Whitaker, Benjamin

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Whitaker, Benjamin

[SEPTEMBER 15, 1934–]

Advocate for minority rights

Benjamin Whitaker's career has been completely devoted to justice, in particular justice for those in greatest need. He has worked tirelessly for the protection of minorities and recognized the importance of this to the prevention of genocide.

Born in London, Whitaker studied modern history and law at Oxford. He practiced as a barrister from 1959 through 1967. In 1966 he was elected to Parliament, representing Hampstead in London, and was immediately given a role with the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, becoming Junior Minister for Overseas Development in 1969. He left Parliament in 1970.

In 1971 Whitaker became Executive Director of the Minority Rights Group (MRG), a nongovernmental organization (NGO) founded in the late 1960s by a group of academics, lawyers, and journalists. MRG focused on the need to protect the rights of persons belonging to minorities and the collective rights of minorities. It specialized in producing expert reports on minorities or minority issues, to use as a basis for lobbying, often at an international level. MRG's reports were highly regarded throughout the human rights community. Their level of credibility was a tribute to Whitaker's leadership, not least because MRG had a small budget and depended on his ability to identify experts and persuade them to donate their writing.

Under Whitaker's guidance, MRG produced several reports on genocide, most notably those authored by René Lemarchand on Burundi and by Leo Kuper on the international prevention of genocide. MRG attended the annual sessions of the United Nations (UN) Commission on Human Rights and its Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and the Protection of Minorities (now the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights). The early 1970s were difficult days for those trying to draw UN attention to human rights violations; Whitaker would later regale students with stories of how NGOs, prohibited from mentioning an offending state's name in a UN forum, would refer to "a long slender State on the other side of the Andes from Argentina." Whitaker had the wisdom to enlist Kuper as a member of MRG's delegation on such occasions, thus informing Kuper's understanding of the international community's approach to the prevention of genocide as well as MRG's advocacy.

In 1975 Whitaker became a member of a UN body of independent experts, the UN Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and the Protection of Minorities. From 1976 through 1978 he chaired its working group on slavery, and in 1982 produced its report on contemporary slavery. Following this, Whitaker was assigned the role of special rapporteur on genocide for the Sub-Commission, for which he produced a report in 1985. The Whitaker Report, as it came to be known, assessed the failings of the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, and drew on contemporary thinking to come up with recommendations. It is important to note that, when embarking on this work in 1984, Whitaker circulated a questionnaire on genocide to UN members, organizations, and agencies; regional bodies; academics; and NGOs. Thus, a wide range of responses informed his conclusions.

The Whitaker Report called for the establishment of an international criminal court and a system of universal jurisdiction, what was called, "a double system of safeguard," to ensure the punishment of genocide. Whitaker did not, however, view punishment as the first priority in the fight to eradicate genocide, asserting that those who were likely to commit genocide were not easily deterred by the threat of retribution. Rather, he called for a number of preventive measures at the international level designed to reflect stages in the evolution of genocide; anticipate its occurrence; provide early warning of its onset; and determine action to be taken at the outset of or during genocide to stop it. Whitaker recognized that the prevention of genocide required first a database of continuously updated information, to enable the identification of patterns of developing genocides. Armed with such a resource, a permanent body of coordination linked with UN agencies and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) could, argued Whitaker, help to save thousands of lives.

Whitaker envisaged that such a body would be able to draw on a broad range of responses to the early warning of genocide. Allegations would be investigated. UN organs, related organizations, member states, interregional organizations, and the media could be engaged. When appropriate, local leaders could be asked to intercede. To defuse tension, UN or ICRC conciliators or mediators could be brought in. A sanctions regime employing such measures as economic boycotts and exclusion from certain international activities could also be introduced.

Whitaker additionally recommended that an impartial and respected UN body be created to deal exclusively with genocide. He argued that ideally a body monitoring adherence to the 1948 UN Genocide Convention should be created, possibly under the "competent organs" article, Article VIII, of the Convention. Modeled on the UN Committee against Torture, such a committee would review allegations of genocide, interview the state concerned, and undertake its own investigations. In addition to reporting annually to the UN General Assembly, the proposed Committee on Genocide would be empowered to bring urgent situations to the immediate attention of the UN Secretary General. This would have the advantages of removing the determination of genocide from the political arena through the use of independent experts and ensuring a timely response at the appropriate level by avoiding the sometimes lengthy cycle of the UN human rights system.

Whitaker recognized that amending the UN Genocide Convention to create a treaty monitoring body might be a difficult process, and suggested that a UN Commission on Human Rights working group on genocide might provide an alternative. He concluded his report by stating, "the reforms recommended will, like most things worthwhile in human progress, not be easy. They would however be the best living memorial to all the past victims of genocide. To do nothing, by contrast, would be to invite responsibility for helping cause future victims" (p. 46). Whitaker departed from the MRG and UN Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and the Protection of Minorities in 1988 and went on to work for the Gulbenkian Foundation. Fifteen years after he wrote his 1985 report, he chaired a session of the Raphael Lemkin Centenary Conference in London, where scholars discussed the new International Criminal Court.

SEE ALSO Genocide; United Nations Sub-Commission on Human Rights


Kuper, Leo (1984). International Action against Genocide. London: Minority Rights Group.

Robinson, N. (1960). The Genocide Convention. New York: Institute of Jewish Affairs.

Whitaker, Benjamin (1985). On the Question of the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities. Revised 1986. UN Document E/CN.4/Sub.2/1985/6.

Bernard F. Hamilton