Taking Risks for Human Rights

Peter Tatchell has been campaigning for human rights for nearly 40 years. Once condemned as public enemy number one, he is now listed in Who’s Who. What makes Tatchell tick?


From the outside, my flat looks like a prison, with iron bars on the windows and a thick steel-frame door with three giant bolts. But the high-security isn’t to keep me in; it’s to keep my violent opponents out. There are plenty of them.

Back in 1983, when I stood as the Labour candidate in the Bermondsey by-election, the attacks came from local homophobic yobs and skinhead supporters of far right groups: the National Front, then later the British National Party. In the mid-1990s, the police uncovered a plot to kill me by the neo-Nazi terrorist group, Combat 18. More recently, I have been targeted by Islamic fundamentalists and agents of the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe .

Who else sleeps with a fire extinguisher for bed-time company? And with a rope ladder, so they can make a fast escape out the upstairs window? It is an extreme way to live, but my human rights causes often arouse extreme reactions.

The last two decades have been like living through a civil war. My home has been attacked a hundred times: mostly bricks through the windows – until the bars went up.

There have been three arson attempts and a bullet through the letter-box in the middle of the night. I’ve been physically assaulted over 500 times; mostly by young thugs laying in wait outside my south London council flat, but also by organised right-wing gangs.

There have been a few attempted stabbings, but most of the attacks have involved being punched, kicked and bashed with a variety of weapons: bottles, iron bars, rocks and sticks. Amazingly, I have never been seriously injured; largely thanks to a combination of quick wits and fast legs. On the bright side, the assaults are much less frequent than 10 years ago – only one a month nowadays.

What motivates my human rights campaigns and makes me put up with these death threats and violent attacks? Quite simple: I love other people and loathe injustice. Seeing others suffer distresses me. I think to myself: that could be me or my loved ones. Since I wouldn’t like my family or friends to suffer, why should I tolerate the suffering of other people’s nearest and dearest? Aren’t we all part of the same human race?

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

When I see injustice and decide to fight it, nothing can deter me. I go at it like a terrier. Sometimes I take crazy risks, such as the time I tried a citizen’s arrest of the Zimbabwean President, Robert Mugabe, in Brussels in 2001. His bodyguards beat me unconscious; which has permanently damaged my memory, concentration and eyesight. But I have no regrets. My injuries are nothing compared to the terrible tortures inflicted on Mugabe’s critics inside Zimbabwe. In a way, my beating was a good thing, because it helped alert the world to the brutality of the Mugabe regime.

When people said my bid to arrest Mugabe was brave, I winced with embarrassment. Real bravery is the courage of Zimbabweans who defy police whips, tear gas and bullets to vote for the democratic opposition and to protest against Mugabe’s curbs on press freedom and trade union rights.

Much of the inspiration for my campaigns comes from protest leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Sylvia Pankhurst and Martin Luther King. I have adapted some of their ideas and methods – and invented a few of my own, like challenging homophobic church leaders in their Cathedrals.

Together with my colleagues from the gay rights group OutRage!, in 1998 I interrupted the Easter Sermon of the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey. I criticised his support for anti-gay laws, including the discriminatory age of consent.

He needed to be exposed. The protest worked. Shamed and embarrassed, Dr Carey toned down his opposition to gay equality and agreed to meet the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, after refusing to do so for eight years.

Some people condemn my methods as extreme. Didn’t people say that about the suffragettes a century ago? Without their feisty, headline-grabbing protests it would have taken women much longer to win the vote.

Sometimes, faced with official intransigence, you have to rock the boat to get a hearing.

Perhaps my biggest success was the OutRage! campaign against police harassment of the gay community in the early 1990s. We tried negotiating, but the police ignored our pleas. So we invaded police stations, and disrupted undercover police entrapment operations where ‘pretty police’ lured gay men into committing offences and then arrested them.

Within a year, the police agreed to nearly all our demands for a non-homophobic policing policy. Three years later, the number of men convicted of the consensual offence of “gross indecency” was down by two-thirds – the biggest fall ever. We saved thousands of men from arrest and conviction.

