LONDON (The Guardian)—The former Labour member of parliament for Hampstead, north London, Ben Whitaker, who has died aged 79, was the embodiment of the liberal values associated with the area. At the 1966 election he won the Hampstead seat, for 81 years a Tory fiefdom, from the reactionary former home secretary Henry Brooke, and championed the progressive social reforms of the Harold Wilson government, in which he held a number of posts. Subsequently, as a human rights lawyer long before this was a fashionable career, he made distinguished contributions to civil liberties in Britain, and especially abroad, through his leadership of the Minority Rights Group and then of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and as a UN rapporteur.
Ben was born in Nottinghamshire, the son of Major General Sir John Whitaker and his wife, Pamela (nee Snowden), who were not modern enough to avoid sending him to Eton. He subsequently did national service in the Coldstream Guards, before graduating from New College, Oxford, to the bar. After what he described as this “Victorian education,” he lectured in law at London University and became outraged at the conduct of the police, who at the time were framing Stephen Ward, planting bricks on political protesters and, in Sheffield, had been caught beating suspects with rhino whips. His first book, The Police (1964), was written with the object of restricting their powers.
As a Labour member of parliament, he served as parliamentary private secretary to the minister for overseas development and then to the minister for housing, finding time to write Crime and Society (1967), Participation and Poverty (1968) and Parks for People (1971).
In 1971 he became executive director of the Minority Rights Group, writing and publishing well-researched reports on communities – some that had never been mentioned before by the media – that were being subjected to physical and cultural destruction by their states or through the actions of multinational corporations. “Indigenous rights” was a little-known concept at the time.
In 1975, David Owen appointed him as British representative on a UN sub-committee on the rights of minorities, and in 1985 it handed him the hottest of hot potatoes: to investigate whether the Turkish atrocities against the Armenians amounted to genocide. He concluded emphatically that they did, and refused to withdraw his report despite a furious response from Turkey. In recent years he was particularly critical of “genocide equivocation” by the UK government, which refused to mention his report and claimed that the evidence for Turkish guilt was “not sufficiently unequivocal.” He was pleased when this misleading formula, devised by the Foreign Office to avoid political and economic reprisals from Turkey, was finally exposed and dropped in 2010.
Ben maintained strong and combative interests both in defending culture from political philistines and in encouraging new forms of art that governments were not prepared to subsidize. Later, as executive director of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, he took great pleasure in encouraging competition between museums and in backing art that was too experimental or “political” for government funders to contemplate. His work for the foundation, which was established in Portugal, earned him a Portuguese Order of Merit.
He is survived by Janet and their children, Quincy, Dan and Rasaq; Aaron, a son from a previous relationship; and seven grandchildren.