The former Labour MP 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.
His concern for human rights took him on Amnesty International missions, most daringly in 1965 to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), at the repressive height of Ian Smith's UDI. His heavily pregnant wife, Janet, accompanied him, hiding banned anti-UDI literature under her dress: they reckoned (correctly) that the sexist chivalry of the Rhodesian police would preclude a body search.
They managed to enter one of Smith's secret detention camps, and afterwards Ben arranged to be interviewed live on the heavily censored Rhodesian Television Service (now the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation). After 10 minutes during which he condemned "an illegal police state afraid of the truth", the police raided the studio, claiming he had broken laws against bringing Smith into disrepute and revealing the secret detentions. He had to exit the studio by the back door, collect Janet, and make a quick escape to the airport.
Back in Hampstead – an electorate, he enthused, that was "full of argumentative idealists" like himself – his opposition to US involvement in Vietnam and to a new white paper on immigration, made him popular with what the Guardian described as "a horde of militant Labour helpers". Many keen youthful canvassers made their way to Hampstead and Ben sensibly put them to work on things that really mattered to residents: campaigning against parking meters and a one-way traffic scheme. His victory was assured.
As a Labour MP, 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). He helped to organise support within the Labour party for the progressive objectives of Roy Jenkins and Gerald Gardiner: abolishing theatre censorship, ending the death penalty and the "matrimonial crime" of adultery, and decriminalising homosexuality and abortion. Although sometimes humorously sardonic about Wilson, he respected his stand against apartheid and UDI, and refused to join in the plots against him.
Ben remained a great champion of life's losers – hence his continuing support for Nottingham Forest FC. 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 subsidise. The anti-censorship group the Defence of Literature and the Arts Society, of which he was chair, out-lobbied Mary Whitehouse in her attacks on the BBC and the National Theatre. 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.
In his last years, this most sociable of socialists took pleasure in his wife's performances in the Lords (she was raised to the peerage in 1999), his daughter Quincy's courtroom accomplishments and in his other children and grandchildren. He became a dab hand at painting and flower arranging, and not even the pain from a broken ankle that refused to heal could stop him furiously agitating and fundraising almost single-handedly for a statue of George Orwell to be placed outside BBC Broadcasting House. He will not now be present for the unveiling of the Martin Jennings sculpture, but he would have wished it inscribed with his favourite aphorism, from the censored introduction to Animal Farm, which states the principle for which his own life stood and for which he wanted the BBC to stand: "If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear".
He is survived by Janet and their children, Quincy, Dan and Rasaq; Aaron, a son from a previous relationship; and seven grandchildren.
"The Guardian," June 15, 2014