Peter Tatchell is a British human rights campaigner, best known for his work with LGBT social movements. How Britain perceives Tatchell has changed drastically throughout the years and it is perhaps fitting that the trajectory of our opinion has been inverse to the public’s view of his nemesis – hero turned villain, the recently departed Robert Mugabe – who Tatchell famously tried to citizen’s arrest. Once vilified by the press and media, they now regard Peter as a national treasure. Country Squire Magazine’s James Bembridge was honoured to interview this campaigner amongst campaigners on some of the important topical issues facing us today:
James: Robert Mugabe retained his power through bloodshed, torture and corruption yet died in a luxury Singaporean hotel surrounded by family. You crossed paths with him at least three times and on two of those occasions you attempted a citizen’s arrest, how do you feel as someone who risked your life in trying to bring him to justice now knowing that he will never have to face it?
Peter: Robert Mugabe’s life is a vast political tragedy. He began as a liberation hero, helping secure black majority rule in Zimbabwe, but ended up as a despot who tyrannised his own people. During his many decades in power, he murdered more black Africans than even the evil apartheid regime in South Africa. In Matabeleland alone, during the 1980s, it is estimated that he slaughtered around 20,000 black Africans. That is the equivalent of a Sharpeville massacre every day for almost 9 months. Mugabe became Ian Smith, the former white supremacist leader, but with a black face. My sorrow is reserved for the tens of thousands of victims of his murderous misrule.
James: When he began as this liberation hero against minority-white rule, he identified as a socialist like yourself, do you think he was ever sincerely committed to social justice or did he just see that as a means to achieve power?
Peter: I have a copy of Mugabe’s political program in 1974 and it’s a document that few people could disagree with. It included commitments to free and fair multi-party elections, the right to protest, freedom of the press and many other human rights guarantees. I believe that Mugabe started out by believing and standing for those principles but like so many people, when he got power, it went to his head.
James: When you attempted to perform the citizen’s arrests, did you think there was any real chance that the police would assist you and charge him with committing torture or was it more a political stunt to draw the world’s attention to his atrocities?
Peter: I had legal papers including affidavits from torture victims, which would have provided a sound basis for President Mugabe’s arrest and prosecution. I always hoped that having seen the evidence the police would realise there was a legitimate legal case against him. Sadly, that was not the case. I failed to get him arrested and put on trial as I had planned. However, the very act of attempting to arrest him got worldwide media coverage about his human rights abuses in Zimbabwe and this was at a time when those abuses were not being widely reported. So in that sense the attempted citizen’s arrests were successful.
The new Zimbabwean leader, Emmerson Mnangagwa is cut from the same cloth as Mugabe. He is implicated in some of the massacres. The leader has changed, but the system remains the same. Zimbabwe is still ruled by a corrupt, authoritarian regime, where fundamental freedoms are not respected and are routinely violated. What Zimbabwe needs now is a new peaceful democratic revolution to ensure that the people there have a representative government that can be held accountable.
James: What is the solution to bring what you call “universal human rights’ to countries like Zimbabwe, Ghana and Uganda where it is still illegal to be homosexual for instance?
Peter: Social change has to come from within, it cannot be imposed by outside. The colonial era is history and I want to ensure that it remains so. The only really effective thing we can do is to publicise and support human rights defenders in countries where LGBT+ rights and other human rights violations exist.
The best approach is to urge countries to uphold the human rights conventions that they’ve signed and to support people inside those countries who are striving for the same end.
In extreme circumstances like apartheid in South Africa, it might be justified for the international community to enact a program of boycotts, sanctions and disinvestments – in order to pressure rogue states to stop their persecution.
James: It seems to me that some practices, which are antithetical to your philosophy of universal human values, are allowed to go on under the all-encompassing guise of “diversity”. This was most recently demonstrated by the government’s refusal to ban the eating of dogs so as not to offend some cultures – a courtesy they don’t extend to those who enjoy the culturally British tradition of fox hunting – these attempts to assuage critics of the Conservative party who claim it has a problem with diversity also allow for Kosher and Halal slaughter abattoirs to operate in this country. Should human sensibilities come above animal rights?
Peter: It’s very important to realise that we humans are part of the animal kingdom, albeit a highly intelligent animal species. This obligates us to act in a just and ethical way towards other animals; recognising that is morally wrong to harm other living, sentient creatures. We know that all the vertebrates have the capacity to feel pleasure and pain, are often social creatures and some seem capable of altruism and empathy too. This is especially true of primate species like chimpanzees and the great apes. But it even includes cats and dogs. Therefore it cannot be morally right to inflict suffering upon them. We humans need to adopt the role of stewards, guardians and protectors of other species and not exploit and harm them.
