Friday, October 19, 2007

Speech at the Baha'i Centre, on receiving the Blomfield Award

My father had a friend called Noel Mobbs, who was given a knighthood just after the last war for his support of boys’ clubs. At a lunch in his honour he was describing the scene when he went to Buckingham Palace to receive the honour, and the speech went something like this:

. “The King said to me: ‘Mobbs, for what you’ve done you deserve a peerage’ and I said to him ‘that’s up to you your Majesty’.

Let me say without qualification that there’s no honour I would sooner have received that the Blomfield award, established in memory of Sara Louisa Ryan, Lady Blomfield, one of the most remarkable women born in the second half of the 19th century. Its difficult for us to imagine the enormous wall of prejudice and discrimination that women of that era had to surmount if they were to do anything at all outside the domestic sphere. Barred from the universities and the professions, business and Parliament, and treated as the chattels of their husbands in English law, it’s a miracle that a few women did get to play a role in public life. Lady Blomfield’s contribution spanned among other causes the women’s suffrage movement, the liberation of Ireland, her native country, from British rule; the League of Nations and Save the Children Fund.. In these great movementss as well as the personal work she did such as nursing the wounded in the first World War, she was inspired by her Baha’i Faith, and particularly by the constant encouragement of Abdu’l-Baha, Guardian of the Faith, in a correspondence that has been preserved in the Baha’i archives. In a booklet she wrote supporting the Save the Children Fund she quoted Baha’ullah, the great Prophet who founder the Baha’i religion a century and a half ago, that the First Obligation of humankind was towards children, and that is still very much at the forefront of Baha’i thinking today.

And that brings me to the second reason why I am proud to be the recipient of this award. I have long been an admirer of the Baha’is, and of the principles that guide them. Tomorrow I’m initiating a debate in the Lords on the Government’s revised alcohol harm reduction strategy. The Government always preface their statements on alcohol harm by pointing out that 90% of the adult population drink alcohol, most of them sensibly. But millions of people – men, women and children – are drinking hazardous or harmful amounts, and there is never any attempt to highlight the 10% who don’t drink, like the Baha’is. I intend to emphasise that an alcohol-free lifestyle can be exciting and fulfilling.

The Baha’is. Work hard for the equality of women, human rights and particularly the rights of children, religious freedom and the promotion of international cooperation through the United Nations, in which they continue to play an important role as they did in the League of Nations from its foundation. How perverse, that a faith based on these ideals, bearing enmity to no other creed, should itself be the victim of violent persecution in Iran, and suffer persecution and discrimination in Egypt! I have been an officer of the All-Party Parliamentary Baha’i Group since it was founded, to lobby Foreign Office Ministers into countering this irrational animosity. But to be honest, it is virtually impossible to make any impression on a psychopathic regime like that of President Ahmedinejad in Iran. We have to hope that one day the Iranian people will get tired of being governed by clerics and return to the separation of church and state which had been the normal rule throughout Iran’s history. You will get discouraged if you expect quick results on most human rights problems, as you can see by the fact that we still have some way to go in this country. We have reservations to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, and there are groups that suffer institutional disadvantage and discrimination, such as Gypsies and Travellers.

When I first entered the Commons 45 years ago, I wanted to make some contribution to human rights, and joined the Parliamentary Civil Liberties Group, which was concerned with domestic human rights here in the UK. The Chairman was Tony Greenwood, and the Group was serviced by Martin Ennals, then General Secretary of the National Council of Civil Liberties, which has now turned into Liberty and is doing a lot of good work under the leadership of Shami Chakravarti. In 1964 when Labour came to power, Tony Greenwood was appointed Minister of Housing and Local Government, and I was elected Chairman of the Civil Liberties Group, a post I occupied until the electors of Orpington sacked me in 1970. Meanwhile, Martin had moved on to become Secretary-General of Amnesty International, and he prompted me to get involved in international human rights. It was Martin’s encouragement that led to the Parliamentary Human Rights Group being formed in 1976, and I’m particularly grateful to Ann Clwyd, who has made the Group more effective and influential since she took over from me s chair in 1977, for coming here today and making such flattering remarks about my work.

If you look at the volume of human rights-related questions and debates in both Houses over a number of years, you will see a huge increase. That may be partly to do with the proliferation of human rights NGOs, but it is actually a two-way process. The NGOs need to have organised all-party groups of MPs with whom they can interact, and apart from the PHRG itself, there has been a great expansion of thematic and country-related All-Party Groups in recent years – subjects ranging from AIDS to zoos, and countries from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, not all of which are focused on human rights of course. Yesterday, for instance, I was at the AGM of the Peru Group, which on this occasion was focused entirely on the earthquake of two months ago, a Richter Scale 8 event which did $800 million worth of damage – and then later to a 15th anniversary dinner of the Armenian Group where as you can imagine there was much discussion of the US Congress decision to recognise the Genocide of 1915. I would like to thank the many NGOs which have given me so much help and advice over the years, such as this week on the UK Borders Bill the Refugee Children’s Consortium and the Immigration Law Practitioners Association.

Oddly enough, there isn’t a Group in Parliament or an NGO covering religious freedom in general. Often there are lessons to be learned from comparisons between the kinds of religious persecution that occur in different countries. The recent atrocities committed against the Buddhist monks in Burma can be compared with the long term oppression of Buddhism in Tibet, where both monks and nuns have been killed and tortured, and with the attacks on the dissident United Buddhist Church of Vietnam. In Iraq , on which Ann is the foremost Parliamentary expert, there is a sectarian war between Sunnis and Shi’as, with Christians and Yazidis caught in the middle. In Saudi Arabia, the Shi’a are considered to be heretics, and in Bahrain, the hereditary dictatorship is Sunni but the people, who are mostly Shi’a, suffer endemic discrimination. Then you have the states where it appears that a religious group is persecuted for their beliefs which are thought to be subversive, like the Falun Gong in China or the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Eritrea. A third category, including the Baha’is, the Ahmadis, and now the Mehdi Foundation International, developed in an Islamic context but deny the finality of the Prophethood. We need an international NGO to campaign for all these groups, call it Article 18 by analogy with the NGO that campaigns on freedom of expression, Article 19.

Yesterday Ming Campbell said it was time for him to leave the stage, though it seemed to me he was shoved off it by ageist scribblers and cartoonists in the media. Ming has as sharp an intellect as ever, and I hope there will be other important roles for him to play. People are living longer nowadays and there in no reason to retire either from the stage or politics when you still have something to offer. I remember running into Manny Shinwell in the peers’ entrance when he was 100 and mentioning an article about him in that morning’s Express. He asked me eagerly ‘What did it say’ I said the gist was that he was the oldest peer ever to have spoken in the House ‘Is that all they could find to say about me?’ was his dismissive comment..

Well, I don’t expect to break that record, but my ambition is to carry on, as Lady Blomfield did, as long as my health lasts, and nothing could have made that intention firmer than receiving the Lady Blomfield award.

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