The Shadow of Roger Casement: Were Colonial Regimes More Sensitive to Human Rights Than Our Own Governments?

A hundred years ago this week, we hanged Roger Casement, the world’s foremost champion of human rights – who really did save the lives of the oppressed. Forget for a while that little matter of his failed attempt to create an Irish brigade to fight the Brits in the First World War, his provable treachery to the Crown, the gun-running to Ireland in 1916, the U-boat to County Kerry and the “black” homosexual diaries. In the Congo and in Brazil, Casement investigated the vile, sadistic, rapacious treatment – and genocide – of tens of thousands of people. And he got something done about it.

So how come Casement victoriously campaigned against slavery by the Belgian King Leopold II in the Congo and among the Putumayo people of Brazil, and yet we – with all our humanitarian cash and NGOs – can’t save the people of Aleppo? Or Yemen? Or Iraq? Or “Palestine”, for that matter? Or the refugees still floating and drowning in the Mediterranean? Was it because Casement was an Irishman, with that nation’s history of missionary endeavour? Or because he was, during his days of almost journalistic revelations, a faithful colonial servant of Queen Victoria and Kings Edward VII and George V?

In a newly opened exhibition at Dublin’s National Museum to honour Casement’s stand against the most terrible violations of human rights, there are photographs aplenty of suffering, of Putumayo slaves working on the rubber plantations of the Amazon Basin, their hands shackled – and holding in them the severed hands of “punished” employees of the Peruvian Amazon Company. The PAC was registered in London with British directors and shareholders. But Casement was a consul in Brazil and his investigations were on behalf of the UK government. Other photos show slaves chained together. On display in the Dublin exhibition is a set of wooden and straw slave handcuffs, which Casement brought back to England and later offered to the museum.

Casement was a Foreign Office consul in the Congo Free State in 1903 and – here’s the point – was sent by the British government to investigate this Belgian territory and the rubber plantations which were run by and – through his own private army of mercenaries – for King Leopold II. After collecting in his notebooks – a journalist’s harvest of firsthand interviews with the terrorised, whipped, mutilated and tortured people of the colony as well as their tormentors – the Foreign Office man acted. The Casement Report mobilised human rights groups across Europe and America and the Belgian parliament took the enslaved Congo people out of Leopold’s hands to create what became the Belgian Congo.

Casement’s intervention in Brazil had even more dramatic results. His “brilliant piece of journalism”, as it was called, was followed by a second visit to the Putumayo Indian slaves, an assignment that discovered their conditions of starvation and constant flogging with whips had only grown worse. The result was public outrage in Britain, the collapse of the PAC and the flight of the plantation killers. The local PAC rubber mogul, a Peruvian poverty-to-riches thug – the Pablo Escobar of his time – escaped all punishment, cooled his heels in Britain and ended up a respected senator in Lima. He died in 1952, more than three decades after his nemesis Casement was hanged at Pentonville for treason.

In the Congo, Casement had met Joseph Conrad – whose own reaction to the barbarities he witnessed was Heart of Darkness, but who would turn coldly against his erstwhile friend when he was on trial in London. Ireland and Britain have lived under the shadow of Casement ever since – a glorious sun-lit cloud for Irish patriots, but a tainted and noxious fog in Britain, where the government shamelessly used his “black” diaries to dissuade influential supporters, including the Americans, not to fight for a reprieve. Casement – or Sir Roger as he was, before being stripped of his knighthood – was gay, and while the explicit diaries were at first regarded as MI5 forgeries, most historians now believe them to be genuine; whether their contents reflect fact or fantasy, however, remains in question. Mario Vargas Llosa, himself a Peruvian, subscribed to the latter in his semi-fictional novel The Dream of the Celt.

Tom Arnold, an Irish agricultural economist who ran Ireland’s largest humanitarian aid agency, Concern Worldwide, introduced the Casement exhibition in Dublin and carefully interweaved the man’s post-Victorian and newfound anti-colonial instincts in the Congo and Brazil with his patriotism towards Ireland. He quoted Casement’s 1904 letter to his friend Edmund Morel. “The Congo question is very near to my heart – but the Irish question is nearer,” Casement wrote. “It is only because I was an Irishman that I could understand fully, I think, the whole scheme of wrongdoing at work in the Congo.”

So much for Casement the man. But how come he broke King Leopold’s personal slave state and destroyed the PAC? Why can’t our NGOs and UN humanitarian missions have the same effect on the dictators and multinationals and arms manufacturers of our own day? What, I wonder, would Casement have made of the UN’s role in Bosnia and the mass rape of Bosnian Muslim women and the massacre of their menfolk over three years? Journalists revealed the horrors of Bosnia. But the world did not act – or not, at least, until it was far too late. The suffering continued in Bosnia, just as it does in the Arab world today. Where are the Wilberforces now?

The problem, perhaps, lies in the failure of modern nation states to adopt moral causes – except when they want to go to war or to destroy foreign governments. The key is not the courage or the exemplary nature of Casement’s investigations. It is the fact that he was the representative of a government, rather than a missionary or NGO trying to make governments act. The British themselves were the catalyst for change. The Foreign Office was behind Casement. He represented not the strength of moral outrage but the power of the British empire.

This is not an advertisement for empires. Leopold’s empire was the cause – not the panacea – of human rights abuse and slavery. But when strong nations set out to mobilise opinion – or when men such as William Wilberforce could mobilise governments – atrocities could be brought to an end. Today, it’s the other way round: individual NGOs or journalists campaign for human rights but find themselves fighting their own governments.

Just at look at Channel 4’s investigation of starvation and child deaths among the Houthis of Yemen – and among the Sunni Muslims in “rebel” areas of Yemen. The British Government should be supporting such an inquiry. But they can’t, because it is the UK Government that is arming the Saudis to kill Houthis and it’s a squad of British arms experts who are teaching the Saudis how to bomb. Thus it is the Foreign Office and the Government that – far from “doing a Casement” on Yemen – are shrivelling up at the thought of any such inquiry and ensuring that their spokesmen and spokeswomen are “unavailable for comment”.

If we were not actually bombing the rebels of Syria – and all the while threatening to bomb the Damascus regime – our Government might be able to investigate the catastrophe of human rights in Syria. But the British Government is too involved in the war, too busy bombing Isis with its two pathetic RAF fighter-bombers – or have they been reduced in number? – and too keen on threatening to send the same mini-squadron against Assad’s army to play any humanitarian role more worthy than sending cash to Syrian refugees outside the country’s borders.

Casement would surely have campaigned against the arms dealers and manufacturers who bring such suffering to the peoples of the Middle East. But his British government employers are now busy facilitating these dealers and armaments, to the extent of organising their obscene arms fairs in London itself.

It’s not difficult to find the good guys who want to play Casement’s role. They are in the NGOs, showbusiness, journalism, the academic world. But instead of receiving the official backing of the great Western powers, they have to fight them to make their voices heard.

This is the tragedy; a scandal, if you like, which the 100th anniversary of Casement’s execution illuminates all too well. Those whom we trust to represent us will not take up the battle against injustice because they are now too involved in the infliction of this injustice, albeit by proxy, to tolerate any such struggle.

We mustn’t be romantic about the late Victorians. Gladstone’s imperial invasion of Egypt was a crime every bit as obscene as Blair’s warlord role in the invasion of Iraq. But somewhere in recent history – after the First World War, perhaps, or the Second World War, which we declared by drawing the sword for Poland – our government masters bowed out. Now, when we investigate war crimes and the killing of civilians, we find ourselves confronted by the sullen hostility of our own governments.

Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared.