Peter Tatchell – Motives, Morality and Methods


The motive of my campaigning is love. I love other people. I love justice.

I don’t like seeing other people suffer. I think to myself: that could be me, my sister or my neighbour. Since I wouldn’t like my family or friends to suffer, it would not be right for me to ignore or tolerate other people’s suffering.

We are all part of the same human family, with a duty of care towards each other, no matter what our nationality, race, belief or sexuality. If everyone cared about others, as well as themselves, there would be a lot less injustice, deprivation and suffering in the world. Altruism, compassion and solidarity benefit us all.

It cannot be right to do nothing while other human beings are denied equal opportunities, human rights and a reasonable standard of living.

I find it unforgivable that over one billion people woke up this morning and had no safe, clean drinking water. The world is rich enough to give everyone a tap with fresh, pure water to drink.

Human rights are universal and indivisible. Culture, tradition, faith or political belief can never be an excuse for subjecting people to different standards of rights and responsibilities. Everyone should be equal before the law, with the same rights and protections.

Although much of my campaigning has been in support of queer human rights, I care equally passionately about all human rights violations – against whoever, wherever and for whatever reason.

My political philosophy can be reduced to two very simple common sense principles: Maximise pleasure, happiness and fulfilment. Minimise pain, misery and discontentment.

Political ideology is a means to an end, not an end in itself. The end goal of politics is, or should be, to ensure that people feel happy and fulfilled. It about transforming society so that people don’t suffer indignities like unemployment, bad housing and racial discrimination.

These simple principles inform all my campaigning. They are the ethical justification and moral compass that guides my opposition to every injustice, including homophobic prejudice, women’s inequality, racial discrimination, environmental pollution, animal abuse, religious intolerance, detention without trial, the exploitation of poor nations by rich ones, and many other inequities.

All these injustices cause suffering and diminish human opportunity, contentment and joy. That makes them wrong. To realise this doesn’t require a fancy, complicated political theory; although some political theories are useful because they can help us find ways overcome injustice.

The celebrity-driven, me-first, consumerist values of the free market globalised economy are corroding human relations and destroying our planet.

Everyone is entitled a decent standard of living. But quality of life – not quantity of material possessions – is the key to personal happiness and a better society.

Well-being doesn’t have a price tag and can’t be bought. It is not a consumer durable. It isn’t traded on the stock market. Well-being is mostly the result of non-commercialised factors, like supportive personal relationships, good neighbours, safe and clean environments and community solidarity.

I campaign both independently and with human rights groups, such as the Tapol, British Ahwazi Friendship Society, OutRage!, Free West Papua Campaign, Amnesty International and the Zimbabwe Association.

Working independently is sometimes necessary because many mainstream human rights organisations are too cautious and bureaucratic. They are often concerned about their reputations, and about the reactions of their funders. It can lead them to soften, or even censor, their campaigning stance. I am beholden to no one. So I can do whatever I believe is right.

When working through organisational structures, I often get frustrated and infuriated by the amount of time wasted in endless meetings and discussions, producing reports that no one reads, and having to wait ages to get management committee approval for a campaign. I am a doer, not a talker.

I tend to organise mostly ad hoc campaigns, like the 2003 ‘Stop The Tour’ protests against the Zimbabwe cricket tour. These bring together people from diverse backgrounds who are committed to direct action. The ad hoc, independent structure frees them and me from the constraints of the usually laborious decision-making procedures of big mainstream organisations. It gives us freedom and flexibility to do what is needed to tackle an issue, and we can act faster.

Amnesty International is wonderful, but to maintain its influence with governments it cannot go around ambushing and arresting tyrannical Prime Ministers and Presidents. That is where my direct action is useful. I can do some of the things that Amnesty can’t.

My independence gives me the ability to take risks and act swiftly. I received only a few days notice that Henry Kissinger was coming to London in April 2002. There wasn’t enough time to secure the official endorsement of Amnesty International to bring a legal action for his arrest under the Geneva Convention Act 1957 on charges of war crimes in Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. I was left with the choice: either bring the case myself or let him come to London without facing a legal challenge. I chose to have a go myself. I lost the case, but mostly on technicalities.

