In defence of rights: Shami Chakrabarti

It’s a difficult moment for human rights, no question, argues Shadow Attorney General Baroness Chakrabarti. The ardent defender of human rights and civil liberties muses on Brexit’s impact, lawyers’ responsibilities and issues ahead


 

It is like any other day strolling past the Houses of Parliament in 2019; clamouring protestors, a sea of EU flags and several weary-looking coppers. I escape the clatter and enter the House of Lords to be met by Shami Chakrabarti’s political adviser. We walk through the historic corridors to a bustling tea room, where Shami is seated unobtrusively amongst other, rather gaudy Lords, Ladies and their guests.

‘I don’t get used to all that “Lady” business. One good thing about being in this place – it can make you feel quite young, with no need for surgery!’ We order a pot of English Breakfast Tea and Marmite crumpets then dive in.

Hard as it is to keep up with the Brexit theatre, in the days before we meet eight Labour MPs and three Conservative MPs have resigned from their respective parties to join the new Independent Group. Jeremy Corbyn has been meeting EU leaders in Madrid, joined by Shami and two other frontbenchers, Keir Starmer and Rebecca Long-Bailey, to put forward the Labour Party alternative to Theresa May’s deal.

Inevitably we start with Brexit. In the March issue of Counsel magazine, I asked Baroness Helena Kennedy QC for her views. Helena was frank: ‘Brexit is bad for women.’ I put the same question to Shami.

‘I think it really depends on what Brexit looks like. Helena has a real point in that a lot of the hard Brexiteers in particular are using Brexit as cover for the dilution of rights and protections in the home, in the workplace, of consumers, of the environment. A deregulatory Brexit would undoubtedly be bad for women. It is not just the European Convention on Human Rights, but the social and economic protections that have come from the EU. Women need this regulation and protection.’

Labour Party policy, she explains, is ‘dynamic alignment’ with the EU on human rights. Madrid was a ‘fascinating and positive trip’ where those they met in the EU look at the current Labour Party with ‘excitement and optimism’.

‘They would rather Britain was not leaving. There is still potential for a very close relationship with the Labour Party offering – the offering that Jeremy and Keir are putting forward today at the other end of the building.’

After graduating with an LLB degree in 1991, Shami was called to the Bar by Middle Temple in 1994. In 1996, she started working as a barrister for the Home Office. The day before 9/11, Shami became director of Liberty, an advocacy group promoting civil liberties and human rights, and held that role from 2003 to 2016. It is safe to say Shami has been an ardent human rights defender for many decades.

What will happen post-Brexit to the Human Rights Act 1998 under a Conservative government? Is she is troubled by its future? ‘I am always concerned... I don’t want to be too party-political here – there are many like Dominic Grieve and Kenneth Clarke (I could give you a long list of Conservatives) who have defended the Human Rights Act – but there is a grouping, a significant grouping, who would like to tear [it] up, and even pull out of the European Convention on Human Rights. I’m sorry to say this but even Mrs May has said things in support of both of those contentions. My understanding is that repeal is still technically Conservative policy. It was certainly manifesto policy. It is not off the table.’

‘You could have the most blind, most cliff-edge, total hard-core Brexit and that still wouldn’t sate xenophobic appetites. That’s why it is so important we keep fighting for the defence of the Human Rights Act. It needs bedding down and bedding down. It needs more longevity for another generation.’

Not yet 20 years old, for a constitutional rights instrument the Human Rights Act ‘is still very young, yet it has been under attack since its infancy... we need to keep hypervigilant’.

Shami speaks modestly about her appointment in October 2016 as Shadow Attorney General: ‘I am lucky enough to sit in a Shadow Cabinet of passionate defenders of the Human Rights Act. For all the family squabbles in the Labour party… and there are many… there is pretty broad agreement on it.’

Shami currently operates alongside a string of other Labour Party lawyers: Emily Thornberry, Andy McDonald, Rebecca Long-Bailey, Valerie Vaz, Nick Thomas-Symonds and Keir Starmer, to name a few.

‘An interesting thing about the Shadow Cabinet is that it is a quarter lawyers. It makes my job so much easier. Even the people who aren’t lawyers have very long histories of working in human rights. They have been on the demonstrations for legal aid. Then you have a contingent of trade unionists – they tend to care about civil liberties too. I’m really proud to work with these lawyers [who are] committed to social justice... We are going to try and make things better if we get the chance to govern. But in terms of the country and the world, it is a difficult moment for human rights, no question.’

