‘I Lived Through The Aids Crisis. To Beat Covid, We Must Learn Lessons From It’
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‘I Lived Through The Aids Crisis. To Beat Covid, We Must Learn Lessons From It’

By Aaron Walawalkar, News and Digital Editor 8 Feb 2021
Discrimination, Health, LGBTQ+
Jonathan Cooper OBE. Credit: Supplied

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For many of us, the coronavirus pandemic has altered our lives in ways we’d never before experienced. But for human rights activist and barrister Jonathan Cooper OBE, it bears echoes of another virus – one which ripped through Britain’s LGBTQ+ communities. 

Cooper came of age during the Aids (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) crisis of the 1980s. Back then, in his late teens, he had been on the cusp of coming out as gay, but, as the first reports emerged of a new condition that was killing gay men, he soon became petrified. 

He did not get infected with HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) which causes Aids, but the illness claimed the lives of four people he loved. It was not until effective treatment became available in the mid-90s that the epidemic would appear to be brought under control – by which point thousands of people in the UK were estimated to have died

“I have always been interested in social justice, but my commitment was really thrown into sharp relief around the Aids crisis,” Cooper told EachOther last month, over the course of a 40-minute video interview. 

“In the 80s, it was very clear […] that the UK system of government, and the kind of global world order, just doesn’t protect human rights effectively enough.”

Protesters daubed “28” on the windscreen of a Stagecoach bus in Manchester. Brian Souter, the company’s owner, was a high profile supporter of Section 28. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Measures introduced by the government of the day, led by PM Margaret Thatcher, left those particularly vulnerable to the virus – including men who have sex with men – marginalised.

One of the most notorious was Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 – which banned local authorities from “promoting” homosexuality in Britain’s schools.

“Too many gay men who grew up through the Section 28 years have told me that their first sexual encounters were frightening and unprotected. Those traumas could have been avoided, and we do not know how many lives were put at risk,” Cooper wrote in an article for the Independent (£) last summer.

The clause would be eventually repealed in England and Wales in 2003, following years of campaigning from LGBT+ rights advocates. 

Meanwhile, thousands of men were prosecuted for having consensual same-sex relationships under discriminatory and now-abolished unequal age of consent laws.

In the mid-1980s, Cooper became the Aids coordinator at the Haemophilia Society, where he helped draft a declaration of rights for people with HIV and Aids. 

Among the people the charity supported was a newly pregnant mother who found out she had HIV and was being immediately pressured into having a termination and being sterilised.   

It is through this experience that Cooper became aware of strengths and weaknesses in the law’s ability to give a voice to people who have been marginalised.

“I saw the potential of law, but where people did use it, they rarely succeeded,” he told the human rights organisation Justice in 2010. “I realised that the weakness of the system of government in this country was the lack of any kind of rights framework. Without planning to do so, I became a rights activist.”

Now, more than four decades on, what has changed?

US president Ronald Reagan meeting Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of the United Kingdom in the Oval Office in 1998 - the same year Section 28 was introduced. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The UK now has the Human Rights Act, which marked its 20th anniversary of coming into force last year. 

The Act enshrined into British law important protections of our private lives, protections from discrimination and our freedom of speech, among other areas. 

From Cooper’s perspective, it has had a profoundly positive effect on the UK.

“Before [the Act] entered into force, there was no really effective way of holding those that made decisions over your lives accountable,” he said.

“And now, everyone recognises that it’s good to be accountable and the Human Rights Act has done that.”

In December last year the government launched a “review” of the Act, following on from Boris Johnson’s 2019 election pledged to “update” it. It is feared our rights will be weakened, not strengthened. Since 2015, the Conservative party has variously pledged to either scrap the Act or drastically alter it.

The only way in which you are going to overcome them [pandemics] is by a human rights response.

Jonathan Cooper OBE

The UK is also once again in the throes of a global pandemic, with the government placing ever-changing curbs on our daily lives in an apparent bid to prevent deaths and economic ruin.

For Cooper, the global Aids crisis teaches us vital lessons for how we should deal with Covid-19.

“The only way in which you are going to overcome [a pandemic] is by a human rights response, which gives people the kind of structure and the order they need,” he said. 

“What you saw with the [1980s] Aids crisis, back in the UK and other jurisdictions in the global north, [was that] they targeted gay men for persecution and discriminatory treatment. Once that stopped, the Aids crisis was brought under control. It literally went hand in hand.” 

He pointed towards Uganda, Nigeria, and Kenya – where laws criminalising homosexual acts between consenting adults persist – as examples of where HIV prevalence remains high. A 2017 study published in Global Health Action found that “laws criminalising homosexuality may be fuelling the epidemic, as they dissuade key populations from seeking treatment and health care providers from offering it”.

Aids memorial quilt Credit: outtacontext/Flickr

So, what does a human rights-based approach look like? Dignity is key, according to Cooper. 

