Rights culture: interview with Adam Wagner

The barrister shares his views on the biggest stress test of human rights laws since they were designed and his mission to convert ‘sceptical supporters’.

Interview by Charlotte Goodman


Human rights is a tool to understand the bargains we are making. That’s what they were designed for: to ensure that any decisions of great social importance don’t leave people behind.

Adam Wagner is a human rights barrister, blogger and podcaster, and the founder of human rights charity EachOther. It is these latter projects that we arrange to talk about – his human rights work in the media – along with his work as a barrister.

We speak in April 2020. As meeting in person is not an option, I call Wagner on FaceTime from home. The UK is in the middle of lockdown and human rights issues have arguably never been more pertinent in this country. Every day of lockdown, the duty of the state to protect life exists in tension with people’s other fundamental human rights: freedom of association and movement, access to education and healthcare, and the protection of people in custody or care homes from inhuman treatment.

Wagner has worked for 10 years to make human rights principles a central part of UK cultural discourse. He tells me that the coronavirus pandemic is exactly what human rights laws were created for: to protect civil society in times of upheaval.

‘The human rights framework came about right after two world wars, the Spanish flu, and the Great Depression. This was 25 years of huge social upheaval. The laws have developed in a very unusual time of peace and prosperity. And I think the human rights framework was designed fundamentally to prevent social breakdown. Everyone had seen without a shadow of a doubt that when you see total social breakdown you see wars, aggressive wars. Then you have genocides. You have mass poverty and mass debt.’

The pandemic must be the biggest stress test of human rights principles since they were designed, I suggest. ‘Yes. And I actually find it quite heartening that the reaction of this right-wing government was to shore up people’s wages. I’m not sure we knew the state would do that. It’s certainly not what happened in 1929. Although the NHS in 1948 was a version of that instinct.’

Does that mean he feels optimistic about the government’s treatment of the pandemic? ‘I don’t know. I don’t even know how to frame the questions at the moment. This isn’t like asking, how are they handling immigration, and how are they handling prisons? This crisis is so different and [at such an early stage] that I don’t think we even have the right language to know what is going on or to ask the right questions. My only frame of reference in my lifetime is the response to terrorism. It was an existential threat; there was a real fear a terrorist would detonate a nuclear bomb in a city centre. Then you start bargaining: what do you give up to mitigate the threat which is so serious?’

Does he mean, for example, whether we are all willing to download an app which traces our movements? Wagner replies with his own question: ‘What happens when a new virus comes in 10 years’ time? If we are all being tracked all the time, you can knock any new virus which arrives on the head within hours. From a civil liberties perspective you might say a privacy protecting app is better than public health officials calling up all the people you met in the last week. But that is a structure to plan and decide, and human rights is a tool to understand the bargains we are making. That’s what they were designed for: to ensure that any decisions of great social importance don’t leave people behind.’

Wagner, of Doughty Street Chambers, is regularly instructed in high-profile human rights cases which sit on the dividing line between law and politics. He is acting for the family of Harry Dunn in their judicial review against the Foreign Secretary, acted for Phil Newby in a recent challenge about the ‘right to die’ and is representing a complainant in the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s investigation into antisemitism in the Labour Party. Most recently, he has been working as a Specialist Adviser to the Joint Committee on Human Rights Inquiry into the government’s response to the pandemic. How does he see his own role in holding the government to account? ‘Well, the absolute best way to make sure the government has a human rights approach to these issues is to create a human rights culture where you don’t have to rely on lawyers to embed human rights in the government. Lawyers should be there to manage the edges, but the government and the public should be reaching these conclusions on their own because you build institutions and a culture where human rights are front and centre.’

Wagner believes there is a general public advocacy role to be played by human rights lawyers. He tells me that human rights law is half politics – and half law. ‘Some people will say it’s all just law, but I think that understanding is pre-human rights. I think it’s an old-fashioned understanding of law – very purist and very convenient – where judges sit in their dusty chambers and interpret legal concepts.

‘If we are going to have a society that is based on human rights values, the law is only a part in that. I think for human rights lawyers there is a role for being a wider advocate for human rights in society. I don’t think every lawyer needs to do it, but I think there is a place for that.

