If I had to sum up Baroness Caroline Cox in one word, it would be this: ‘Doughty’.
Cox is undoubtedly one of the most courageous people I’ve ever met. Her diminutive stature can’t hide the steely determination in her eyes: over the course of her career she has stared down slave traders, extremists and dictators alike.
The 77-year-old started out as a nurse in 1958, shortly before marrying Dr Murray Newall (1931-1997). A bout of TB led to her refocusing on an academic career in sociology.
Cox went on to fight a series of battles against the Marxist ideology of her colleagues at the Polytechnic of North London. Her resulting book The Rape of Reason – a stark critique of the higher education system she worked in – was serialised in The Times. This brought her to the attention of Margaret Thatcher and, to her great surprise, Cox was made a baroness in 1983. ‘I was a nurse and social scientist by intention and a baroness by astonishment,’ she says.
It was during a lunch reception at the House of Lords that I first encountered Cox. Her sorbet and shortcake dessert remained largely neglected as she passionately informed me of her latest political initiative, a campaign to ensure women’s rights in UK Islamic communities.
Spurred on by her Christian faith, Cox has spent most of her political career drawing attention to the plight of persecuted people both at home and around the world. And she hasn’t been afraid to court controversy in the process.
In the mid-90s, while president of Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), she was criticised for her policy of buying slaves their freedom in Sudan. In a letter to The Independent on Sunday, Cox said that 2,281 slaves had been redeemed on eight visits to Sudan. In 1995 she was given the William Wilberforce Award for her work to combat slavery. ‘As a Christian I have a moral imperative to set the captives free,’ she says.
Her 2009 invitation to Dutch politician Geert Wilders to screen his anti-radical-Islam film Fitna in the House of Lords led to the home secretary refusing the far-right politician’s entry into the UK. Cox described it as a blow for free speech.
Her leadership both at CSW and more recently for Humanitarian Aid and Relief Trust (HART), which she founded in 2003, led to her riding articulated lorries into the former Soviet Union and flying illegal missions into authoritarian regimes under the threat of gunfire.
Perhaps this helps to explain her forthright approach. Maybe when you’ve defied dictators by crossing illegally into Burma or have walked through the remains of a massacred refugee camp in Sudan, you become less concerned about putting politically correct noses out of joint.
So does Lady Cox ever feel afraid? ‘Yes,’ she responds, ‘I get scared stiff. But I love the phrase: “Courage is a fear that has said its prayers.”’
WE DON’T HAVE A THEOLOGY THAT CAN COPE WITH MODERN-DAY HERODS WHO STILL SLAUGHTER THE INNOCENTS
When I look at the things you’ve done, you strike me as fearless.
I was born into a Christian family and I was confirmed at the age of 11. To this day I remember the text given by the bishop at my confirmation, which was Joshua 1:9: ‘Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.’ I am quite often afraid or dismayed, but I remind myself of that command.
The first battles you found yourself fighting were in the education system, when you taught sociology.
I found myself at the then Polytechnic of North London as the head of department of Sociology… I had a department of 20 academic staff, 16 of whom were Communist party or further left. This was the 1970s, when there was hard-line Marxism and Leninism, and their definition of higher education was not mine. Mine is the freedom to pursue the truth, wherever that will take you. Indoctrination, physical violence, regular violent occupations, intimidation and academic blackmail were taking place around me. Students would come to me in floods of tears asking, ‘What do I do? Write the results of my research or do I write the ideologically correct answer? If I do the former I may fail my exams.’ It was a rough, tough nine years. For me, that was the antithesis of what I, as a Christian, should stand for. As Christians we should stand for pursuit of truth and love.
Margaret Thatcher made you a peer. Did you have many opportunities to interact with her?
Not many, but I did meet her when she offered me the peerage. She came out with a very important phrase: ‘You have always got freedom to speak and vote according to conscience.’ I will always respect her. She did not ask for unconditional loyalty; she respected people who would challenge and oppose her. I wish that applied to all prime ministers since then.
You quickly became known in the House of Lords as a voice for the persecuted. What sparked that?
It was God’s sense of humour that I was made a peer. I wasn’t into politics; I don’t much like politics. I was actually the first baroness I’d ever met. I woke up one morning to find a baroness looking at herself in the bathroom mirror and it was quite a shock. Then I said to the good Lord: ‘What a privilege to be able to speak in one of the Houses of the British Parliament. How can I use this opportunity?’ I think it was then that the idea came to me that I could be a voice for the voiceless in the British Parliament.
What did you first work on as a peer?
The UK Polish community contacted me. It was the 1980s and Poland was still part of the Soviet block and going through a tough time with martial law. A Medical Aid for Poland fund was formed in Britain and they asked if I’d be a patron. I said I would be honoured, but only on the condition that I could travel to Poland on the trucks.
This was for two reasons: to make sure the aid got through and wasn’t syphoned off by Communist apparatchiks, and also to be able to say, ‘I’ve been, and this is how it really is’. So I found myself living a life as a trucker for a week at a time.
I saw the suffering in Poland: the huge queues, nothing in the shops, clinics or hospitals. The mortality rate was rocketing, life expectancy plummeting. I always came back humbled by the courage, faith, dignity, humour and generosity of the Polish people. That’s when the seeds were born of my going to people trapped behind closed borders. It meant so much to them that someone did actually go.
21 MILLION Number of victims of forced labour across the world in 2012
In the UK, government figures show there were 1,186 POTENTIAL VICTIMS of modern slavery in 2012. Two thirds of these were female; one third were children
But there may be more UK victims than this: since 2009 there has been a 48% INCREASE in the number of people referred to the government as potential victims of slavery
10 COUNTRIES accounted for 68% of all potential victims in 2012. Nigeria was the single largest source (17%) followed by Vietnam, Albania, Romania and China
(Source: The Not For Sale campaign) For more information and to join the campaign to end slavery in the UK visit www.notforsale.org.uk
You also went to Russia to help children in orphanages.
Those children tended to be institutionalised and were often given a false label of being mentally handicapped, which meant they were denied an education. They couldn’t get jobs and became cannon fodder for the Soviet factory system. Those orphanages were hell-houses. We produced a film and published a report. I wept when I wrote that report. I called it ‘Trajectories of Despair’. It’s what those kids were doomed to. We went back to Russia to publish the Russian language edition, expecting flack. Instead, it was warmly received. A message from the Kremlin read: ‘Thank you for your research, it’s absolutely accurate’. It was a bombshell. Then they said: ‘Will you help us change the childcare system for the whole of Russia, away from putting kids into orphanages to developing foster family care?’
IN KHARTOUM THEY SAID THEY WOULD SHOOT OUR PLANES OUT OF THE SKY
You began going to off-limit places such as Sudan during the Islamist Jihad War. How did you get in?
We went in illegally. We would fly to forbidden airstrips. In Khartoum they said they would shoot our planes out of the sky; we had brave pilots. We used to give a false destination and then fly around in the circus of legitimate aid planes, and then at the last minute sneak down to a forbidden airstrip. The plane couldn’t stop on the ground – it would certainly be bombed – so we got out quickly and the plane would take off. We would have the privilege of spending several days with the local people, giving them what aid we could. We’d hear their stories and their evidence, and then, I must admit, I’d be a little bit relieved to see a plane come and take me back to my comfort zone and the things we take for granted.
Did you have moments when you thought your time might be up?
Once we were strongly advised not to go. The Egyptian army was, at that stage, alongside the Sudanese; they had surface to air missiles and MiGs [Russian fighter aircraft]. I was told we would be shot out of the sky or bombed on the ground, but we had to go. A local tribal chief had 300 slaves waiting to be rescued. I’d already given them one call and they’d run out of food. You can’t not go.
You were known for buying people out of the slave trade. What stories stick in your mind when you look back on that aspect of your work?
Sit with me for a moment under a tamarind tree in South Sudan. A whole lot of women and children have just been bought back to freedom from slavery. Little Dane, aged seven, is looking very sad because he has just learnt that in the raid when he was captured two years previously both his parents had been killed.
Towards the end of my time with Dane I get a wistful little smile. He said, ‘Well at least I’m home again now. I call my own name Dane (which is the Dinka word for rain). Rain is precious, and means someone who will be cherished. I will no longer be called Abeed, which is the Arabic word for slave.’ It’s my passion that every child should be cherished. No child should be a slave in the world today. But even today there are still at least 27 million men, women and children suffering some kind of slavery in the world.
EVERY CHILD SHOULD BE CHERISHED
How do you cope with the suffering you saw in those environments?
It is a huge challenge to my faith. I remember we visited an area in South Sudan where a market had been attacked by the Islamist soldiers at dawn and there were corpses everywhere and rotting in the river.
At the end of that visit I just sat outside my tent. How could an omnipotent God of love allow these things to happen to the innocent? As I was wrestling with my faith, the thought came to me about Christmas. We forget that when Mary was celebrating the birth of Jesus all those other mothers were weeping because Herod had killed their sons. If you don’t put that factor in the equation at Christmas, then maybe it’s not surprising that we don’t have a theology that can cope with the modern-day Herods who still slaughter the innocents.
Then my thoughts went on to the end of Jesus’ life, when he was dying and Mary, his mother, could only stand there in anguish at the foot of the cross. Maybe one of the callings of a Christian is to be willing to attend whatever Calvary our Lord may call us to, and to be there in faith, love and profound respect and grief, as Mary was.
What gives you ultimate hope?
My faith is underpinned by that of our partners on the frontlines of faith and freedom. They are the ones who are suffering, yet their faith is radiant, and when they worship, they worship with more joy than in many churches here in our comfortable Christian West. Their faith inspires and maintains mine.
Baroness Cox is the founder of The Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust and author of This Immoral Trade: Slavery in the 21st Century (Monarch).
Photography: Alex Baker