By Peter Tatchell*
Has the left lost the plot? On a number of issues sections of the left have abandoned the principles of universal human rights and social justice.
Over a number of years I have done solidarity work with Zimbabweans struggling for democracy, socialism and human rights. They have not had much support from the mainstream left.
Why Zimbabwe? I have a copy of ZANU’s 1970s political programme: its goals were a socialist democracy with a free press and workers’ rights. That is why I supported Mugabe and ZANU in their liberation struggle. It is also why I now oppose the present tyranny. Mugabe has abandoned the left values he once stood for.
Comparing Zimbabwe today and South Africa under apartheid, the police state methods are not dissimilar. There was a huge global movement to isolate apartheid. But, despite 20 years of tyranny in Zimbabwe, there is no organised left solidarity campaign with Zimbabwean oppositionists. At the weekly protest outside the Zimbabwean High Commission, I’ve never seen any organised left group. Why not?
If you make a roll-call of deaths and destruction, the sad fact is Mugabe has killed more black Africans than apartheid ever did. In the 1980s alone in Matabeleland — just one region of Zimbabwe — 20,000 black Africans were massacred because they were deemed supporters of Joshua Nkomo’s ZAPU. They were not insurgents, they were civilians. Where were the left-wing protests? Where was the campaign for sanctions against Mugabe?
Under ZANU-PF’s tyranny, rape is now used as a political weapon — against both men and women. A journalist who surveyed Zimbabwean political refugees in South Africa found that two-thirds of the men had been raped by Mugabe’s henchmen. A Zimbabwean opposition member of Parliament was among those raped. Even in apartheid’s worst days I can’t remember rape being used on such a massive scale against political detainees.
In the last three years there have been frequent suppression of strikes and arrests of trade union leaders — some of whom have been beaten and tortured. Where is the left solidarity movement with Zimbabwean workers?
Sadly much of the left no longer appears to believe in the principles of international socialist solidarity. Even those who do, haven’t done much about it when it comes to the abuses in Zimbabwe.
And worse, it has become fashionable for some left-wingers to say that those of us who are trying to build solidarity with progressive movements in developing countries are racists and neo-colonialists. I’ve been attacked so many times by black and left activists (mostly members of the SWP). They cannot accept that Mugabe, once a liberation hero, has now turned into the opposite, a tyrant; that he has followed the political trajectory of a one-time socialist like Stalin. Mugabe started out a good guy, with good ideals, but he has become corrupted by power. A leader’s good actions in the past cannot exonerate them from criticism when they betray the very values for which they originally fought.
We are witnessing a real crisis on the left. There is so much moral equivocation, compromise and uncertainty about what used to be very clear left values. We used to say: we stand in solidarity with the oppressed; it doesn’t matter what race they are, or the race of the perpetrator. All oppression must be resisted.
Now moral and cultural relativism is gaining ground on the left. We are told every community is different — with different values, different histories and therefore different ways of dealing with issues.
It is true you can’t impose a blueprint. But there are universal socialist values. When people in developing countries are fighting abuses like female genital mutilation, it’s clear where we should stand. We wouldn’t tolerate such barbarism here, so we shouldn’t tolerate it there. Southall Black Sisters and Women Against Fundamentalism have long campaigned against honour killings, domestic violence and genital mutilation in the UK. Quite right too. So why shouldn’t we show solidarity with women in other countries who are resisting the patriarchal practices of excising young girls’ clitorises and sewing up their vaginas?
However, when human rights violations are perpetrated by people who happen to be non-white, much of the left does run a mile. They are fearful of being accused of racism and neo-colonialism. Does that help oppressed people? Of course not! Their oppressors rejoice. Mugabe must be thrilled that the international left has not campaigned to isolate him. He can point the finger and say, it is only the western colonialists who oppose them.
Why did so many of the left stand back and do nothing during the terrible genocides in Congo and Rwanda? These African killing fields were far worse than any tortures in Abu Ghraib prison, horrific and unjust though the tortures were. Nearly a million people killed in Rwanda, and two to three million massacred in the Congo. Where was the left campaign to halt these genocides? That indifference is the real racism. We wouldn’t tolerate this slaughter happening in Wales or Sussex, why do we tolerate it in Latin America, Asia, Africa or the Middle East?
Whole sections of the left have wavered in their support for Iraqi democrats and trade unionists. Instead of showing solidarity with the Iraqi left, they throw support behind the “resistance”. None of us wants to see Iraq occupied by Britain or the United States. We want to see an independent, democratic and preferably a socialist Iraq. But we won’t get that if the resistance wins. The unholy alliance of ex-Ba’thists, Islamic fundamentalists and al-Qaida militants will, if they win, impose a regime 10,000 times worse than the occupation. Iraq would end up a bloody totalitarian state, akin to the Iranian regime, which has massacred 100,000 democrats and leftists since 1979. Is that what the SWP, Respect and the Stop The War Coalition want? If not, perhaps they should be more circumspect in their unqualified support for the Iraqi resistance.
