Advocating human rights on the world stage
From working the overnight shift at a Newtown petrol station, acting as an extra in Lord of the Rings, to representing worldwide human rights agencies at the United Nations, Victoria University alumnus Bruce Adamson has had a varied career.
But he says those experiences—and everything he’s done in between—have been rewarding and will all help him in his next job as Scotland’s Children’s Commissioner.
Bruce, who’s originally from Palmerston North, did a Bachelor of Arts (majoring in History) and a Bachelor of Laws at Victoria. “One of my main memories was the daily walk between the Kelburn and Pipitea campuses, and the beautiful view of the harbour,” he says. “It’s true that you can’t beat Wellington on a good day—I think I have mostly blocked out the memories of the howling southerlies and the horizontal frozen rain!”
He found his studies rewarding but challenging. “I still have nightmares about the Socratic method, and the readings! I worked night shifts at a petrol station in Newtown and it was usually quiet enough in the small hours to get my reading done.”
Bruce says those overnight shifts also provided some interesting opportunities for discussions with various customers that would prove useful for his future career.
“Taxi drivers, ambulance crews, police officers and various other interesting folk were always out and about overnight and would come in for coffee and a chat,” he says. “Along with the usual questions about the moral implications of representing murderers, I remember a particularly vocal argument about freedom of expression and cigarette advertising with a sales rep from one of the tobacco companies and an ambulance driver. I also had a number of conversations with sex workers about their interaction with the law. I think some of those conversations helped put what I was learning at law school during the day into focus.”
He says volunteering at the Community Law Centre while he was studying also helped him make the connection between what he was learning at law school and the lived experience of people going through challenging times. It also ignited a passion for family law—one that continues to this day.
Bruce graduated in 2000, around the time Peter Jackson was making the Lord of the Rings films, so along with “half of the rest of New Zealand”, he worked as an extra on the films before taking up a job in the child support team at Inland Revenue. “I was in court arguing my own cases literally the day after I qualified from the profs course—it was a steep learning curve and I have a number of stories about my many and varied courtroom humiliations,” he says. “They were mortifying at the time, but I can laugh at most of them these days.”
He says the thing that brought him to Scotland were all the clichés: “Bagpipes, Braveheart, Billy Connelly, whisky, kilts and castles.” He arrived at a time of significant constitutional change in the late 1990s, when Scotland voted for devolution from the Parliament of Great Britain, which it had been part of for the previous 300 years.
Bruce got a job at the newly-formed Scottish Parliament advising on legislation. “It was an incredible experience to be in near the start of something which really felt like nation-building—that’s become a theme of the work I’ve done since.”
He became a foundation staff member of the office of the Children’s Commissioner when the Scottish Parliament established it in 2005. A few years after that Bruce helped Parliament set up the Scottish Human Rights Commission, where he has remained as a legal officer until this year.
“Over the last 12 years I’ve worked on an incredibly broad range of human rights issues, mainly relating to criminal justice. While working for the Commission I became the regional coordinator for Europe, and helped establish the European Network of National Human Rights Institutions.”
In 2013 Bruce was seconded to Geneva to represent the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions. “The workload was unbelievable but it was a huge privilege to represent institutions from over 100 countries. All that Socratic method from Victoria’s Law School really came in handy when I was negotiating resolutions and arguing for treaty recommendations,” he says.
Since 2011 Bruce has been doing expert human rights missions into conflict areas and new democracies in Eastern Europe and the Western Balkans. “One country I’ve been working in is Ukraine—I have a huge admiration for the way that country has coped with what was an unexpected war,” Bruce says. “They now have close to 4 million people in need of humanitarian assistance, and over 1.5 million Internally Displaced Persons—this puts huge pressures on even basic services, and children suffer disproportionately. So a lot of what I do there is support local organisations and ensure that international support is going where it should. Whereas in places like Kosovo the kind of work I’m doing is mostly training and supporting them to build democratic institutions.”
In March this year, after a rigorous four-month recruitment process, the Scottish Parliament announced its decision to appoint Bruce as the country’s new Children’s Commissioner.
“I’m over the moon—it’s my dream job. Scotland has so much potential and has a strong commitment to children’s rights from across the political spectrum. But public services are under pressure, so a lot needs to be done to give life to the commitments we’ve made to children,” explains Bruce. “Bridging that gap between civil society and government really appeals to me, and the combination of spanning international and domestic civil society and government provides a unique opportunity to make a big impact on children’s lives.”
Bruce says finding out he’d been selected for the job was intensely emotional, but there was still a nerve-wracking wait for Parliament to confirm his appointment. “Despite assurances of support from across the political spectrum, I was worried something would go wrong, right up until the motion was passed (unanimously, as it turned out),” he says. “It is actually the Queen who appoints the Commissioner, so in due course I will receive my warrant, complete with the Royal Seal. Then the real work begins.”
He says both Scotland and New Zealand are doing well in terms of the rights of children, but could learn a thing or two from each other.
“When I look at the main issues faced by children in both countries there are striking similarities. I’m coming home to New Zealand for a holiday before I start my new role, so I will be popping into the Office of the Children’s Commissioner in Wellington to see Judge Becroft and his team to see what I can learn from them.”