Peter Ashman - an important figure in the founding of ILGA
Nigel Warner, ILGA-Europe Council of Europe adviser, remembers Peter Ashman.
Peter Ashman died on 21 February 2014, at the age of 63, after a short, brave struggle with pancreatic cancer.
Peter was a deeply committed and innovative human rights activist. The word “activist” is very appropriate, because although he was a gifted lawyer, campaigning for an end to injustices was what he was really about, whatever the means or the context. He was also extraordinarily modest. It’s unlikely that anyone knows the full extent of his achievements, nor of the support he so generously and patiently provided to others.
Peter studied law at King’s College London in the early 1970s. It was a crucial moment in the history of gay rights: the new gay liberation spirit that emerged following the Stonewall riots in New York in 1969 had arrived in London. Peter came out, and took his first steps into the world of gay rights activism, becoming involved with the London Gay Liberation Front, and helping produce the final edition of its magazine in 1973.
After completing his Bar finals, he spent a couple of years in a commercial law practice, but found the work boring, and in 1977 he joined JUSTICE, the British section of the International Commission Jurists, as its Legal Officer. It proved a wonderful place to gain experience, bringing Peter into close contact with some of the best human rights brains in London, although being openly gay was not always well received by some of the more conservative members of his profession.
In the mid-1970s he joined the Campaign for Homosexual Equality (at that time, the leading lesbian and gay advocacy organisation for England and Wales), where, in 1977 he co-founded its Law Reform Committee. He was to play a leading role throughout the 12 years of the committee’s existence.
It was as a member of this committee that he was contacted by the Dutch gay rights group, COC, to discuss setting up an international gay rights association. It was agreed to hold a meeting in the margins of CHE’s annual conference in Coventry in August 1978. Activists from 14 countries attended. The group split into two working parties, one to formulate the broad aims of the organisation, chaired by the late Janherman Veenker of the Netherlands, the other, chaired by Peter, to set out how it would work and develop a list of political actions. It was typical of his quiet effectiveness that his working party emerged at the end of the day with a workable operating structure, and an extensive and concrete list of actions. The latter included far-seeing campaigns that were to become the standard fare of international advocacy work for LGBT rights in the next decades: lobbying the European Commission, a lobbying campaign in the run-up to the first elections for the European Parliament in 1979, proposals to create a pro-gay all-party group of Euro MPs, advocacy at the Council of Europe, and work on removing homosexuality from the WHO list of diseases. Individual actions included litigation cases against criminalisation laws in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and against discriminatory laws or initiatives in Greece, the USA, Canada, Germany, Australia and the USSR.
The founding press release affirmed that “freedom from discrimination on the grounds of a person’s sexual orientation is a fundamental human right”. While that seems unexceptionable today, the idea that “gay rights are human rights” was a novelty then.
So it was that the world’s first international gay rights organisation, now named the “International, Gay, Lesbian, Trans and Intersex Association”, but then, “the International Gay Association” came into being. Its objectives and human rights ethos owed much to Peter’s influence.
Peter’s human rights expertise was soon be put to further good use: a member of ILGA’s founding group, Jeff Dudgeon, had already started a case under the European Convention on Human Rights challenging the criminalisation of same-sex relations between men in Northern Ireland. At Jeff’s request, Peter took on preparation of his case, developing the written submissions with a solicitor friend, Paul Crane, and finding a leading human rights QC to present the case before the Strasbourg court. This led in 1981 to the historic ruling that criminalisation of same-sex relationships violated the European Convention. It was the world’s first successful LGBT rights case before an international human rights tribunal and was to have far-reaching consequences: in the next 20 or so years, some 23 jurisdictions in Council of Europe member states decriminalised, lifting a burden from the lives of millions of people.
The Dudgeon judgment was hugely important, but it was only a partial victory. The European Court of Human Rights still permitted governments to discriminate in numerous areas, including aspects of the criminal law and employment in the Armed Forces. Encouraged by the success in the Dudgeon case, Peter organised three further cases, challenging discrimination in the age of consent, privacy laws and the Armed Forces. All were rejected out of hand. Faced with the refusal of Court officials to apply the principle of non-discrimination to lesbians and gays, Peter drafted a protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights, which would, if adopted, have made it clear that the non-discrimination article of the Convention covered sexual orientation. It was intended primarily as an advocacy initiative to start a debate on the issue, rather than as a proposal which had any immediate chance of success. But even as such, it fell on deaf ears at the Council of Europe. Indeed, the situation could not have been made plainer in 1989: with Peter’s help, ILGA submitted an application for consultative status to the Council of Europe. It was rejected, on the basis that ILGA’s activities fell outside the work programme of the Council of Europe. So far as the Council of Europe was concerned, there could have been no clearer statement that gay rights were not human rights. And indeed, it was only in 1997 that the Strasbourg court began to adopt a less discriminatory approach, and only in 1998 that ILGA finally gained consultative status.
Peter was involved in many other aspects of ILGA’s work through the 1980s and 1990s, including being a member of the Financial Secretariat from 1986 to 1993, and attending many of its World and European conferences. In 1992 he moved to Brussels as Director of the European Human Rights Foundation, and in this role made an important contribution to a project which was to help lay the foundations for much greater EU support for LGBT rights. Working with ILGA and Stonewall UK, the Foundation published “Homosexuality: A European Community Issue”, a collection of essays by highly respected international human rights law experts, which demonstrated how the human rights protection offered by the European Community could be applied to gay men and lesbians. This was an important first step in convincing European Community officials of both the need and the practicality of taking measures against sexual orientation discrimination. It was the start of the process which led a few years later to another historic development, the adoption in 1997 of article 13 of the Treaty of Amsterdam, under which the member states empowered the EU to take action to combat sexual orientation discrimination.