While fox hunting and other blood sports have traditionally been a part of country life, a long time ago so were inhuman practices like putting serfs in stocks and public executions.
As a society, we have rightly moved on. Most of the British public believe that inflicting suffering on other animal species for fun and sport is unethical. There are lots of pursuits that don’t involve the infliction of suffering and I would hope that most people in the countryside now recognise it is time that barbaric practices like hunting foxes with dogs and tearing fox carcasses to pieces should end.
James: The government has expanded the areas in which badger culling can take place, don’t you think that in some instances it is justified to kill animals if they are spreading disease?
Peter: I sympathise with farmers whose livestock is threatened but badger culls are not the solution, they don’t work. Most tb is not transmitted by badgers and in places where culls have taken place, it’s made a negligible impact upon the incidence of infection. What we need is more hygienic farming methods and strategies like the vaccination of cattle in tb areas.
James: Many people in Britain depend on agricultural animal slaughter for their livelihoods, if we all stopped eating meat then wouldn’t that cause mass unemployment and economic uncertainty?
Peter: The livestock farming of sheep and cattle involves the ultimate abuse, namely the killing of those animals in order to give us meat. Apart from the health issues involved in the often-dirty conditions in which livestock are kept and the treating of them with antibiotics which can get into the human food chain. We now know that eating meat is not essential for human health. In fact, eating a lot of red meat has been proven to be very unhealthy. I don’t want to see any farmers have their livelihood destroyed but I do hope that more will shift to non-animal farming and other countryside activities that don’t involve cruelty. I’ve seen some of the videos of pig farms and slaughterhouses and the conditions are filthy and inhumane. In the 21st century, it doesn’t have to be like this. I’m glad that there is – for those who love the taste and texture of meat – the prospect of the creation of artificial meat which could be a substitute livelihood for farmers who give up livestock raising.
James: Talking of progressive thinking, do you think that in the UK the LGBTQ movement has lost its way a bit? After achieving prominence, public acceptance and equality there are now sections of the movement – the trans offshoots, those enforcing LGBTQ teaching on kids, and illegal paedophile-justification groups in particular – who are threatening to damage the movement in the British public’s eyes? Where does sense stop, and self-destructive Foucauldian intersectionality take its place?
Peter: Trans people suffer disproportionate and shocking levels of prejudice, discrimination and violence, often leading to depression and self-harm. It is right that the LGBT+ movement defends the trans community and their human rights. To ignore trans suffering because it is unpopular would be both cowardly and immoral. Nearly half of LGBT+ pupils at school have been bullied and a third of LGBT+ adults have been victims of hate crime. To remedy this injustice, it is right that young people are educated about tolerance and the reality of same-sex love and families. No LGBT+ movement advocates paedophilia and it is deeply offensive that you make that homophobic suggestion.
James: So, Peter, are you for equality or equality of outcome?
Peter: We need equal opportunities and anti-discrimination laws to secure a more equal society. This means levelling up, not dragging down. There should be better representation for women and ethnic minorities in Parliament and the top levels of business. Economically, the vast gulf between rich and poor needs to be reduced. It is obscene that the richest 1,000 individuals have a combined personal wealth of £760 billion. To paraphrase Spiderman: With great wealth comes great responsibility. This means higher tax for the mega rich, closing tax havens and ending tax avoidance loopholes, which deprive the government of revenue to fund the NHS, education, housing and social care.
James: You recently wrote how Britain’s system of hereditary monarchy is inherently racist, could you talk about that and what your solution would be to make it more ethnically diverse?
Peter: Monarchy is incompatible with democracy, it’s a leftover from the feudal era. The idea that a head of state should be chosen on the basis of the hereditary principle is fundamentally flawed. It leaves our head of state in the hands of the first born of the existing monarch who may or may not be an intelligent moral person. We had the disaster of King Edward VIII in the 1930s who was a Nazi sympathiser. The idea that the most stupid or immoral member of the Windsor family is more fit to be head of state than the wisest most moral commoner is frankly outrageous. With the current Windsor family there is no prospect of us ever having a non-white head of state in the foreseeable future.
The next King will be Charles and he’s white, after him will be William, he’s white, after him will be George, he’s white. Unless Prince George marries an ethnic minority person his successor will also be white. This strikes me as profoundly wrong in a multicultural society. The idea that for generations to come our head of state will always be white is just so wrong.