“Human dignity is literally recognising the individual worth of all of us. That individual worth is as important as the collective worth of all of us,” he explained. 

“It’s quite a hard thing to pin down on one level, and I accept that. But we all know what a denial of human dignity is. Denying prisoners proper places to go to the toilet […] will deny their dignity. Or to have prejudice towards people simply because of their race, or their faith, or their sexual orientation, or their sex or gender has the same impact.” 

He added: “If you have an approach to the current pandemic which focuses on human dignity, it would go without saying that the priority would be that everyone has the same access to health care. It would go without saying that some people may need to get particular special treatment, those particularly at risk may need different treatment than others.”

Worsening inequality has been a feature of the pandemic, both within the UK and beyond its borders. Most recently, it can be seen in the inability of people on low-incomes to self-isolate for 10 days without financial support. It can also be recognised in emerging iniquities in how coronavirus vaccines are being distributed, which the Lancet highlights as another lesson we can learn from the HIV epidemic. 

 

To remedy this situation within the UK, Cooper would like to see the introduction of a ‘Human Dignity Act’.

“I would introduce a one or two clause bill that says ‘everything the government does should be human rights compliant and put human dignity first,'” he said.

“It probably doesn’t need to be enforceable. But you would be able to say: ‘how have you ensured human dignity is the priority in this policy?'”

EachOther has also put our big questions to Cooper in a wide-ranging interview which covers everything from who would play him in a movie of his life to the pandemic response. 

Watch our video interview or read the full story below.

Could you describe what you do in 15 words or less?

I try to make human rights real and effective for everyone.

What was the last thing that made you laugh?

Probably laughing out of desperation at something this ridiculous government has done around Brexit, or something along those lines. Brexit or the pandemic.

I have always been interested in social justice, but my commitment was really thrown into sharp relief around the Aids crisis.

Jonathan Cooper

Who would play you in a movie of your life?

Well, it’s a hard one. But I think I would like it to be Meryl Streep. And the reason why I’d like it to be her is that… I like to think of myself as somebody who is good fun and quite light hearted. But the reality is, I’m probably very serious, and much more interested in serious things. And that’s the way in which she acts. She comes across as very serious, but at the same time, is great fun and does, certainly on screen, know how to have a good laugh.

Could you tell us what led you to become a rights activist?

Well, I came of age in the age of Aids. Terrible things were happening to people who were HIV positive, or believed to be HIV positive. In the 80s it was very clear, from my experience of what happened to me and my friends, that the UK system of government, and the kind of global world order, just doesn’t protect human rights effectively enough.

I have always been interested in social justice, but my commitment was really thrown into sharp relief around the Aids crisis. I got very involved in that crisis and worked very deeply within it, to try to have a human rights response to it.

It’s the same with this pandemic. The only way in which you are going to overcome them is by a human rights response, which gives people the kind of structure and the order that they need. The end goal is to get out of it with the same amount of rights as we went into the pandemic with. Or, ideally, more.

Jonathan Cooper. Credit: Supplied

Once you guarantee rights for those groups most at risk, the crisis is brought under control.

Jonathan Cooper

How do you feel the situation has changed since the 1980s? 

It’s a really interesting question. If you look at the Aids crisis in the UK, and in the global north, it was all brought under control through human rights. Once governments adopted a human rights-based approach to it – the crisis was, to an extent, brought under control. I mean, interestingly, there’s still no vaccine for HIV. And so there is a question: why is it taking them so long to find that vaccine? The crisis is not over. But it is under control in a way that it certainly wasn’t earlier.

Then you look at the rest of the world, where the crisis is out of control: you see that those are jurisdictions that don’t have a human rights approach to the Aids crisis, and no surprises.

The crisis is out of control where there are no human rights protections, or no meaningful ones, for those most at-risk – [such as] men who have sex with men, injecting drug users, teenage women. Once you guarantee rights for those groups most at risk, the crisis is brought under control. If you look at those jurisdictions that continue to criminalise homosexuality, they will have absurdly high HIV rates. And it is no coincidence that these go hand in hand.

What does a human rights-based approach look like in regards to HIV?

It’s what a human rights-based approach looks like across the board, really. We could be looking at a human rights-based approach to this pandemic… or to issues around policing or free speech.

The key to a successful human rights approach is that you put the dignity of everyone up front. You’re recognising that [dignity] in everyone that you’re dealing with.

So, if it’s a prisoners project – the prisoners have dignity. If you’re dealing with sex workers – those women, men, or trans people that are selling sex, have dignity.

If you’re looking at the death penalty, the people facing the death penalty have dignity. You then build an approach that is about guaranteeing and enhancing and securing that dignity. You then do that by using the right to dignity, but also specific other rights.