Although much of my campaigning has been for gay human rights, I care equally passionately about all human rights abuses – against anyone for any reason. Global poverty is a violation of human rights. Why do we tolerate it? If every government cut its military spending by a mere five percent and put the money saved into a global fund to fight poverty, within 20 years we could completely eradicate malnutrition, illiteracy, slum housing, and preventable diseases like dysentery, cholera, malaria and TB.

Do I ever get afraid? Of course. Every protest is nerve-wracking. I fear being foiled or being arrested and beaten up. My stomach churns, my heart pounds and my body temperature drops. I feel sick. But when it is all over, and I am lying handcuffed in the back of a police van, I feel serenely calm and relaxed.

My human rights work is not a career; it is a crusade. I am driven by ideals – not by material rewards. In nearly 40 years of campaigning I have never been paid. To make ends meet, in addition to the campaigns I do bits of research and journalism.

Somehow, I manage to live on around £7,000 a year – below the poverty line in the UK, but luxury for most people in Africa and Asia. Over 1.2 billion people on our planet don’t even have essentials like safe, clean drinking water. I count myself lucky.

It is amazing what can be achieved on slim resources. I have no office, staff or campaign funding – apart from occasional donations from well-wishers to my human rights fund ( www.tatchellrightsfund.org).

With no staff support, I work absurdly long hours – typically 12 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week. In the middle of a campaign, I rush meals and average only four hours sleep a night. No wonder I haven’t got a boyfriend. Who would put up with me?

The daily routine is unrelenting. There are hundreds of phone calls, letters and emails to be answered. Many involve advice and assistance to individuals suffering victimisation. The rest of my day is spent plotting and organising campaigns. Usually there are three or four running simultaneously.

Right now, I am planning a series of protests to support genuine asylum seekers who are being refused refugee status. These people have been jailed, tortured and raped in countries like Iran, Zimbabwe, Jamaica and Algeria – and still the Home Office wants to send them back.

I have had only four evenings off in the last six months. My campaign successes give me great joy. But the long hours and constant pressure leave me feeling perpetually tired and prone to illness. It is not a good way to live.

I wish a wealthy philanthropist would agree to help out by funding an office and staff. Then I could have relaxed meals, eight hours sleep, and weekends off to pursue my passion for mountain hiking and surfing.

Needless to say, I have my dark moments when the assaults, workload and vilification become too much. Sometimes, I think of giving up and day-dream about disappearing to a remote Pacific island and doing something care-free and undemanding like running a boat hire business. These despairing feelings never last long.

On hearing the latest campaign success, I bounce back full of enthusiasm. Overall, I am supremely happy and fulfilled because I know my small efforts help make a difference.

Nowadays, things are going well for me. This year, for the first time, I have been listed in Who’s Who. Although I never want to be part of the establishment, I am glad to be included. It is a tacit acknowledgement of the validity of my human rights causes. It is always better to be appreciated than reviled.

Much to my surprise, I was invited to take part in the just-finished series of Celebrity Big Brother. They offered a huge personal fee (three times my annual income) and £30,000 to donate to one of my favourite charities, Sight Savers International (every pound donated helps save the sight of two people in the developing world who are at risk of blindness from trachoma).

But I turned it down. I would have felt awkward. I don’t regard myself as a celebrity. Besides, the programme is a bit trashy and trivial, with all those silly games and costumes. My involvement would have demeaned and devalued my human rights work; probably resulting in people taking my causes less seriously in the future. Having seen the humiliation of Germaine Greer, I am glad I said ‘no’.

Looking back over the last four decades of campaigning, I don’t feel self-satisfied or complacent. I want to do more. The idea of retiring from the campaign trail is a non-starter. I can easily imagine myself – health permitting – continuing to protest well into my 90s. Watch out tyrants and torturers, I will still be after you in the 2040s.

* A slightly edited version of this article was published in the Mail on Sunday Review Section on 6 February 2005 under the title: ‘How do you get into Who’s Who? Get beaten up 500 times and tackle Mugabe’.