‘We Need to Talk About an Injustice’: Bryan Stevenson delivers Ruth Adler Lecture at University of Edinburgh

Law PhD Candidate, Vivek Bhatt

In this guest post, Law PhD Candidate, Vivek Bhatt, reflects on Bryan Stevenson’s visit to Edinburgh Law School to give the 2019 Ruth Adler Memorial Lecture, and to receive an honorary doctorate as part of the School’s summer graduation ceremony.

Bryan Stevenson (c) Nick Frontiero Photography 2019




On 8 July 2019, the Global Justice Academy hosted a lecture by Bryan Stevenson, recipient of an honorary doctorate at the Edinburgh Law School.  Stevenson is founder of the Equal Justice Institute (EJI) in Montgomery, Alabama, and a clinical professor at the NYU School of Law. Stevenson works as a legal representative for disadvantaged and marginalised individuals, particularly young and poor people who are on death row or serving life sentences. He and his colleagues at the EJI have achieved the exoneration or release of over 125 individuals on death row. Stevenson is also the author of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption,[1]  which was a New York Times bestseller and won the Carnegie Medal for the best nonfiction book of 2014.

Stevenson’s lecture circulated around a question that is as succinct as it is complex: how do we, as human rights advocates, address injustice? Firstly, he said, we must create justice by becoming proximate to those suffering inequality and injustice. Recounting his relationship with his grandmother, who wished that Stevenson would always be able to feel her embracing him, the skilful orator argued that we must know and seek to understand those who suffer injustice in order to affirm their humanity and dignity. Thus, human rights practice is not about the deployment of legal arguments from afar, but rather about stepping away from one’s legal expertise and embracing those who suffer violations of dignity.

While Stevenson argued for proximity to individual victims of human rights violations, he also argued that we must understand and change the narratives that stop us from achieving dignity and human rights. The United States is, according to Stevenson, a ‘post-genocide State’. The narrative of difference and inferiority driving contemporary American race relations was developed in the time of slavery, but is continually co-constituted by all members of society who fail to challenge it. To Stevenson, slavery did not end with abolition; it merely evolved. The view of ethnic minorities as inferior and uncivilised communities survived both the abolition of slavery and the successes of the Civil Rights Movement, and it continues to shape the life experiences of black and minority ethnic people today. Stevenson contrasted the lasting impact of the logics of slavery in the United States with the commitment to changing historical narratives that exists elsewhere in the world. He pointed out that one can hardly walk 200 metres in Berlin without encountering a memorial relating to Hitler’s extermination of Jews, and that South Africa’s post-apartheid constitution reflects a lasting institutional and political commitment to truth and reconciliation.  His message, it would seem, is that in order to rectify longstanding injustices, we must collectively and consciously choose to heed the lessons of history.

Stevenson’s address was in stark contrast to many contemporary commentaries relating to law and human rights, which resonate with defeatism and despair. Indeed, one need only consider the themes of current conferences, symposiums and journals relating to international law, justice and human rights to know that many believe we are living in an age of disengagement from human rights institutions, rejection of the authority of human rights law, the rise of right-wing populism, the reification of ethnic and national boundaries, and the erosion of respect for the rule of law. Interestingly, Stevenson refrained from explicitly engaging with these issues, and instead argued that we must remain hopeful. Hope, he said, is what animates his work and must continue to drive the human rights movement.

Stevenson concluded that we cannot make change without doing things that are uncomfortable and inconvenient. This remark called to mind the work of various figures from Gandhi to Dr King and Rosa Parks, none of whom achieved legal or social reform without great personal sacrifice and hardship. Stevenson’s address was met with both rapturous applause and tears. Like the people he cites as his inspirations, Stevenson speaks far less about the work he has already undertaken than he does about the things that are yet to be achieved. He does so without reference to notes, presentation slides, or complex and technical legal jargon; he is proximate to his audience, precise in his argumentation, and passionate about his cause.

Following the lecture, I found myself reflecting upon the relevance of Stevenson’s arguments to the broader international human rights movement. We must, he suggested, change the narrative about what it means to be a global citizen.  Yet Stevenson’s messages about proximity and changing historical narratives might seem a challenge to international human rights advocates, who write and speak about injustice in faraway and often inaccessible places. Human rights seem remote in such situations; they provide a language that enables us to discuss suffering, but not necessarily to alleviate – or even fully understand – it. Yet we might take Stevenson’s remarks relating to proximity to mean that to practice human rights is to seek to understand, tell the stories of, and address individuals’ experiences of injustice. The key to such work might not be physical closeness but rather a sense of one’s membership of a global community. ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,’ wrote Dr King. ‘We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.’[2]

Bryan Stevenson’s talk was held as part of the Ruth Adler lecture series. Adler was founder of the Scotland Office of Amnesty International and a founding member of Scottish Women’s aid. Her work was instrumental in the development of women’s rights and children’s rights in Scotland. The next lecture in this series will be given by Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, on 1 October 2019.



[1] Scribe Publications, 2014.

[2] ML King Jr, ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ (first published 1963, Carson Newman University, November 2007) 1, available at web.cn.edu/kwheeler/documents/Letter_Birmingham_Jail.pdf.