Iran is a brutal theocratic regime. Only last year a 16-year-old girl was executed for so-called crimes against chastity. Where is the left solidarity campaign with Iranian democrats and socialists who are struggling to overthrow this clerical fascist regime? Iranian exiles living in Britain are trying to build solidarity with the underground opposition inside Iran. They get precious little support from the left.
OutRage!’s latest campaign is “Stop Murder Music” — the violently homophobic songs released by eight Jamaican reggae stars, which explicitly advocate the shooting, burning and drowning of lesbian and gay people. We have been pursuing this campaign for ten years, ever since Buju Banton’s song Boom Bye Bye In A Batty Boy Head (“Shoot the queer in the head”) was a big hit.
It is the view of human rights groups inside Jamaica that these “kill gays” songs help perpetuate a climate of homophobic hatred and violence. According to Jamaican gay rights groups, in the weeks and months following the release of a queer-bashing track, there is a noticeable increase in homophobic attacks and even murders. It was in response to an appeal from — I stress, black — Jamaican gay activists that OutRage! launched a campaign to challenge these eight singers and to demand an end to murder music.
This is a very understandable and reasonable request. No one should be subject to threats to kill them. But just look at the invective and bile we have received, from sections of the black community and some of the left (mainly supporters of the SWP). They say we are trying to impose western values on the people of Jamaica. No! We’re asking the Jamaican government to honour the human rights agreements they have signed. We are acting in solidarity with Jamaican lesbians and gays and other human rights groups like Jamaicans for Justice, Families Against State Terrorism and the Independent Jamaica Council for Human Rights. We’re heeding their call; unlike our critics who sit back and do fuck all, and then still have the gall to claim they are anti-racists. The reverse is true — they don’t give a damn about the murder of black gay Jamaicans. They are the real racists.
From the start we tried to get J-Flag (the Jamaican lesbian and gay rights group) to lead the campaign. Such is the climate of fear and intimidation, they were fearful of retribution. J-Flag dare not publicise its office address because homophobic mobs would burn the place down and kill everyone. The left offers no solidarity. OutRage! continues the campaign, almost alone.
That is now changing. Initially, even in the UK we couldn’t find any black lesbians and gays willing to stick their neck out and be part of this campaign. The last time they got involved, against Buju Banton in the early 1990s, prominent black gays were subjected to months of terrorisation, including death threats, hate mail and attacks in the street. Late last year, however, the Black Gay Men’s Advisory Group joined the campaign and is now playing a leading role.
The black newspapers (New Nation and The Voice) have given little coverage to black spokespeople from the Stop Murder Music coalition. They misrepresent the campaign, condemning it as a “war on reggae”, an “attempt to destroy black music”, and “an attack on the whole African-Caribbean community”. We had to pressure The Voice to get corrections and to secure coverage for black lesbian and gay people. Even to this day, J-Flag have been quoted only twice in six months in the black press.
This is an appaling marginalisation of people on the front line of the struggle for queer rights in Jamaica. What does this say about the state of the black media and the black community in this country? Prominent black leaders have declined to speak out publicly against murder music — Bill Morris, Trevor Phillips and umpteen others. These are people who, if they condemned the incitement to murder lyrics, could have helped challenged homophobia and given a much-needed morale boost to black gays and lesbians.
Black queers feel intimidated and isolated. They are not helped by the silence and indifference of mainstream black politicians, trade unionists and human rights campaigners like the 1990 Trust. On its website are six major articles misrepresenting the Stop Murder Music campaign. It ignores the persecution of gays in Jamaica, and does nothing to support Jamaican gays seeking asylum in the UK.
Fanny Ann Eddy, one of Africa’s most prominent lesbian campaigners, was murdered last year in Sierra Leone. Blink never reported her savage slaying. Yet it routinely covers the assassination of other black activists. Why the double standards? When the Jamaican gay rights leader Brian Williamson was stabbed to death last June, Blink at first ignored his death. Later, its supporters backed the specious claim of the Jamaican police that his killing was “a robbery gone wrong”.
Something is seriously adrift when black activists, who fight admirable campaigns against racism, cannot show solidarity with murdered black gays and lesbians.
The left is little better. Moral confusion abounds. What happened to the idea of an international movement for human liberation? Left-wingers used to stand in solidarity with all oppressed people everywhere. Our concern was to fight the perpetrators of injustice, without regard to their race, gender, religion or sexuality. Universal human rights used to be one of the left’s battle cries. I hope that soon it will be our battle cry again.
- Peter Tatchell was speaking at a Workers’ Liberty meeting in London on 20 January 2005. The meeting debated whether the Green Party is a political alternative — Peter is a member — and we will cover this debate in the next issue.
- Peter is unpaid and receives no grants. To continue his human rights work, he depends on donations from friends and supporters. Cheques payable to “Peter Tatchell Human Rights Fund”. Send to PO Box 35253, London E1 4YF. www.tatchellrightsfund.org