While still living in the UK Peter joined the group working to set up what was to become the leading LGBT organisation in the UK, Stonewall. For the first six months of its existence it operated from the front room of his house.
Peter’s human rights work with JUSTICE between the years 1977 to 1992 was equally eventful. As its legal officer, he made a huge contribution. He drafted dozens of influential working party reports for its members, and briefed politicians about human rights long before they carried the weight that they do now.
Two highlights of his work are especially worth mentioning. In the late 1970s there was increasing awareness of the extent to which miscarriages of justice in the UK were going un-remedied, leaving people wrongly imprisoned. Peter took on many cases, seeking to get them reopened. But the political and legal establishment was reluctant to recognise the problem. So In 1982 Peter put forward the idea of a TV documentary series investigating such miscarriages. This was taken up, and the BBC TV series Rough Justice was born. It played a role in securing the release from prison of 18 people, and is also credited with contributing to the eventual establishment of an official body in the UK for reviewing miscarriages of justice. Peter supplied many of the cases for the series and became a familiar figure on the TV programme.
A second highlight was work to challenge the power of politicians to determine whether a prisoner serving a life sentence would be eligible for early release. The trigger was the case of a prisoner called Robert Weeks, who, when 17, had been given a discretionary life sentence for stealing 35p from a pet shop armed with a starting pistol. Unsurprisingly, Robert had a deep sense of injustice, and was not exactly a model prisoner. As a consequence he was refused early release. Peter challenged this successfully before the European Court of Human Rights, himself representing Robert. It was the first of a number of cases which eventually resulted in the powers for review of life sentences being transferred to the judiciary.
As already noted, in 1992 his human rights career took another direction: he moved to Brussels to set up the office of the European Human Rights Foundation, whose main purpose was to manage grants to human rights organisations. It grew rapidly, running European Commission programmes in support of civil society in East and Central Europe, the Balkans and the countries of the former Soviet Union. As Executive Director, Peter was now managing a staff team, and offices in Prague and Warsaw. He provided exceptional leadership, while managing an increasingly complex and rapidly developing organisation. For those working at the Foundation, he was approachable, warm and humorous. He was always ready to encourage people to achieve the best they could and for many was a mentor at an important time in the development of their careers. And he was not someone to be troubled by orthodoxies. On one occasion a visiting Commission official was surprised when a shirt-sleeved man brandishing an electric drill turned out to be the Foundation’s executive director.
In 2001 Peter joined the European Commission, working on human rights policy, before returning to London in 2004 to become a human rights adviser at the Foreign Office. Here, he was able to capitalise on a new-found commitment by the UK government to supporting LGBT rights, drafting a programme for British embassies to promote the human rights of LGBT people around the world. It was another important innovation, and provided an example for the subsequent development of similar programmes by the EU and the US State Department.
Looking back over Peter’s human rights work, several things spring to mind.
One was his extraordinary understanding of how things worked, and how to get things done. His encyclopaedic knowledge of the law, legal procedures, international human rights instruments, and how institutions worked meant he could quickly determine the most effective approach to a particular campaign or advocacy strategy.
Another quality was a quiet irrepressible optimism that, however worrying the immediate circumstances or however bleak the outlook, eventually things would come right. This kept him working patiently and positively for LGBT rights all through the dark years of the 1980s, and was a great encouragement to those working with him.
A third was his extraordinary generosity and patience in supporting and mentoring others, whether in their work or in support of their private lives.
A fourth was the all-encompassing nature of his personal commitment to fighting injustice. This could go well beyond just providing legal support. Indeed, he was willing, if need be, to take significant personal risks to help others.
Some of these points are illustrated by the following examples:
In the case of the prisoner whose case Peter took to the European Court of Human Rights, Robert Weeks, Peter considered that the only way to get him out of a vicious circle of re-offending and re-imprisonment was to help him start a new life abroad. So he helped Robert to abscond from an open prison, organising travel documents for him. Then, with the compensation awarded by the European Court of Human Rights, he helped Robert buy a small plot of land in France for market gardening. Later, when Robert eventually returned to the UK and had nowhere to live, he put him up until he could find a home, found him a job, and even organised his marriage. He continued supporting him in one way or another until his death about 10 years ago.
A second example: in the UK, before the late 1990s, the foreign partner in a bi-national same-sex couple was unable to get residency rights in the UK on the basis of their relationship. Sometimes the only way for couples to stay together was through an arranged marriage. Friends of Peter’s found themselves in that situation. A lesbian friend of theirs had agreed to marry the foreign partner, but they weren’t sure how to go about it, and were very nervous about doing it. So they consulted Peter, who was very reassuring, and unhesitatingly offered to act as their best man.
As the wedding party gathered on the steps outside the town hall, their nervousness increased. They were an unconventional sight. The lesbian friend was “gender non-conforming”, as were many of the guests. Once in the chamber, the registrar, an extremely proper looking woman with beautifully permed hair stared at the wedding party with bewilderment. Unable to work out who was the bride and who was the groom, she said in a loud voice: “Who may I ask are the happy couple?”, and was visibly surprised when they stepped forward. The ceremony proceeded. And then, half way through, one of the more exotically dressed guests let out a piercing scream, and jumped onto her chair. Everyone’s hearts fell. But then, following a moment of silence, came Peter’s calm humorous voice: “my goodness”, he said, “we’ve got an uninvited guest”. There, crawling across the plush carpet was a large cockroach. The Registrar was mortified, full of apologies, and if she had any suspicions about the marriage, they must have dropped from her mind. And everything worked out just fine, as Peter had always said it would.
Peter shared the last seven years of his life with his civil partner, Poramate Jitsopas, who brought him great happiness.
4 March 2014