If you take the Aids crisis – you guarantee the rights of personal autonomy through what we call private life rights. You ensure that everyone affected by HIV has effective family life rights. You ensure that they have effective freedom of expression rights and association rights to push for the further human rights protections.

You also, obviously, bring in social and economic rights. So, that includes an adequate standard of health and housing.

The biggest ones, which go hand in hand with dignity, is protection from discrimination and the commitment to equality.

And so it is about recognising the equality and dignity of everyone.

You have equal human dignity wherever you are in the globe. Whether you’re in Kazakhstan or Kensington, it doesn’t matter.

Jonathan Cooper

How does the UK fare in upholding the right to dignity?

For some reason the UK says it doesn’t really understand the concept of human dignity. Those in power say it’s a concept that’s unfamiliar to British law, or British culture, or the UK’s identity. It is, of course, absurd. The idea that human dignity would be culturally specific is crazy.

You have equal human dignity wherever you are in the globe. Whether you’re in Kazakhstan or Kensington, it doesn’t matter.

Human dignity is literally recognising the individual worth of all of us. That individual worth is as important as the collective worth of all of us. Therefore, we can’t treat people differently simply on the basis of who they are or where they come from. We recognise each and everybody’s genuine value. The potential to develop and enhance the being is as a human being.

It’s quite a hard thing to pin down on one level, and I accept that. But we know what a denial of human dignity is. Denying prisoners proper places to go to the toilet, or to do it in front of other people, will deny their dignity.

Or to have prejudice towards people simply because of their race, or their faith, or their sexual orientation, or their sex or gender has the same impact.

So it’s about recognising each of us for who we are without distinction or discrimination.

If you have an approach to the current pandemic which was focused on human dignity, it would go without saying that the priority would be that everyone has the same access to health care. It will go without saying that some people may need to get particular special treatment. Those particularly at risk may need different treatment than others.

You can see what happens when you don’t put dignity first, by the way in which this government has floundered. On one level, this pandemic is about health and health care, which is just a small part of the dignity argument. On the other level, it’s about economic wellbeing of the country and also business. There’s an element of that which is obviously all caught up dignity too.

If you just say: “our response to the act of the pandemic, is to ensure everyone’s dignity is prioritised,” it means you ask yourself different questions. Therefore we would have gone into a lockdown in September, when we realised things had not gone back under control. The recognition that there will be more deaths and more long-term Covid implications would require that you just have to act. You can’t not act. You need certainty with dignity, too.

The level of indecision has just heightened the crisis. Dignity would keep them focused on this particular crisis, which they haven’t done.

Boris Johnson addressing the nation on self-isolation laws (Credit: Flickr)

Do you have particular concerns about how other groups are treated today? Such as trans people or sex workers?

It’s remarkable how trans people are just sort of expected to put up with it and just be grateful, really. They are an obvious example.

We’re also so far from getting race right in this country. If you’re Black, or if you’re not white, in the UK, I think there are serious issues around the way your dignity is guaranteed on a community-wide or nationwide level. We’re getting considerably better at it, but we’re nowhere near there…

Could you elaborate on your idea of a Human Dignity Act?

If I was given the chance to do something I would introduce a sort of one-clause bill or a two-clause bill that the everything the government does should be human rights compliant and put human dignity first. It probably doesn’t need to be enforceable. But you would be able to say: how have you ensured human dignity is the priority in this in this policy?

The other way of viewing it is to look at a provision that violated human dignity [such as] when they introduced Section 28, which prohibited the promotion of homosexuality by public authorities in schools. It wasn’t enforceable, but they just said you can’t do it. And that had a devastating impact across the board.

A Human Dignity Act could do the opposite. You say: “Well, you have to prioritise, promote and consider human dignity”.

It could literally be a two or three clause bill that will take no time to go through. But I don’t imagine Mr. Johnson wanting to be required to do anything concerning human dignity. He might do things linked to human dignity, but I think he would object to being required to do it.

I’d like to guarantee the existence of the Human Rights Act, that would be a lovely thing to achieve.

Jonathan Cooper

Is there anything you’d like to achieve which you haven’t yet?

I would like to direct [Giacomo Puccini’s] Tosca as an opera. It’s really all about torture and the consequences and the impact of torture. When you go and see it, and you think about it from that perspective … it becomes more remarkable.

You see what torture does to people and how it works, and even how being linked or associated with torture, makes everyone involved sullied and demeaned by it. The consequences of it are devastating, as we see in Tosca.

So I would like to direct Tosca.

One of the things that I have always said I was proudest of, is being a footnote in the history of the Human Rights Act [HRA]. It was just wonderful to have been involved in that process.

But, as it looks like the HRA might be repealed at some point in the near future… that’s a bit worrying. I’d like to guarantee the, the existence of the Human Rights Act, that would be a lovely thing to achieve.

A performance of the opera Tosca. Credit: Mariano Medda / Flickr

What’s your view on the government’s plans to update the Human Rights Act?

There have already been three investigations into the HRA.

If done properly and independently and objectively, you come away knowing that the Human Rights Act works very effectively. Its scheme and scope fits very neatly into the UK system of government.

So I don’t see any particular harm, really, in having an opportunity to once again celebrate all the good that’s come from it.

But there’s obviously the danger that it won’t be sufficiently independent, impartial and objective, and they may try and tinker with it. If the objection to it is the level of accountability, then it would be quite easy to tinker with it and there will be a disaster.

They could replace the obligation under Section 3 of the Act, which states we must do all we can to interpret law compatibly with human rights, to instead say “human rights are just one thing to be taken into account”.

At which point, that accountability goes.

Because, what about all of the state’s other competing interests? That will be a massive problem.

Let’s see and let’s continue to have faith in an inquiry such as this to be properly independent, impartial, and rigorous.

The pandemic has really shown up, how we don’t properly look after sentient beings. We need to have a much better scheme around that.

Jonathan Cooper

Are there any valid ways you feel that HRA could be improved? Perhaps strengthened or enhanced?

Well, the only way that you could do that really, is to add more rights to it.

That’s because of the scheme of the Human Rights Act is so ingenious. There’s an obligation under Section 3 of the Act to interpret all law compatibly. Section 6 of the Act means wide groups of people are bound by the Human Rights Act.

Then the declaration of incompatibility sort of model – [when a court can rule that legislation is not compatible with our rights, signalling that Parliament should reconsider it] – is such an ingenious scheme.

We should use it and apply it to get better, more enhanced protection.

Economic and social rights will be the obvious one. But also, environmental protection should fall under the same scheme.

You can imagine three pillars to the way in which we hold the state and power to account.

One will be the Human Rights Act. The other will be the Environmental Rights Act. And the third will be the Act protecting all sentient beings.

There would obviously be a relationship between the three pillars. Then you would really have proper protection in law across the board, and using the same scheme.

The UK system of government would remain intact, so we don’t become constitutionalised. But we get comprehensive protection.

The pandemic has really shown up, how we don’t properly look after sentient beings. We need to have a much better scheme around that.

All these changes to the planning laws of the UK, really do highlight how we need to protect not just our environment, but all the sentient beings that live within it.

That doesn’t mean we will have to become vegans. But it does mean that we give proper protection to all.

What’s your view on the government’s review of judicial review?

I think we’re just playing politics with crucial parts of our legal system that have kept us going and in good stead for decades, or centuries even.

Let’s again trust the independent nature of these processes and their rigour and their impartiality. So let’s assume that it will come back with a clean bill of health.

We have to assume that because all the evidence is that judicial review works.

For a good judicial review, if you’re going to make it better, you would have wider ways of holding them to account so more rights to hold them to account against.

 

The failure to amend the Gender Recognition Act is a really mean-spirited, insensitive, populist idea. Which is just so heartbreaking.

Jonathan Cooper

If you could immediately put right one injustice in the UK right now, what would it be and why?

There’s a couple of things that are right at the top of my mind.

It would be proper protection for trans people. The failure to amend the Gender Recognition Act is a really mean-spirited, insensitive, populist idea. Which is just so heartbreaking.

I don’t know if you’ve seen The Ripper on Netflix? It’s definitely worth watching because it’s about policing, before there was an effective human rights framework in place that makes policing more accountable.

What it shows is just how extraordinarily clumsy the policing of the Yorkshire Ripper was, which probably means that more people died than needed to.

So it will be about a proper recognition of that, of those failings, and some sort of acknowledgement for the victims and their families.

That goes across the board for all of these really terrible things that the state can end up [doing].

In the instance [of the Yorkshire ripper] not deliberately. But, in the instance of the persecution of LGBT people throughout the 20th century, it was definitely deliberate on the part of the state.

The state needs to be much more prepared to put its hands up and say: ‘we got that wrong’.

There needs to be an explanation of why, for instance, slave owners were compensated but not slaves.

The state needs to own that process and apologise for that process.

What it means, who knows? Does it mean compensation? I doubt it. It probably means some form of redress.

What is the most important human right to you? And why?

Well, I’d have to say, human dignity. They’re all important, obviously. They are all so deeply interlinked.

That’s why the EU charter was such a brilliant way to sort of pull together those crucial rights of the 20th century into one place. I think human dignity captures that.

If I had a magic wand, I would make Protocol 12 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR)– which is the free standing right to equality –it would have it ratified as a matter of international law and make it part of the Human Rights Act.

What difference would it make? It may only be symbolic, but that symbolism is important.

I think we would find that it would add to Article 14 of the ECHR – which offers a limited prohibition on discrimination.

Note: Responses lightly edited for clarity.