Amnesty International recently invited me to introduce their panel discussion, “Women and Their Human Rights”. For me it felt like returning home. Long before I became involved in party politics, Amnesty represented my first political awakening – the realisation that freedoms we often take for granted at home were for many people the world over no more than distant aspirations – something that needed to be fought for. It was a brutal realisation that there were brave men and women – indeed children – willing to pay – or more accurately prepared to pay – the ultimate price for freedoms long ago gained in this country. That someone could pay with their lives in pursuit of the most basic rights was almost unimaginable – but that was and remains the shocking reality. As Mae West said, perhaps in a different context, “Those who are easily shocked should be shocked more often”. And that is something Amnesty does so well – they shock us, keep us on our toes.
Very quickly my thinking matured and I came to realise too that, once gained, such freedoms need to be treasured – you should never let your guard down – complacency delivers us into the hands of evil men. We should be careful of what we are prepared to surrender to those who claim to be our protectors. Never stop questioning. Always keep challenging.
Since those distant days of the 1970s when I joined Amnesty – wrote letters, signed petitions and occasionally demonstrated – we have come a long way. Strange as it might appear, how far we have come can perhaps best be demonstrated by looking back – with our hands over our eyes and through the gaps in our fingers – at some of the tv programmes that back then passed for comedy – the attitudes that were then commonplace, and that today have rightly been consigned to the dustbin of history.
But while we have come a long way, much remains to be done. And that is why I am so glad that, after more than half a century, Amnesty is alive and kicking, holding firm to the belief that “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness”. And few areas remain as dark, and in need of a shining light, as “Women and Their Human Rights”.