Baroness Chakrabarti: On continuing to fight for human rights with her newest book


Opening Chakrabarti’s new book is almost as nerve racking to me as waiting for her in the Hotel Indigo bar for my first ever interview. Human Rights – The Case for the Defence – is an outlining of human rights history, its threats, its critics, and the steps we must take to ensure these rights are upheld. As a non law student, I’m extremely conscious that I’m about to interview one of Britain’s top barristers and human rights activists on a book that explores issues such as the exclusionary clauses of the Magna Carta, or the future of human rights law and AI. My concerns are put to rest in her introduction “this book is not principally for lawyers […] I seek to resist or where necessary translate technical language and to equip you, the reader, with the tools for further investigation and constructive debate”. She achieves just that and jokes with me on first meeting how by increasing the accessibility of her book she has gained some rather “pompous” reviews.

The first two chapters of the book Foundations and Architecture equip the reader with the relevant terminology and the fascinating background to our current human rights system. Knowing that I would publish my interview for Palatinate, I firstly wanted to ask her about a section called Campus Wars in her fourth chapter When Rights Clash. In the section she discusses the culture wars that have blown up on University campuses, and whether there exists a clash of rights between those being de-platformed, and those who feel offended by the nature of their speeches. Chakrabarti makes the point in her book that she does not believe there to be a clash of rights here – as there is a right to freedom of speech but no “right to not be offended”. I asked her if she had a message to students involved in de-platforming.

there is a right to freedom of speech but no “right to not be offended”

“People should have the right to say even things such as ‘I will never be their equal because of my sex or my race’”. She goes on to talk about criminal law and how the line should be drawn at “incitement to violence” and highlights “I’m quite a libertarian about free speech”.

Moving on from the criminal law, she discusses curating programmes and who we decide to platform: “There’s always an element of editing when we’re talking about curating programs and there’s always some choice to be made when we talk about platforming […] I’m here and George Galloway isn’t here and that’s a choice your union made”

She goes on to give what is perhaps my favourite quote of the interview “I’m woke. I’m well and truly Suella Braverman’s tofu eating […] whatever” and goes on to highlight mistakes she feels fellow progressives make when it comes to no platforming: “We’re in danger of confusing a principle with a tactic and no platforming is a very old tactic. It goes back way before the internet. […] It might have made some sense once upon a time where if there’s only one fascist in your village, and you’re the MP or the vicar you can say well I’m not going to be in a debate with the one fascist in the village because it’s a minority opinion. […] That kind of tactic might have made a degree of tactical sense before the internet but I believe that now everybody has a platform, you have to go out and you have to argue. I don’t believe the tactic of no platforming can work in the 21st century.”

I’m woke. I’m well and truly Suella Braverman’s tofu eating […] whatever

Baroness Chakrabarti

Continuing on from our discussion of “woke” I bring up how surprised I was by two of the quotes in her book – Ronald Reagan’s support for refugees “I am a refugee, I am a person in a boat”, and Margaret Thatcher being one of the earliest leaders on the world stage to talk about climate change in her 1989 speech to the UN general assembly in New York.

Telling me how these are two of her favourite quotes in the book she tells me “just because I’m a member of the Labour Party doesn’t mean I’m going to trash the significant contribution made to write some freedoms – not just in this country but around the world – by people to the right of the centre. In the book I tried to be as true to history and fair as I could be.”

My surprise is apparently not unique “I’ve played a little parlour game since writing the book with very famous journalists, with even Nick Ferrari where I have read them [the above quotes] and asked who said this. Common suggestions are Greta Thunberg or David Attenborough […] and then the punchline”.

I go on to question if, with some right wing conservatives pushing for us to leave the ECHR, people incorrectly considered human rights to be a division between the left and the right. After considering a moment she comments that “the values that I’m talking about in this book are not actually left or right values because they were particularly distilled in 1945 in this extraordinary act of statecraft by people to the left and right of politics after two, too proximate global wars. Something’s gone wrong when we’ve now got people in Britain at the moment particularly on the right, but you know in some countries people on the left, who want to just trash the whole thing.”

Any vitriol she has for those phasing out human rights and civil liberties is clearly not reserved for those on the right. Referring to the third chapter of her book Trojan Horse or Human Shield there’s a tone of derisive laughter in her voice as she details to me how some on the left have referred to Civil Liberties as “Bourgeois nonsense”. Explaining how she’s been told there is a clash between liberty and equality she tells me of her simple rebuttal: “Have you ever asked an enslaved person whether they want their liberty or equality? Don’t be silly. When inviting a guest for a meal at your home you don’t give them the choice between having the food or being able to speak” and, following up with a sigh, states “and of course on the right it’s all viewed as undercover socialism.”

Have you ever asked an enslaved person whether they want their liberty or equality? Don’t be silly.

Baroness Chakrabarti

The final chapter I’m desperate to cover with her is Modern Prometheus. Named after Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein, the chapter explains a similar theme to the novel – what is the outcome when science is not paired with moral responsibility and, in this case, human rights law? Exploring human rights in an age of information capture, AI, porn and deep fakes makes for a disquieting read. I ask her if the law can keep pace with technology, and if we should have inalienable human rights such as a codified UK constitution when society is changing so fast. “There’s some amazing [science] coming out and it was very stimulating at my age to be learning new things. I’m trying to think about how human rights fits in [with the science], how they are challenged, but how we also have an opportunity”

The start of her book detailing the history of human rights is not lost in this chapter: “A lot of our existing fundamental rights are hugely helpful and relevant even to this debate […]. The internet and more complex AI is a challenge to every one of our fundamental human rights. With AI in particular the black box nature of decision making, who owns that black box, and the lack of transparency and access to justice is a real challenge. It’s one one the biggest challenges I refer to in the book. Plus the fact that the technology is owned by private corporations not countries so where are we getting neither the legal or the democratic accountability. All of our existing rights need to be better enforced but we probably also need a new international treaty.”

As the interview draws to a close – and I’m keen to hear her every thought before the Union whisks her away for dinner – she finishes by explaining one of the general themes of the book

“Global corporations are the new imperium – they fly logos instead of flags, they are richer and more powerful than whole countries, never mind today’s Prime Minister.  People talk about taking back control. Taking back control of what? There will have to be an exercise in statecraft akin to the one after World War Two to take back control from these companies.”

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Image: Chris McAndrew via Wikimedia Commons

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