"Publish and let people say – ‘Oh there’s Chakrabarti saying “stick up for terrorists” again’ but hey, we have a rule of law and it exists for a reason!"

On the legal profession, Shami says: ‘We are going to do our best to make things better, in terms of access to justice and access to the profession in particular. It is so much harder now. We are concerned about these law colleges that are ripping people off with no realistic prospects of getting into the profession – and it is often students outside the UK getting ripped off. The legal profession has had a really hard time, the junior end in particular, what with the combination of things like tuition fees, debt and legal aid.’

So what can junior barristers in human rights and civil liberties do more of? ‘Practitioners [need to engage] in broader discussion in civil society beyond just the profession. If I have a single regret from my very fulfilling years at Liberty, the campaigns about legal aid were not in plain enough English, with a broad enough coalition of non-legal actors to make the kind of traction we made in other areas.’

‘It is really important that when you win a case, or are fighting a case that is going to be significant, that you talk about it in the public square and in human rights language. When you have been able to use the Equality Act 2010 or the Human Rights Act 1998 successfully, you say so and say so on mainstream media and social media.’

Due to the decline of legal aid, Shami feels that fewer people are seeing the benefit of human rights legislation, particularly when terror suspects appear to the public to be the only ones benefitting from its protection.

‘It is ever the story that people “do not care” about the law or legal aid or the Human Rights Act until it is their own rights at stake – so a positive thing to do is to tell these stories, even if they have to be anonymised. We are story-telling creatures. It is a better way to campaign. Better than pompous polemics. As juniors you have to tell the story about the detention centre, the refuge, the woman struggling to get benefits. Be advocates in the public square as well as the courtroom.’

I ask what Shami thinks about Home Secretary, Sajid Javid’s decision to revoke the citizenship of British-born Shamima Begum who left the UK in 2015 aged 15, to join ISIS.

‘There is always a danger of politicians being tempted to court the more populist elements of public opinion when they really should be behaving in a more quasi-judicial way. This was a classic example – talk first, reflect later. My view is that your citizens – no matter how dangerous, guilty, suspect, foolish, or vulnerable – are your responsibility. If they are dangerous you do not dump them like toxic waste into the ocean or the international community. You don’t make people stateless. I am disappointed in the Home Secretary. He is an intelligent enough man to know that [his decision] was populism and not statesmanship. It’s not right. Publish and let people say, “Oh there’s Chakrabarti saying ‘stick up for terrorists’ again”, but hey, we have a rule of law and it exists for a reason!’

‘I haven’t changed my position on these things since Liberty. It is like all the arguments we were making at the height of the War on Terror. It is bad for security – if they are dangerous you interview them, and if necessary you prosecute and incarcerate them.’

‘One of the things about the Brexit debate is that it is making a lot of people reflect on what it means to be a migrant. There is an amendment to protect EU citizens – the Costa amendment – I believe that he has been sacked for tabling that amendment, and the government is equivocating.’

Shami is right – Alberto Costa MP was indeed sacked for raising it, but Theresa May went on to accept his amendment, which called for ‘a joint UK-EU commitment’ to protect the rights of expats in the event of a No Deal Brexit. As at the time of writing, nonetheless, EU citizens living in the UK are still to be stripped of their freedom of movement, housing and social security rights by Home Office legislation being introduced to regulate immigration following Brexit.

On this she is clear: ‘The rights of EU citizens here must be protected. In Madrid, we met with a group of Brits in Spain. They are really concerned. These Europeans are our friends and neighbours. We need to make this open-hearted gesture from day one to get that reciprocal response.’

In April 2016, Shami was invited by Corbyn to chair an inquiry into alleged anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. Her recommendations, published in June of that year, have yet to be fully implemented for which the Party, Corbyn in particular, has received criticism.

So I ask how she assesses the impact of her work. ‘We have yet to see it... That, for a couple of years at least, was frustrating. Recommendations were not implemented in terms of improving processes and so on. But work is being done and Jennie Formby [General Secretary of the Labour Party] has put additional resources into discipline. Part of the problem is that there has been an escalation in membership to half a million, plus you have the internet. So it is slow to keep up. Processes will not do the trick by itself – it has to be politics too… It also has to be about Labour members and supporters calling out that bad behaviour. However, it is also the factionalism in the Labour Party... that has sometimes gotten in the way... I hope that the report will be fully implemented, in thought and work and deed, but we are not there yet.’

Shami was for many years a Yankophile. On Desert Island Discs in 2008, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue was one of her must-haves. Would she ever move to America? ‘That’s an interesting question in the era of Trump. Definitely when I was young. I had an admiration, a fascination for the United States. It was the land of the movies. I loved the movie Manhattan, even before Woody Allen had his issues. It’s a beautiful opening, with the Manhattan skyline.’

Is it still possible to like a film after its creator has been accused of being a sex pest? ‘It is possible but it becomes harder. Given it was about an older man with a younger girlfriend… well, it is harder now to look at those scenes in the same way. But in principle, can those with bad politics or not very nice people be artists? Yes of course they can. We should never remove books and art! I would rather have additional books than burn them. Have a more diverse bookcase. You would expect me to say no less!’

Recently, tennis star Martina Navratilova said it was unfair that those born male who transition to female can compete in women’s categories in sport. ‘In the first chapter of my book I do talk about this debate, about self-identification. In general terms, I am for it. That said, if there is a suggestion that the identification is not genuine, and is [being done] to cheat the system, then I would have concerns. For instance, if you were a male prisoner, who had previous convictions for sex offences and were now identifying as female, the authorities have a duty to scrutinise that self-identification and a duty of care to scrutinise that for other women. You would not put a racist in a cell with a black minority prisoner.’

‘I don’t think it is fair that a transwoman cannot compete in women’s sport – that would be really exclusionary. That’s where my instinct is. Even people who aren’t transwomen and have an intersex-type physicality have been treated appallingly, such as Caster Semenya. I am not comfortable with that level of scrutiny and insult in sport. Maybe we will end up without sex-segregated sport because of how society has developed. Maybe the real debate will not be about who is male and who is female but who is human and who is robot?’

This segue begs the question, are robots a new frontier for human rights? ‘That will be an issue in the future, what with the combination of artificial intelligence and medical technology.’ I tell Shami about a robot in Saudi that was given citizenship in 2018, which surprises her. The robot, ‘Sophia’, seemed to have more rights than half of the humans living in Saudi Arabia.

‘In the future, maybe in your lifetime, there might be some further interesting rights issues – even now I have real concerns about the unregulated production of sexbots. I am not suggesting that the bot has rights but there could well be issues for society if people able to produce sexbots that resemble children, or seem to emulate a desire to be hurt or damaged. You might be normalising certain behaviours. As technology moves at pace, the grammar, the law, has to catch up.’

Shami catches herself – ‘Goodness! I’ve never really thought about this. I am doing the thing that politicians should never do! [My political adviser] is going to castigate me for it. But it is an interesting ethical and technology question and things we are going to be engaging with. As lawyers, we have a role in this.’

As we finish, knowing Shami is a huge film fan, I ask what she has seen recently – ‘some really good films!’ She lists The Favourite and Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman. ‘That was maybe his best work. Really powerful. A beautiful piece of cinema.’

She also enthuses about Gurinder Chadha of Bend it Like Beckham fame, a personal friend whose new film, Blinded by the Light, comes out later this year. Set in the 1980s, ‘it could have been from my youth’. ‘Political and inspiring without being preachy, it’s funny and it’s warm and a wonderful antidote to the sort of things we have been talking about.’

Clearly satisfied with the sophisticated selection of films, her political adviser expresses relief: ‘I am so glad you didn’t say Pitch Perfect 3…’ So I have to ask, has Shami seen Pitch Perfect 3, the cheesy acapella comedy? ‘Of course!’ she says, grinning. ‘I have seen all the Pitch Perfects! Rebel Wilson has great timing. Who doesn’t like a bit of feel-good cinema?’ l

Alice de Coverley has a civil practice at 3PB, including education, equality and personal injury law. She is a member of the Counsel Editorial Board.


Shami’s book Of Women: In the 21st Century (Penguin 2018) starts from the position that gender injustice is the greatest human rights abuse on the planet.
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Alice de Coverley

Alice has a busy civil practice at 3PB, including Education, Property, Commercial and Personal Injury law. She is a member of the Counsel Editorial Board.