‘You can’t force a human rights culture, in the same way you can’t force a democracy. Human rights, like democracy, exist in the law as much as they do in civic society, local clubs, our basic simple interactions with each other. Human rights needs a much more holistic approach than the law.’

A lot of middle-class white people are suddenly experiencing overbearing police like black people have for the last 50 years – and they don’t like it. And why does the virus disproportionately affect BAME communities? The suspicion is that we see highlighted existing inequalities and discrimination.

It was this belief – in the need to create a human rights culture – that led Wagner to start the UK Human Rights Blog ten years ago. It rapidly became popular with lawyers, politicians and journalists. Wagner recalls: ‘I found quite quickly that because a lot of newspapers didn’t have legal journalists anymore, there was this big gap for people who understood what was going on in the courts to explain what was going on. It was exciting because nobody else was doing it and it was before people were using Twitter. There were these controversies around human rights law, and suddenly there was an alternative source of information to the right-wing tabloids, who were really critical of human rights law. I saw it as a really big part of being a human rights advocate.’

Working on the UK Human Rights Blog, Wagner came up time and again against what he saw as the emotive, critical and unfair reporting of human rights in mainstream and right-wing newspapers. ‘[The newspapers] wrote as if it was all about criminals, and paedophiles and rapists and unscrupulous citizens getting one over on ordinary people. [This] fit into people’s pre-existing understanding of what human rights law was about.’ As a result, he found himself writing reactively. ‘I did about 60 pieces just responding to newspaper journalists and reporting them to the newspaper regulator. It made a little dent, but it’s really kind of comfort food in my experience. We advocates love it, but few people listen. And few trust lawyers with the message anyway.’

So Wagner turned his mind towards reframing the conversation about human rights issues in a positive light. This is how he formed Rights Info, now known as EachOther. The aim of EachOther is to change the way the human rights sector communicates and to persuade people who are unsure about human rights – the ‘sceptical supporters’ – to become full supporters. ‘It’s about using language which is inclusive and doesn’t shame people. I think that [shame] is too often the language of the human rights world – very good for rallying the base, saying how outrageous and disgusting things are – but it doesn’t necessarily cut through to potential allies.’

Wagner tells me ‘sceptical supporters’ need to be persuaded in preparation for times exactly like the coronavirus crisis, when attitudes toward human rights become crucial. ‘When you get to something like this, or the Brexit referendum, all of a sudden you’re stuck with the attitudes people have developed over years and years, and you’re screwed. It’s what would happen if we had a referendum tomorrow on leaving the European Convention on Human Rights. Everybody likes free speech and liberty, but if you ask them, do they want to change the Human Rights Act, a big majority of people say yes, they want to.’

Does he think the pandemic will make people understand the value of human rights more? ‘I don’t know. It would be foolish to make any predictions as to what will happen even next week. But I think people will have a greater understanding of how precarious their lives are. And how things can change in an instant. This is what I always find interesting about human rights. For example, when talking to Jewish audiences, my own community, I always start with the Nuremberg trials to explain these weren’t distant times. This was a society just like ours that completely broke down. We wanted to make sure genocide would never happen again, but it has happened again – all over the world. Today we could be a few years away from such things. How do we protect ourselves from the social breakdown that can happen in these situations? People will have a greater understanding of that.

‘For example, a substantial number of people who have never come into contact with the criminal law or police now will. They realise that even leaving the house can give them a criminal conviction. A lot of middle-class white people are suddenly experiencing overbearing police like black people have for the last 50 years – and they don’t like it. And why does the virus disproportionately affect BAME communities? The suspicion is that we see highlighted existing inequalities and discrimination.

‘Social and economic rights will come increasingly into the fore. New left movements have popularised those ideas among young people. Going forward, it’s going to be more difficult for the government to say, “There’s no magic money tree.”’ Could it have popped a bubble in terms of universal basic income? He demurs. ‘Well, equally, it might all snap back.’

Podcaster Adam Wagner is pictured with Jodie Ginsberg then at Index for Censorship.

 

In episode 11 of Adam Wagner’s Better Human podcast series, Billy Bragg says we’re missing the point about freedom.

 
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Charlotte Goodman

Charlotte Goodman is a pupil at Cloisters, specialising in employment and discrimination, public and human rights law.