Robert Henry Bagehot Swann, diplomat and administrator: born London 23 September 1929; died Dunes, France 14 August 2001
Ten minutes before a cocktail party at his house in Dunes, Lot et Garonne, last Saturday, Robert Swann, a former general secretary of Amnesty, fell into a coma from which he never recovered. His guests had not been too surprised at being greeted by the pompiers instead of their host, for Swann, despite the joie de vivre which so distinguished him, and plans for concerts, a trip to Kenya (though crippled) and bridge parties with the local nobility, had not really recovered from the amputation of his leg earlier in the year.
All his life, from an attack of polio in 1949, he had suffered from many of the weaknesses which the flesh is heir to, and there was scarcely an organ of his body which had not been subject to an "intervention"; only his courage and robust spirit had kept him alive for 72 years.
At 17 he had been judged underweight for any of the smart regiments which usually enrolled Etonians and had been destined by the Army, for the REME, though he protested he could not change a light-bulb. "Then be a batman," he was told. But Walter Hamilton, the Master in College, put him on a diet of cider and buttered anchovy toast and he was soon plump enough for the Intelligence Corps, who made him an officer and sent him in 1948 to Graz in Austria, where he monitored broadcasts in Croat, Serb and Greek. Though not fluent in these languages he proved that the Communists in the Greek civil war were receiving instructions from Moscow. Swann was very clever.
He took up his scholarship to Christ Church, Oxford, to read History and sailed into the Foreign Office, which dispatched him to where he always called Siam; he spent 11 years there, latterly as a Lecturer at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.
Returning to London, in 1966 he joined a fellow Colleger and (converted) Roman Catholic, Peter Benenson, as the second general secretary of Amnesty. Benenson, with Eric Barker, a Quaker, and Louis Blom-Cooper, the lawyer, had founded Amnesty, "a permanent international movement in defence of freedom of opinion and religion", in 1961. Swann ran the organisation as a tight little ship, crewed by eight ladies – "other people's aunts" – intelligently, without fear or favour, but also without the funds it now enjoys.
He soon quarrelled with Benenson, a tricky and, unlike Swann, inflexible fellow. There was controversy over a report on alleged torture by British soldiers of Arab prisoners in Aden and after a year he left. He served in Paris as Director of the Arab-non Arab Friendship Fund and Paris correspondent on Middle East International, and then as Secretary-General to the Parliamentary Association for Euro-Arab Cooperation (founded in 1974) – jobs that needed superhuman cunning and sagacity successfully to represent the Arab point of view in the Seventies and Eighties, although he spoke and wrote better French than any of my contemporaries and possessed a masterly understanding of the bureaucratic mind.
He used to send me a trickle of Israeli dissidents, all amiable and interesting – one was a brilliant conjuror – whose publishing aspirations I tried to assist.
Robert Swann had a huge circle of friends and acquaintances, from admirals to sailors, ambassadors to refugees, whom he entertained and amused and helped. Although not, to put it mildly, a family man himself, he was attentive and tender to the wives and children of his friends. He was the kind of man, both holy and funny, who gives practising Catholics a good name.
As a youth, I found Robert Swann admirably unblinkered in ferreting out injustice for Amnesty International, writes Nicholas Hyman. I helped him there to expose torture under British direction a "circus" going back to Kenya and even Palestine, and on to Northern Ireland.
Robert was prepared without counting cost to a career to investigate, and call for redress, when the perpetrator was his "own" government, in Aden (now Yemen). Over human rights in Vietnam, and also the United States, he was similarly principled and acute. But it is for his preparedness to take on barbarity at home that I treasure his memory.Reuse content