Baroness Cox: 'If we ignore wrongs, we condone them'

When Baroness Cox takes up a cause, she invariably courts controversy. Her latest – a campaign against sharia law – is no exception. Jerome Taylor meets her

If there is one thing Baroness Caroline Cox is not afraid of it is whipping up controversy. For almost three decades the Christian peer has sat in the House of Lords campaigning on one obscure issue to another, desperately trying to alert Britain's political elite to some of the world's forgotten conflicts. Nagorno-Karabakh, southern Sudan, Burma, Nigeria: If there is an ignored conflict – particularly one in which Christians are facing persecution – you can bet the 73-year-old will have been there.

"I seem to spend half my life in a jungle, a desert or half way up a mountain," she says, explaining her return from Burma, which she entered illegally to report on rights abuses against minority tribes. She will soon travel back to Sudan, which is lurching back towards civil war.

She often enters war zones under fire – no one could deny that Baroness Cox is brave. But the tactics she uses often raise eyebrows. In the 1990s, she infuriated anti-slavery groups when she began travelling into Sudan to buy slaves from Arab traders with money raised by evangelical churches.

By her own reckoning she spent somewhere in the region of £100,000 freeing more than 2,000 slaves during 55 trips to Sudan – one of the few countries at the time where slavery was still openly practised, often with deliberate government backing.

Proponents said the world simply could not stand by while humans were being traded on an open market. But the vast majority of anti-slavery charities condemned such forays, arguing that the purchase of people, no matter how altruistic the intentions, only perpetuated and encouraged the trade.

More recently, Baroness Cox stoked tensions when she, along with two other peers, extended an invitation to far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders to screen his highly inflammatory and anti-Islamic film, Fitna, in the House of Lords.

And now, in a cramped side-room down a warren of corridors in the Lords, she is taking aim at her latest bête noire. "We cannot sit here complacently in our red and green benches while women are suffering a system which is utterly incompatible with the legal principles upon which this country is founded," she says. "If we don't do something, we are condoning it."

Baroness Cox is talking about sharia law in Britain. It is exactly the sort of topic mainstream politicians will not touch, but Cox – freed from party politics when she had the Tory whip withdrawn seven years ago for signing a pro-Ukip letter – relishes an unpopular cause.

Earlier this month, the peer – backed by an unusual alliance of Christians, secularists and women's rights groups – tabled a Bill in the House of Lords which would effectively cauterise sharia courts, forcing them to recognise the primacy of UK law and threatening anyone who falsely claims to have legal jurisdiction with a five-year prison sentence.

The Bill easily passed its first reading and will have a second airing later this summer. But the chances of it getting anywhere near the House of Commons are slight. Before the election David Cameron promised to make forced marriage a criminal offence and they have not even got around to that yet.

But Baroness Cox hopes her proposals may gain enough support to be taken seriously by all parties. "I hope it will open up responsible, sensitive discussion about sharia law," she explains, rattling through her sentences like a machine-gun. "People come to me and say no one in the centre is talking about this, should I vote BNP? And that worries me. If no one does anything in Parliament, then people will go to the extremes."

Take a look through the Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill and you realise what Baroness Cox is trying to do is not actually that radical. Other than a new criminal offence for anyone caught falsely passing themselves off as a bona-fide judge, the main thrust of the Bill is to ensure the judgments of arbitration panels – be they Muslim, Jewish of any other variant – are only enforceable in civil disputes, not in family law or criminal law.

Technically that is what the law already says but there is growing concern that religious courts are suffering from "jurisdiction creep" and are ruling on issues such as domestic violence and child custody when they have absolutely no right to do so.

The use of sharia in the UK currently comes in two forms. Like Jewish Beth Din courts, Muslim arbitration tribunals can rule on property and financial disputes as long as both parties are happy to have their hearing heard in a religious context. Any decision an arbitration tribunal then makes is enforceable by the civil courts.

Sharia councils – of which there are an estimated 85 operating across the country – have no jurisdictional powers and should only be operating in an advisory capacity, but there are fears they are increasingly straying into areas of family and criminal law.

Baroness Cox says her Bill will empower Muslim women to fight any decision made by a sharia court that contravenes equality legislation – and considering a woman's testimony is only worth half that of a man's under sharia, virtually any decision they make would be inherently challengeable.

"It does not interfere with freedom of religion," Baroness Cox quickly replies as I ask whether this is simply an attempt by the Christian right to bash Islam.

"If women are happy with the sharia principles and if there is a case made which discriminates against them and they are satisfied with it then that's that, they have the freedom to do that. But if retrospectively they say, hey, I suddenly realised there's a legal system out there which doesn't discriminate against me and I would like the ruling to be reconsidered then – if it was based on sharia principles that discriminate against women – it could be reconsidered and overruled in a civil court."

Baroness Cox insists her chief motivation is protecting vulnerable women who are hoodwinked by sharia courts into believing that these courts have the power to make judgments. Few will disagree with the idea of reining in any attempt to usurp British law. But I cannot help feeling slightly uncomfortable that the chief proponent of this Bill is the kind of person who extends an invitation to a virulent Islamaphobe like Geert Wilders.

"I am utterly committed to the principle of free speech," Baroness Cox counters. "There's a lot he has said and done that I don't agree with, but he should at least have a chance to come to the UK and I should have the chance to challenge him. Many more people probably watched Fitna because he was kept out than had he been allowed in." But wasn't it her initial invitation that gave Wilders a platform, not the Home Office's decision to ban him? (Wilders was eventually allowed in and screened Fitna in the House of Lords). "Sure," she replies. "But he still had a right to come."

In an age of political compromise, Baroness Cox's fierce independence stands out.

Life in brief

* Born 6 July 1937 in Hertfordshire. Attended Channing School in Highgate and became a nurse at London Hospital in 1958.

* Married her husband, Dr Murray Newell Cox, in 1959. The couple have two sons and one daughter and remained together until Dr Cox's death in 1997.

* Turned to academia in1960s and 70s.

* Appointed by Margaret Thatcher as a working peer in 1982, taking the title Baroness Cox of Queensbury. Deputy speaker of the House of Lords from 1986 to 2006.

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