A few words with Peter Tatchell
Defending human rights
Green World | November 11, 2008
Peter Tatchell has been a prominent human rights activist for over forty years. He campaigned for aboriginal rights and against the war in Vietnam in his native Australia before moving to the UK and becoming involved in the movement for Gay rights and railing against countless other injustices. He has outed bishops, attempted to charge Henry Kissinger and has recently forced a debate about homophobia in national football. He has even had a theme tune written for him. He joined the Green Party in 2004 and is currently running a strong campaign as Parliamentary Candidate for Oxford East. Green World went to talk to him about the past, present and future of the fight for civil rights.
Green World: When did you first get involved in politics?
Peter Tatchell: In 1967, in my home town of Melbourne, Australia. Ronald Ryan was hanged for a murder he probably did not commit. His execution undermined my trust in police, judges and politicians; prompting my first protest (at age 15) and provoking a life-long scepticism of authority.
GW: Who is your political hero?
PT: I don't believe in hero worship, but there are three political figures that I draw inspiration from: Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi, Sylvia Pankhurst and Martin Luther King. They helped achieve great social reforms via direct action protest: Indian independence, votes for women and racial desegregation. In my campaigns for human rights, I've adapted some of their methods and invented a few of my own.
GW: You attempted a citizen's arrest of President Mugabe of Zimbabwe, which resulted in you being beaten unconscious by his bodyguards. What can be done to put tyrants like Mugabe on trial?
PT: As well as my two attempted citizen's arrests of Mugabe - in London
1999 and Brussels 2001 – I also applied for an international arrest warrant at Bow Street Magistrates' Court in 2004, under Section 134 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988, which incorporates the UN Convention Against Torture 1984 into UK domestic law. Judge Timothy Workman ruled that President Mugabe, as a serving Head of State, has "absolute immunity" from arrest and prosecution.
This judgement gives Mugabe, and all other Heads of State, a free hand to torture with impunity. It denies justice to the victims. What is the point of having laws against torture if the main abusers – Heads of State like Mugabe – are exempt from prosecution? We may as well tear up the Convention Against Torture and throw it in the bin. It offers no protection or redress to people who are tortured at the behest of Heads of State. International human rights law needs to be reformed, to end immunity for Heads of State and senior government officials. In the case of crimes against humanity, they should be subject to the same laws as everyone else.
GW: What is the most significant book of the last 50 years?
PT: It's hard to pick one book, but probably Animal Liberation by Peter Singer. It expands our moral horizons beyond our own species and is thus a major evolution in ethics.
GW: Why did you join the Green Party?
PT: I was previously a member of the Labour Party, from 1978 to 2000, and was the Labour parliamentary candidate in the notorious 1983 Bermondsey by-election. I resigned in protest at Labour's rightward drift and the destruction of internal party democracy. Ordinary members now have no say. Labour has become a top-down, democratic centralist party controlled by the Prime Minister and his acolytes in Downing Street. The annual conference is a stage-managed PR exercise, with no meaningful debate or power. Labour has become a pro-war, pro-business party. Thankfully, there is an alternative. The Greens now occupy the radical, visionary political space that has been vacated by Labour. We are the only party with a serious commitment to public services, civil liberties, social justice and to saving the planet from ecological meltdown. And we're democratic. Our party is controlled by the grassroots members – not by a party elite, PR gurus and spin doctors.
GW: How do you think we can enhance the electoral appeal of the Green Party?
PT: I'd like to see us develop six unique, innovative, eye-catching policies and concentrate on promoting and popularising them. We need a few simple, imaginative, practical policies to distinguish us clearly from the other parties - to give voters a sense that we are different and that we have positive, constructive solutions. There's too much doom-saying. We sometimes seem to focus overly on what we are against, rather than what we are for. Green politics needs to be more strongly associated with optimism about the human capacity to solve big problems like global warming and our need for green, safe, affordable energy.
GW: How would you sum up your politics?
PT: Green, red, feminist, libertarian, anti-militarist, republican and humanist. But all these political ideals are an expression of one core
value: love. I love people and loathe injustice. The only liberation struggle worth fighting is a struggle inspired by love. Love is the beginning, middle and end of liberation. Without love, there can be no liberation worthy of the name.
GW: What is your assessment of the government's record?
PT: Labour has done some good things like devolution and the minimum wage.
