges girls around the world still face, including lack of access to education.

The British prime minister has championed a campaign to provide all girls with 12 years of quality education. And the UK is investing more than £200 million to make this happen.

The prime minister’s argument is a simple one. Beyond the manifest injustice of denying quality education for girls, educating girls is unquestionably in the global interest. It will boost economic growth, curb infant mortality rates, improve child nutrition and release the pressure valve of growing population numbers.

As Nelson Mandela said ‘education is the most powerful weapon to change the world’. So make sure you use your education – your Chevening Scholarship, as a springboard to change the world.

It is up to all of us, as leaders, to help make the world a better place for our children, and for their children.


It feels like an understatement to say that the world needs leadership now more than ever before. But what makes a good leader?

I would like to use my remaining time to share my views on what good leadership means. Of course, listen to what I am saying, but at the same time think about what this means for the type of leader you wish to be.

Firstly, the best leaders have vision. True leaders look beyond today. They look to tomorrow and beyond. They paint a picture of that future, and inspire us to be there with them.

Second, as a leader, be prepared to take risks and embrace opportunities and challenge. Including those that no-one else wants to. In the words of Mahatma Gandhi ‘You may never know what results come from your actions, but if you do nothing, there will be no results.’

Third, take note, being in a position of power or authority doesn’t automatically equate to people seeing you as a leader. You have to earn the right to be called a leader.

You often hear that leadership is about being respected or that it’s a popularity contest. It can feel that way with political leaders.

In truth it is neither. Ideally, as a leader you are both respected and liked. But do not take decisions just to be liked. As a leader you will inevitably need to take difficult decisions, which may not be universally popular. But you will be a strong leader, if individuals respect the decision you have to take. That is, they understand where you are coming from, and they think you are being fair – even if they don’t always like the outcome.

Fourth, as leaders we must not stop learning, even if we reach the top of our specialisation. Leadership is a two-way flow of information. As leaders we are of course teaching others – sharing our experience, coaching, offering mentoring. But we are also learning from those we teach.

Finally, remember, as a leader you are only as good as the team around you. Good leaders bring out the best in people by motivating, inspiring, and listening to those around them. My four-year-old son will sit at the dinner table and decide he does not want to eat the meal put in front of him. This is him exerting his independence, and his right to make his own decisions. Which, of course, I fully champion. If I sit down with my son, and we together work up the meal plan he will feel he has more say in the matter and more likely to eat his meal. No guarantee of course!

A wise leader once told me it doesn’t matter if you don’t get credit – as long as the job gets done, in this case that my son eats his dinner.

And whilst I make no apologies for using my children to guide some of the leadership challenges I may face, let me be clear, for obvious reasons, I certainly have no intention of following this mantra when they become teenagers!

So take a moment now to think about what type of leader you want to be. What challenge are you willing to take on? How can you bring others with you? And what mark do you want to leave on the world?

Making the most of your time

I have spoken a lot about education. Formal education is incredibly important. You were all selected for Chevening in part because of your academic background. And I have no doubt that you will excel in your chosen discipline.

But I’d like to use this opportunity to stress that your education – and your ability to lead – is about so much more than formal qualifications. In the words of Albert Einstein ‘education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think’.

So think about your scholarships as the process of acquisition of knowledge, skills, values, beliefs, and habits.

That means your education can – and should – take place outside of the science lab, lecture hall, or tutorial room.

So think hard – beyond that paper certificate – important as it is – on the British Chevening souvenir you wish to take back with you.

Take your studies seriously, of course, but get out and explore everything the UK has to offer.

I would like to introduce you to a British term ‘the bucket list’. Here are my suggestions for your bucket list things to experience during your stay in the UK.

  • Enjoy the many museums the UK has to offer.
  • Go and watch your favourite Premier League team.
  • Explore the different cuisines that Soho has to offer.
  • Discover Shakespeare in Stratford-upon-Avon.
  • Climb a mountain in the Lake District.
  • If you are brave enough, swim in the sea in Cornwall.
  • Go and see the statues of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Millicent Fawcett, Nelson Mandela – they are all here in the UK.
  • Watch the sunrise at Stonehenge.
  • Queue up for tickets for the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall.
  • Visit a palace, castle or stately home…

Just always take an umbrella wherever you go!

Your Chevening Scholarship is a golden opportunity to network. Take the time to meet new people and learn about their stories, their cultures, their beliefs. See the world from a different perspective. And continue to learn from each other.

And, through your volunteering programme, think hard about what you would like to offer the UK. Britain’s enriched culture is a result of our history, our openness, and our welcoming of different cultures. As much as you want to learn from what Britain has to offer, we in Britain want to continue to learn from you. So please share what you have to offer, and continue to enrich our lives and the communities we live in.

I am extremely proud to represent a country that sees diversity as a strength, and that allows people the freedom to live and practice their beliefs. I hope that by the end of your studies, you will see Britain as an adopted ‘home’ and feel this same sense of pride.


To conclude, wherever we are and whatever we do around the world we must always stay true to our values, and protect those hard fought fundamental rights that each and every one of us is entitled to.

I, for one, am inspired by your presence in this room, your excitement, your potential, and what you might do in the future. So thank you for being part of my learning experience.

If you are business-minded, I would term you as start-ups. Just as Silicon Valley is the hub for technology, Lea Valley here in East London, is today a hub for global leadership.

A Chevening Scholarship is a symbol of the UK’s belief in you, and the importance of forging life-long relationships with future global leaders.

We know you have the potential to do great things – in fact you might have done already. We want you to succeed. We look forward to watching your development, and supporting you along the way. And I hope you continue to remain our friend and partner, even once your scholarship has ended.

I would like finish with the words of an American astronaut that I recently saw interviewed on the BBC: ‘I went up to space an all-American citizen. But once I saw just how small the Earth is, how from space you can’t see any countries, no borders just one beautiful planet, I came down a citizen of the world.’

We are all citizens of this same world that the astronaut saw from space. And we need to work together to tackle the global challenges that we face, and champion the values and beliefs close to our heart.

So, citizens of the world, welcome to the UK, and enjoy the exciting adventure that awaits you. Both during your Chevening Scholarship and the future beyond.

Thank you.