Far-reaching action can be achieved, the executive director of an international legal rights charity tells Elizabeth Davidson
On the table on one side of John Wadham’s sparse office are three framed photographs. Two feature aeroplanes – he is an enthusiastic private pilot and flies from an old RAF aerodrome near his home in north Essex.
The third is of one of his more famous clients, David Shayler, the former MI5 officer who went on the run after breaching the Official Secrets Act in 1997.
Wadham, currently the executive director of international legal rights charity Interights, has had a high-flying career at the sharp end of public law. Unassuming in person, his legal battles against ID cards, anti-terror legislation and DNA databases have been high profile.
He started out working in law centres on housing and social security problems before qualifying as a solicitor. He served articles with the well-known human rights lawyer, Gareth Peirce.
He went on to work at civil rights organisation Liberty for 13 years, until 2003, and was its director for eight years. He has been deputy director of the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), and General Counsel of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC). During this time, he has seen different governments come and go, and borne witness to a sea-change in the role of human rights in the UK.
As a new recruit at Liberty in 1990, he was often asked to speak about the European Convention on Human Rights “not because I was an expert. I wasn’t. But because there was no-one else.” More than two decades later, human rights arguments are commonplace in courts throughout the UK thanks to the Human Rights Act, and other case law and legislation.
“The Scotland Act, for example, contains provisions ensuring that human rights are woven into the devolution agreement.
“There were a lot of good things about Labour, like creating the EHRC and the IPCC, and incorporating the European convention,” he says, “but then they also introduced anti-terror legislation which we opposed.”
Wadham not only worked at the IPCC – he drew up the blueprint for it while working at Liberty.
“It was very interesting to set up a public-sector body and imbue it with human rights values,” he says. “It has pursued a human rights agenda in the context of policy on stop and search, and deaths in custody.”
While at the EHRC, Wadham headed a team of 70 lawyers and legal support staff. “We intervened more times in cases than all the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) put together. We had resources and we could pay barristers.”
However, funding is less abundant at the commission these days.
He has been in his current role at Interights for three months. It is a hard-working, value-for-money organisation which is based in an office unit in east London but has global scope. It has 23 staff, including ten lawyers, and takes litigation in courts and tribunals around the world, recruiting NGOs and lawyers from the regions involved to run the cases. It only very rarely takes cases in the UK.
“It’s all strategic litigation,” says Wadham. “We are interested in finding the key strategic case that will lead to a change in the law, not lots of individual cases.”
The International Centre for the Legal Protection of Human Rights, to give it its full name, was started 30 years ago by a group of lawyers including Anthony Lester QC, who remains its president. Currently, its main focus is Africa and eastern Europe.
It sources its cases partly through “litigation surgeries”. For example, it is looking for the right case in east Africa – Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya – to challenge the exclusion of girls from school if they become pregnant. To do this, it works closely with local NGOs and lawyers in the area, paying travel costs to those who attend. This is “mutually beneficial”, says Wadham, because “people leave with ideas for cases and a deeper understanding of the law, while we learn more about the area”.
Interights has also held seminars on human rights for judges across the world, although it does not do policy or campaigning work.
“We try to use international treaty duties to get domestic courts to try to address human rights issues,” he says. “We use the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights and the American Convention on Human Rights.”
Wadham has a copy of the African Charter pinned to his wall. It is roughly the African equivalent of the European convention, but contains interesting differences, for example, the idea that people have a duty to their family and a duty to uphold African values. The latter is sometimes used to justify discrimination against gay men and lesbians on the basis that gay rights are not in line with African values.
Interights is limited by the political stability of the area. “You have to have the basics of the rule of law in place to use litigation. There are lots of human rights abuses in Syria but litigation would not work there. In Egypt, on the other hand, you can use litigation quite well to change things.”
It may be selective in the challenges it takes on, but it has notched up an impressive roster of cases.
In March, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights gave judgment in a case involving four Egyptian women journalists who were sexually assaulted during a protest in Cairo while the police stood by. The women received threats when they made a complaint.
Interights worked alongside the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights to represent the four women. The commission found that the state of Egypt failed to protect the women from violence and in so doing breached their rights.
This is an historic victory in an environment where violence against women often goes unpunished.
Sibongile Ndashe, a lawyer from Interights who worked on the case, hailed the decision as significant given that “for the first time in its 27-year history, the commission has handed down a decision on the duty of states to protect women from violence”. It gives women a legal standard to which they can point in future.
Another Interights lawyer has brought a case against Niger on behalf of a woman who was born into an established slave class and was inherited, sold, made to work without pay, and used as a sexual slave by her master. Although slavery was made a criminal offence in 2003, at least 43,000 people remain enslaved in the country.
The organisation was also involved in a successful test case in the European Court of Human Rights, which found that any state that assisted the USA in the rendition, detention and torture of an innocent person had violated his/her human rights.
These are just a few examples of strategic litigation but while it is a useful tool to bring about law reform, it can be agonisingly slow. The Egypt case, for example, began in 2008 and took five years to conclude.
Wadham agrees: “It is frustrating – you can have situations where you can get a judgment but by the time you get it the government has changed.”
However, he remains committed, heading back to his office following the interview to work on a case challenging an Ethiopian law that prevents a human rights organisation receiving funding from abroad.