But Blair and Brown have also out-Thatchered Thatcher. Not even Mad Margaret dared push through the current creeping privatisation of health and education. Under Labour, 120,000 cancer patients die prematurely in the UK every year because the NHS refuses them drugs that could extend their lives. My cousin died in 2005 after being refused an MRI scan which would have detected her brain tumour.
Millions can no longer find or afford a NHS dentist. The huge hike in fees is deterring people from getting dental treatment. Labour founded the NHS and now it is destroying it. It's also pursuing disastrous policies like the war in Iraq, renewal of Trident and plans for new coal and nuclear power stations. Kier Hardie must be weeping in his grave.
GW: Is the "war on terror" working?
PT: The war on terror is becoming a war on liberty. The government is restricting freedom in the name of defending it. Cherished, hard-won liberties are under attack, with the attempt to introduce 42-day detention without charge, and the authorisation of indefinite house arrest and electronic tagging for terror suspects. There's also government interception of our phone calls and emails, restrictions on the right to protest, the development of a DNA data-base, expanded CCTV and plans for ID cards that will enable the government and police to monitor every significant aspect of our lives. We are witnessing the biggest assault on civil liberties in peacetime since the Napoleonic era. Labour is creating a surveillance state, where Big Brother is watching you, me and all of us. In the hands of a non-benign government, these mechanisms of surveillance and control are the tools of a police state.
GW: If you could introduce one law, what would it be?
PT: Replace the existing uneven patchwork of equality legislation with a uniform, comprehensive, all-inclusive Equal Rights Act, to guarantee universal equal treatment and protection against discrimination; backed up with a government Department for Equal Rights to monitor, promote and enforce equal opportunities for everyone.
GW: What international agreement would you most like to see?
PT: A United Nations Convention Against Global Poverty, where all the nations of the world agree to cut military spending by 10% and put the money saved into a UN fund to combat poverty. Such a deal would raise $US100,000 million a year. This money should not go to governments but to proven, effective, non-corrupt NGOs such as Oxfam, WaterAid, Sightsavers International, Practical Action and their local partner organisations in developing countries. In a mere three decades, this funding would be enough to eliminate hunger and malnutrition, illiteracy, preventable diseases and homelessness worldwide.
GW: MPs have voted for an elected House of Lords. Would that reform help revitalise politics?
PT: A fairer voting system for the House of Commons – based on the Scottish election model – would reinvigorate politics and making parliament more representative. House of Lords reform would also help.
I'd like to see it replaced by a fully elected Senate. The system of election should be different from the House of Commons. This would ensure that the Senate's composition doesn't replicate the composition of the Commons and instead offers a fresh forum for political decision-making. I'd suggest these three innovations:
First, election to the Senate via regional party lists, to reflect the regional strengths and weaknesses of particular parties. These regions could be the existing Euro-constituencies, with enough seats per constituency (around 40) to allow for the election of candidates from parties that win 5% or more of the vote. This would ensure representation for smaller parties like the Greens. It would give us an electoral breakthrough – and make parliament more reflective of the whole spectrum of political opinion.
Second, open party lists, where electors can vote for their preferred candidates from a particular party's list, or can vote for a mix of candidates from different parties.
Third, to redress the gender imbalance and secure 50% women's representation, electors could be required to vote for an equal number of men and women candidates. In each region, there would be two lists of candidates – a male list and a female list. If a regional Senate constituency elects 40 members, for example, electors would be able to vote for up to 20 men from the male list and up to 20 women from the female list. The top 20 candidates from each list would be elected.
GW: If you could go back in time, to what year would you go and why?
PT: Berlin, 22 January 1933, to assassinate Hitler as he arrived at von Ribbentrop's house for dinner. This would have stopped him becoming Chancellor and might have prevented the Holocaust and the Second World War. In all normal circumstances I am against violence, but since the murder of Hitler might have prevented the mass carnage of WW2, it would have been the lesser of two evils.
GW: What's your most memorable time in politics?
PT: Gay Liberation Front, London, 1971-73. We created a revolution in queer consciousness and changed forever both gay and straight attitudes towards homosexuality, turning the homophobia of centuries on its head. It was the first time in British history that large numbers of lesbian and gay people were out, proud and defiant. We demanded more than mere equality. Our goal was the transformation of society to end straight supremacism, misogyny, homophobia and all sexual repression.
GW: Politics…what are your hates and loves?
PT: I loathe the point-scoring, sectarianism, dishonesty, opportunism, back-stabbing and personal attacks. But what I love, and what keeps me going, is the potential of politics to change people's lives for the better. That's why I'm in the Green Party. – Issued by OUTRAGE!
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