These are some of the reasons why I support a democratically elected head of state similar to the Irish or German president – low cost, purely ceremonial, with no executive powers. I wouldn’t want a French or American-style president. The virtue of an elected head of state is that you can replace them if they fail to act in accordance with the people’s wishes, whereas with a hereditary head of state, you’re stuck with them for life, however good or bad they may be.
James: In 2015, twelve staff were slaughtered in the offices of Charlie Hebdo for the crime of blasphemy, this year the All-Party Parliamentary Group adopted a definition of Islamophobia. Why are supposedly progressive parties pushing for this definition which seems to be more concerned with protecting theocracy than the very real abuse faced by many British Muslims?
Peter: It’s understandable that these politicians want to do something to tackle the often-extreme prejudice, discrimination, harassment and hate crime that many Muslim people face. I applaud their sentiments, but a definition isn’t going to change anything. It’s a cop out, virtue signalling without any concrete practical solutions. Moreover, it’s also a potential threat to free speech. There are three major problems with the definition by MPs. They say that Islamophobia is routed in racism, well it’s true that Islamophobia can be an expression of racism but it’s not necessarily racism because neither Islam nor Muslims are a race. Like other religions, Islam is an ideology and Muslims include people from many different races. There are white Muslims in Britain and also black and brown ones. It’s also true that prejudice against Muslims can be driven by a fear of Islamist extremism and by Jewish and Christian religious sectarianism – neither of which are motivated by racism.
Secondly, it talks about Islamophobia targeting expressions of Muslimness. Well this is a very vague and subjective term that is in no way defined. Muslimness will mean different things to different sects of Islam. Sunni, Shia, Sufi and Ahmadi can’t even agree among themselves what constitutes a good and true Muslim. And of course, the danger is that Islamic fundamentalists will claim that they represent true Muslimness. They already use it to justify their opposition to the rights of women, LGBT+ people and adherents to other faiths.
Thirdly, the definition could be abused to inhibit free speech. It doesn’t include any robust caveat to protect freedom of expression. Like all ideas, Islam should be open to scrutiny and criticism. However, it’s often the case that any critique of Islam is denounced as Islamophobic and an attack on Muslim people. What is not acceptable is to demonise Muslim people and subsequently victimise them. Discrimination against the idea of Islam is perfectly reasonable in a free society but not discrimination against Muslim people.
James: Do you think that under this new definition, we could accuse the victims of the Charlie Hebdo massacre of being Islamophobic?
Peter: The new definition could potentially be used against Salman Rushdie over his book, the Satanic Verses, the publishers of the Danish cartoons and the staff of Charlie Hebdo.
James: Which illustrates how dangerous this new definition is.
Peter: Yes, absolutely.
James: As a campaigner against all forms of injustice, does it frustrate you how casually accusations of bigotry are used in today’s discourse, some politicians will often use spurious claims of racism as a cynical ploy to win whatever the argument of the day is.
Peter: It is quite right that people are more aware on race issues and do not use offensive language. We don’t want ethnic minority people to feel victimised, excluded or devalued but some people will throw around the racism allegation as a way to try to discredit someone with who they disagree – even when no racism was committed or intended. A good example is the case of Justin Trudeau, he was wrong to blackface, but he’s apologised and asked for forgiveness. His government has a very good record of appointing ethnic minority people and working to challenge racism, so I think in these circumstance the accusation of racism is unjustified.
I always believe that what a person does or says should very importantly be judged on their motivation and intention. Sometimes people without thinking can use words which some communities can find offensive. They should know better but if it’s clear that they didn’t mean to be offensive then I think they should be given a second chance.
Political correctness is often derided but it’s simply an attempt to ensure that other people are treated with respect and dignity. So saying you shouldn’t use the N word is not some politically correct tyranny, it’s a recognition that black people and their white friends and allies find that word that deeply offensive.
Twitter is probably the worst of all, where people will throw out accusations of racism etc as a cheap way to discredit someone with whom they disagree. That is profoundly damaging to free and open debate. It means issues are not explored and debated. Dialogue is reduced to the equivalent of a bar-room brawl.
James: You now have a foundation, please tell us about that and the kind of work you do.
Peter: After working on human rights unpaid for over 40 years without any organisational backup or staff support, I now have a human rights NGO in my name, the “Peter Tatchell Foundation”. We work on a mix of UK and international issues ranging from democracy and human rights in the broader sense to specific issues like free speech and the rights of women, LGBTs and ethnic minority peoples. You can find out more at our website www.Petertatchellfoundation.org
In conclusion, I will finish with my motto which I hope people will take to heart. It goes like this: Don’t accept the world as it is, dream of what the world could be and then help make it happen.
James: Thank you, Peter. We wish you all the best with your future campaigns.