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Interview with Baroness Caroline Cox

Caroline discusses her humanitarian aid work, opposing the British government and dealing with criticisms

Standing in the crossbench of the House of Lords, Baroness Cox stood up to deliver her question to Her Majesty’s Government; of what priority would they give to Sudan and South Sudan in the humanitarian crisis? Speaking fervently to the chamber about her trip to Sudan, which she had arrived back from just days before, she then began handing a leaflet out about the massacre of 32 civilians in Kolom, in the disputed Abyei region, including images and survivor testimonies.

She later told me, looking slightly mischievous, that she had asked the Archbishop of Canterbury if she could speak first, and he complied. With the chamber studying the pieces of paper along with her devout reputation, a large eruption of ‘hear, hear’ was heard as members’ ears visibly pricked up. Breaking the rules, slightly mischievously, is something I learn the Baroness was familiar with, especially against the British government.

Baroness Cox was, and still is, opposed to the British government’s foreign policy regarding Syria, her perspective being that it ought to be the Syrian people’s decision rather than a British-implemented regime change. She recalled her conversation with the Foreign Office, before leaving for the Middle East; “they shouted me down the phone” she said, revealing “you cannot go to Syria…because it’s too dangerous, you know there’s a war going on, you don’t have diplomatic representation there.” In a way, I learnt, characteristic of Caroline, polite yet firm, she replied “thank you very much Minister, but earlier this year I was across [the] border in the mountains in Sudan where fighter-bombers” were scaling the country and “this is how I use my time in the House of Lords, Minister.” Evidently his previous tactic not working, the minister replied with “well you will ruin British foreign policy,” and Caroline recalled, again with a smile; “I said ‘I’ve got no idea what British foreign policy is!’”

Opposing the British government is something Caroline is accustomed to doing and when asking about the situation in Syria and the government’s intentions, the minister interrupted her from the despatch box, calling her “irresponsible.” Caroline recalled taking pictures of maimed children in a small province of Armenia, sectioned off by Stalin into Azerbaijan. Upon return when she revealed the images that she took herself, imploring the government to intervene as it was against international conventions, the response was “we have oil interests in Azerbaijan, good morning.”

At first, she defiantly retorted that she has used that remark in many of her arguments against the government, saying, “I wasn’t going to let that go unmarked” but later said the moment was “a double twist of the knife.” As someone chosen to work in the House of Lords, her vocation is to be a voice for those who aren’t heard. She said, “you’re there, you see the suffering…and then you get some rubbish from the despatch box saying I’m going against the government,” and when, “you’ve been with the people; you’ve seen the reality…and you come back and you get that kind of answer,” it really hurt.

I asked Caroline if the experiences she has had in the 82 years of her life has had a personal impact. “Yes, it does,” she replied thoughtfully, but without missing a beat immediately began to speak of the Armenian issues in Azerbaijan. Karabakh, somewhere she had been “about 80 times,” I could see was very close to her heart. In the old days, she said she was used to flying there under fire in “a fixed-wing aircraft, and we used to have to spiral down against the sun, hoping the heat signals in Azerbaijan would go for the sun, not the plane” she remembered. She smiled, obviously remembering fondly, exclaiming “and that was a bit exciting.” I was struck by how quickly she brushed off the dangers of her life, and the extreme warzones she had been in. She joked with me again, “I was also told that Azerbaijan had a huge price on my head,” but, “I don’t know how much it was, so I don’t know how valuable I really am.”

Her self-effacement was astonishing, and the way she uses humour in order to make those around her at ease. She reiterated to me from the beginning; “I am actually a nurse, and a social scientist by intention, Baroness by astonishment. Wasn’t into politics, don’t like politics and I was the first Baroness I’d ever met.” While pouring me tea, and asking what I thought of the conventions of the Lords, it was evident she would never be someone to sit quietly, recalling the question she asked herself on becoming a peer, which was “how do I use the privilege of being able to speak in the British parliament?” and that she has thereafter been guided by “that particular commitment.” Although I knew she did not like the use of the Baroness title, I did not realise how humble Caroline would be.

The purpose of establishing her own charity organisation, she explained to me, was “to work with the victims of oppression and persecution, who are off the radar to major aid organisations, so they are largely left unreached, un-helped and unheard.” It was clear that she only tolerated ceremony and wanted to help as many people as she could, as quickly as she could. The difference she noted between herself and other charity organisations was Caroline had no desire to abide by the rules, and “so we’ve spent some of our time crossing boarders illegally, quite shamelessly, to reach the unreached.”

Charitable organisations have come under increasing scrutiny over the last twenty years over issues of where the money is going, who gets paid, and how the money is used. Caroline was quick to tell me that at H.A.R.T their local partners, “they are the real heroes. They are incredibly brave, courageous, resourceful, resilient people and communities.” She explains the benefits of open conversation with the partners she works with, saying, “we always give them the dignity of choice; we don’t tell them what we are going to do…we say, ‘what is your priority?’”

