Ben (Benjamin) Whitaker died on 8 June 2014. The memory of the human rights world being notoriously short, there will be many who do not recognize the name of one of the early human rights defenders in the international arena. A UK citizen, in 1965 he spoke out forcefully against detention camps in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), became one of the most activist members of the UN SubCommission in the mid seventies and lead the struggle to have the Armenian Genocide recognised. His 1985 final report on the question of genocide – which only had a brief but controversial mention of the Armenia – was for that reason blocked at the Commission level by Turkey and could not be distributed as such. I was at that time Director of the Netherlands Institute for Human Rights (SIM) and we agreed to publish a few thousand copies of the complete text under his own name.
As his link with the Armenian community was and remained strong, it should not surprise that one of the obituaries was published in DIARIO ARMENIA in Argentina. It was written by Leandro Despouy, President of the Argentine Audit Office and Former president of the SubCommission as well as the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations. Below is the English translation of this piece:
Benjamin Whitaker, the Argentine dictatorship and the acknowledgement of the Armenian Genocide by the United Nations
Ben Whitaker died on June 8th. Predictably, an Armenian friend gave me the news. Whitaker’s name will forever be consistently associated to the recognition of the Armenian Genocide by the United Nations. It happened after extensive and difficult sessions, sabotaged by Turkey during fifteen years, which finally materialized in 1985 with the approval of the document that carries his name, the Whitaker Report.
He was a man of remarkable virtues, but two of these: coherence and sense of humour, were present in each and every one of the multiple activities he undertook during his life. Born into an aristocratic family, he made his first political incursions in the north London borough of Hampstead: he won the Hampstead seat for the Labour Party, a seat that had traditionally gone to the Tories for the previous 81 years. He had already graduated from Oxford to the bar, and spoken out vehemently against the local police regime in his book The Police.
Ben remained faithful to his neighbourhood football club throughout his life. An “argumentative idealist” –as he liked to describe himself-, who intensified the campaign for the enforcement of Human Rights worldwide, he battled against discrimination, the death penalty, the criminalization of homosexuality, against the outlawing of adultery and abortion, in favour of environmental care and all the issues that were surfacing with enormous force during the sixties and the seventies of the past century, an era which produced an unprecedented cultural change.
His condemnation, in 1965, of the clandestine detention camps of Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) is well-known. He served as consultant for Labour governments and became executive director of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, created by an Armenian in Portugal, which is dedicated to the advancement of the arts, sciences and education. There is no doubt, however, that his better known activity took place in the United Nations, where he was appointed Special Rapporteur of the United Nations SubCommission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities -a competent area of independent expertise-, by David Owen, the British Minister of Foreign Affairs of the seventies.
During his time at the SubCommission, after multiple attempts at public accusation, Whitaker, the French ambassador Nicole Questiaux and Theo van Boven managed to unfetter the restraints that the diplomacy of the Argentine dictatorship (Gabriel Martínez, Mario Amadeo) had used to muzzle the accusations – presented before the United Nations since 1976 -, of murders and disappearances in our country. In 1979, Whitaker delivered a clear message to the effect that countries who exercised terrorism within their territories should not try to use the same methods in the United Nations.
In 1983, the SubCommission and the Human Rights Commission (nowadays Council) entrusted Benjamin Whitaker with a study and revision of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, and its relation to the Convention of the Non-Applicability of Statutory Limitations to War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity, in order to insure that Governments would comply with these directives. Whitaker was chosen for this research because of his intellectual stature and his proven integrity; nevertheless, one of the female experts advised him to add a bullet-proof vest to his wardrobe.
In point of fact, two preliminary studies (1973 and 1975) developed by the Rwandan expert Ruhashiankiko, included a paragraph , number 30, which would become renowned because it labeled the Armenian Massacres of 1915 and 1923 as “the first genocide of the twentieth century”. This paragraph raised a storm of great proportions, conducted by the Turkish diplomacy, and had to be suppressed from the final report in 1979. The Rwandan expert vanished from the international arena.
We met at the SubCommission. We were 26 experts. Alfonsin’s administration was just getting started, as was the revolution of the cause of Human Rights. When I was appointed General Rapporteur of the SubCommission in 1984, the project of Whitaker’s excellent Report was being debated. It contained the definition of the Armenian Genocide. I agreed entirely with its contents, but found it difficult, from a political standpoint, to show signs of support and proximity to an Englishman, when the wounds of the Malvinas War were still so fresh. Concurrently, the investigation of the Argentine dictatorship’s crimes and the legal summons issued to the Juntas drew us closer, so we established an undercurrent of mutual sympathy in an almost clandestine fashion, sometimes mediated by the French judge Louis Joinet who was also an expert in the SubCommission. I told him I supported him. By 1985 we already enjoyed a fluid relationship and though the context was not simple, we were able to overcome that contingency; we shared a profound dialogue, and we both had knowledge of the world of the United Nations and Human Rights.
The situation was also very complicated for Whitaker; Margaret Thatcher ruled in Great Britain, her government did not endorse his condition of Rapporteur, and he had to receive the backing of a British NGO in order to finish his mandate at the United Nations. A committed socialist, Whitaker did not support the policies of Thatcher’s administration, and although these circumstances weakened him personally, the forcefulness of his Report made him stronger. That situation was taken advantage of by the Turkish diplomacy, who tried to erase from his Report the paragraph about the Armenian Genocide. During the debate of this issue, I brought up the changes which had taken place in Argentina, our solidarity with the victims of genocides and openly declared that the controversial paragraph must be kept.
In 1985, Whitaker reported to the SubCommission the theft of documents which he was never to recover. In that same session, as General Rapporteur, I pointed out that the expression “genocide” had been replaced by “Armenian question”. In those days, Whitaker received the visit of two Turkish diplomats who tried to dissuade him from continuing with his investigation. But Whitaker was a man of principles, not easily swayed by political pressure. The final approval in 1985 of the historical Report, which has become part of the patrimony of the United Nations, is the culmination of an unprecedented diplomatic battle that produced an important judicial and political impact throughout the world.
Whitaker ended his Report stating that it was necessary to close that chapter of History in an honourable way, and that if the experts did not have the courage to tell the truth, then participating in the SubCommission’s work would be useless, since it was the duty of the SubCommission to protect the victims from the governments and not the other way round. For ethical reasons and in an act of chivalry, Whitaker abstained from voting for his own Report. When we met again in 1986, during his visit to Buenos Aires, he declared that the approval of the Report had been a good example of Anglo Argentine cooperation. Unknown to the media, he met with Dante Caputo and president Raúl Alfonsín.
He dedicated his last years to painting, and he campaigned to have a statue of George Orwell installed in front of the BBC, where it stands today.