By Dr Martin Kemp
UK Palestine Mental Health Network
First published in Middle East Monitor, 12 January 2021
The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) is Britain's largest children's NGO. It is under pressure to renounce its relationship with J C Bamford Excavators Ltd (JCB), a manufacturer of building machinery, from which it has received millions of pounds in donations. JCB equipment is used by Israeli security forces to destroy Palestinian homes and construct illegal settlement-colonies in the occupied West Bank. Exposed by a War on Want report in 2012, the company has been placed on a 2020 UN list of those implicated in international law violations, and following a complaint by Lawyers for Palestinian Human Rights is now being investigated by the Department for International Trade.
It does not take an expert to appreciate the cruelty inflicted on many thousands of Palestinian children by Israel's policy of destroying their homes, or to imagine the intense strain of the tens of thousands of families who have received demolition orders, never knowing when the army bulldozers will arrive to enforce them. Research that has been undertaken by, for example, PCC/Save the Children, confirms, of course, that the children affected are deeply scarred as a result.
Unquestionably, it would be unacceptable for any European government to treat ethnic minority citizens in such a way. So how does the NSPCC reconcile its charitable mission with its close ties to such a company?
Edward Colston (1636-1721), the Bristol slave trader whose statue was torn down during the Black Lives Matter protests last year, was a model citizen: a respected merchant whose sense of civic duty led him to finance many charitable works, including alms houses for the poor, hospitals and schools for the young. This philanthropic and pious man (he also invested in church construction) did nothing to scandalise British society. Yet, for local 21st century anti-racists, and now the whole world, Colston symbolises Britain's part in a genocidal scramble for wealth whose cost to Africa's peoples, and whose consequences for the enslaved and transported, are beyond estimation.
The contradiction between the extremes of humanity and cruelty found in the legacy of this one individual is resolved by the anti-black racism that took hold in Britain contemporaneously with the expansion of its power to enslave and colonise. We can assume that Colston's self-regard was protected by a belief that the black men and women he bought and sold were not really human beings at all; that they were chattels like the wine and textiles that he also traded. White barbarity was projected into its victims, who could then be regarded as "savages".
Perhaps, had it then existed, Colston would also have donated to the NSPCC. A late-17th century equivalent of the charity, internalising the same hegemonic assumptions as Colston, would surely have had no qualms about accepting his money.
Anti-black racism is still a deep scar on our culture, and the source of ongoing discrimination and hurt to black people, but it is now almost universally regarded as a shameful aberration. This does not apply to all forms of racism however. Capital accumulation, the exploitation of labour, the extraction of natural resources and, in places, outright colonialism still take priority over the rights of non-white peoples. There are still distinct populations that need to be dehumanised and demonised, and rendered "superfluous" to the modern world, and whose existence still have to be pushed to the margins of "white" consciousness.
In Britain, the Charity Commission is the official regulator for the operations of registered charities, providing advice to ensure that their funds originate from respectable sources and are spent for lawful purposes. This is to avoid the kind of controversy which embroiled the London School of Economics when it accepted subventions from the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. Faced with calls that it should refuse to accept money earned in activities that involve severe and enduring harm to Palestinian children, the NSPCC has replied that, "In line with Charity Commission guidance the NSPCC has produced ethical corporate fundraising guidelines reflecting its values… and undertakes due diligence based on criteria approved by its Trustees in relation to corporate partners."
In a pamphlet called "Living Our Values", the NSPCC states: "We will speak out when something is wrong… We seek to achieve cultural, social and political change – influencing legislation, policy, practice, attitudes and behaviours and delivering services for the benefit of children and young people."
The NSPCC here recognises a responsibility to challenge accepted norms where these expose young people to harm. Yet when it comes to children in faraway lands, it suggests that government trading priorities provide an adequate guide to moral practice: "The export activities of a corporate do not form part of our ethical checks" unless concerning a country "on which the UK Government/ Department of Trade has formally imposed trade restrictions."
With this legalistic approach, the charity's officials brush aside a serious moral challenge to their mutually beneficial relationship with JCB. Why, we might ask, have they not consulted with their Palestinian equivalents (in the PCC, GCMHP, DCI or PTC, for example), to find out about the impact of home demolitions on child mental health? Could the same psychological-ideological complex that enabled Colston to be both slave trader and respected philanthropist also be at work within the NSPCC?
In a recent report to the UN General Assembly, the Special Rapporteur on Torture, Professor Nils Melzer, addressed the mechanisms by which "perpetrators and bystanders" warrant their tolerance of torture. Faced with evidence of rights violations, they "tend to suppress the resulting moral dilemmas through largely unconscious patterns of self-deception and denial." Racism is the ideal mechanism here, projecting the perpetrators' brutality into their victims, rendering them less than fully human in the eyes of the powerful, and thus beyond the reach of conscience.
Settler-colonialism contains a "logic of elimination". Former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir once said: "It was not as if there was a Palestinian people in Palestine and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist." This eliminatory racism permeates Israeli culture, and informs dominant attitudes across the Western world. The perception of Israel as a democracy can only be sustained if the Palestinians living within historic Palestine without a vote, and the refugees in surrounding countries, do not register as human beings equal to ourselves, and to Israel's Jewish citizens.
The coloniality of metropolitan cultures ensures the selective application of supposedly universal protections enshrined in international law. Lip-service is paid to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, while governments disregard it with impunity. It is unfortunate that the NSPCC's commitment to abused children should be compromised by a reluctance to step outside convention, and to engage directly with young people in occupied Palestine.
Behaving in accordance with the ethics of today's racialised capitalism, NSPCC officials are no more (but also no less) evil than was Edward Colston. Each is typical of their particular era and social milieu, and each reflects British society's collusion with international lawlessness, at one time with slavery, and today with Israel's settler-colonialism.
The fact that anti-Palestinian racism should be so prevalent in our society does not licence a charity committed to protecting children, and campaigning under the slogan "Every child is worth fighting for", to indulge its grim logic. Clearly, as far as the NSPCC is concerned, not every child is worth fighting for.