That does not mean, she reveals to me, that she is always certain of what she is doing, recalling one time in Burma she crossed the border, illegally, with a “real crisis of confidence.” I thought she was going to talk about her fear of being in a country illegally with no diplomatic immunity, the possibility of injury or death. Yet, her self-questioning was; “are we going to raise expectations we can’t fulfil, we’re so tiny, are we going to disappoint people, is this a glorified glory trip? What do we have to offer?”

Her work, I soon learn is a bittersweet and poignant mixture of hope and pain. She humorously recalls thinking, at the top of Sleepy-Dog mountain in Burma, “Caroline Cox, you are a grandmother with six grandchildren [at the time] – isn’t it about time you grew up and stop going on these ridiculous missions?” She carries on that, sometimes, “you feel so inadequate,” both because of how colossal aid crises seem, and how little funds they have. However, she thought that what people really want in those situations is recognition, recalling a conversation she had with a citizen in Karabakh who remembered Caroline coming in the ‘90s saying, “at Christmas when you brought those toys, you changed everything,” and later reiterated that “it wouldn’t matter if you didn’t bring anything, the fact is you’re here.” Caroline spoke in length about how inadequate it can feel when it seems as if the individual’s impact is so small, yet, you “actually are quite transformational,” she concludes.

The depressing thing about her work, however, is not how large an impact she is making personally, but the political and commercial issues she encounters, which if they were discounted, many crises would not have arisen in the first place. I asked her about the Armenian genocide of 1915, and how more than one-hundred years on from the events, she is still having to fight for its recognition. Recognition is integral, she believes, because, “in a way you can’t have healing without recognition,” and it’s a way to achieve “closure.” She gives her “credit to Wales” in recognising it but wants to pressure the British government also. Perhaps used to the criticism, she retorts, “I’m not naïve, I can understand commercial interest, I can understand strategic interest, but I don’t think it’s the interest of any nation to ignore concern for human rights,” and she goes on, “I don’t think the British public would want oil at the price of cluster bombs on children, at least without saying something about it.” Her frustration and determination were clear from her quick, powerful speech in the Lords earlier, and she tells me she’s not about to give up the fight.

I come back again, to the personal impact that this has had on her health and mental health over the last six decades, and if she can ever feel a detachment from what she has seen. She quickly replies, “not really no, it hurts.” Diverting attention away from herself, as usual, she speaks about a younger colleague, who she calls a “tough cookie,” but was emotional and pained by the pictures they took and what they experienced. She said to her colleague “if you want to look at the photos with me, we can look at them together, and we can share the emotion,” because, “you never get rid of it,” she says simply, “you have it for life.” The traumatic experience and the inevitable pain creates a “frontier of fear,” she goes on, but ending positively as always, reveals “once you cross the frontier of fear, you meet people you’d never have met otherwise, new horizons open up, and some amazing experiences, and you come back receiving more than I could ever give.”

I go on to ask her about the criticism she has received, especially in regard to the comments made about her freeing slaves by buying them. This practise was controversial in the 1990s and gained press coverage on its practise, which she believes were put across in simplistic “financial terms.” The BBC, she told me, did a documentary on slavery in which they had asked her to answer questions, but she revealed, “I was really cross because I’d done a piece for the BBC on it,” but when it was published, “they pointed out the criticisms without my responses. So, people were left with those questions, and I’d answered them!” In fact, she has written a whole book on slavery, which emphasised how long it has been since Wilberforce’s strive for its abolishment, and how slavery is becoming more popular, not decreasing, and governments are unwilling to do anything about it. She urged that, before making judgement, people should educate themselves on the scale of the problem and what is being done.

I ask her if criticism like this is particularly hurtful to her. She revealed, “we get criticised for a lot of the things that we do, like Syria in particular, and yes it does hurt,” because “it detracts from the main issue of what you’re trying to do,” she carries on, “it detracts from the suffering of the people.” Reading extracts from the book, I could see the enormous problem that modern slavery is, something I had never considered properly before, and the different types of slavery there are. With more research too, it struck me how difficult imposing any legislation on slavery really was. She finished by saying, “I’m doing the best I can,” and that stuck with me.

I learned much about Caroline in the hour and a half I was with her, and for an 82-year-old woman I was impressed by the physical and emotional toil of her life, and how positive she was about the future, as well as joking about herself. As a woman born in 1937, I thought to myself, I probably would not be as brave, I don’t even know if I would be now. I thought of what she’d said to me about being a nurse; “I really wanted to encourage seeing the patient as a person, with their own culture, their family, their community and appreciate and relate to them as individuals, as people.” Speaking of being with patients on their “journey either to recovery or to death,” this characterised her life and so many individual journeys she has been on. What she has lived through and experienced is incredible, so smiling I asked her if she had any plans on retiring anytime soon. She looked at me sternly for a moment, then smiled from ear to ear, and said, “certainly not.”

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