On lots of issues I am often ahead of respectable campaign groups. I say things they don’t dare say. For 20 years, I have campaigned for a reduction in the age of consent to 14 for both gays and straights, backed up by earlier, more explicit sex education to encourage wiser, responsible sexual choices. My aim is to end the criminalisation of young people involved in consensual behaviour and remove the legal obstacles to the provision of condoms and safer sex to the under-16s. For many years, some officials from family and child welfare groups privately backed my ideas, but publicly they said nothing. They feared being falsely branded as condoning child abuse. Only in 2003 did Childline and the Family Planning Association begin to publicly suggest similar proposals.

When I sought to make a citizen’s arrest of President Mugabe in Brussels in 2001, I tried to involve other human rights activists. They either could not get time off work, or they were fearful of arrest, or they were anxious about being beaten up or shot by Mugabe’s bodyguards. So I had to go alone.

Much of my inspiration comes from campaigners like Mahatma Gandhi, Sylvia Pankhurst, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. I have adapted some of their ideas and methods to the contemporary struggle for human rights – and invented a few of my own.

A direct action protest is usually much more effective that a private letter or meeting. It gets reported by the media. This generates public awareness of an issue and provokes debate. The publicity puts the perpetrators of injustice under pressure to change their policy.

Media publicity is a very powerful weapon in the battle against discrimination and other human rights abuses. Big institutions value their reputation and fear negative publicity. They know it is bad PR. Direct action protests exploit this vulnerability by using media coverage as a way of influencing or changing corporate policy.

No one dismisses the suffragette’s methods as publicity-seeking stunts. My methods are very similar. The motivation is to promote a human rights agenda, not my own. Of course, I have my own unique way of drawing attention to human rights abuses. But I am the messenger, not the message.

It is exasperating the way the media sometimes focuses on me to the neglect of the issues and other people in the campaign. Everyone involved is important, not just me. When working with others, I see myself as one of the team – not a leader.

My human rights work is not a career. In 40 years of human rights campaigning I have never been paid. I have no office or organised funding – apart from occasional donations from well-wishers. I live on around £8,000 a year.

My life is pretty tough – not just material deprivations, but hate mail, death threats, attacks on my home and, over the last 20 years, hundreds of physical assaults by homophobic yobs and neo-Nazi gangs.

The psychological and emotional rewards of a successful campaign are immense. They far outweigh the downsides, such as long hours, stress, little sleep, exhaustion and periodic bouts of illness.

Invading the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Easter sermon in Canterbury Cathedral in 1998 may have initially alienated some people. But the long-term effect of that protest was to expose Dr Carey’s support for homophobic discrimination. Shamed and embarrassed, he toned down his opposition to gay equality and eventually met the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, after having refused to do so for eight years.

Let’s not forget that many women at first condemned the suffragettes as extremist and counter-productive. But without the suffragette’s headline-grabbing protests it would have taken much longer for women to win the vote.

Anyone who takes on the establishment gets ridiculed and vilified. That may, in the short-term, do some damage to both them and their cause. It happened to the Pankhursts and their campaign for women’s votes. It has happened to me and some of my campaigns.

Controversial methods often provoke temporary setbacks. Martin Luther King’s freedom marches in the Deep South led, in the short-term, to an increase in racist violence against black people. Although regrettable, Afro-Americans had to endure this period of white backlash in order to eventually vanquish it. Interim setbacks invariably happen on the long road to overcoming injustice. But a principled stand, maintained through adversity, usually wins out in the end.

I see direct action shock tactics as having a useful cathartic and catalytic effect. They help break silence and invisibility, and force open previously closed doors and closed minds.

I don’t regard myself as a celebrity, and don’t want to be one. My longevity as a campaigner with a public profile is, I think, the result of my passion, creativity and persistent determination to challenge injustice. I never take no for an answer. The word impossible does not exist in my vocabulary.

I don’t want to be an icon for anyone or anything. That is not how I see myself, or how I wish to be seen.

I am just one of the many millions of people who are campaigning for a fairer, more just world. It is through our collective, cumulative efforts that we can make universal human liberation a reality.

Peter Tatchell, December 2003 – unpublished interview for the New Statesman.