Thursday, 3 April 2014

Britain is no country for and says "Goodbye" to an old human rights activist called Peter Ashman

Peter Ashman, human rights lawyer and activistPeter died from the effects of pancreatic cancer on February 21st. He was 63 years old and doubtless would have continued to fight for human rights if his life had not been cut short by the disease.
What you possibly didn't know about Peter, that he :

* born in St Albans, Hertfordshire and had a peripatetic childhood as his father pursued a career as an airlines radio operator and Iraq, Libya, Lebanon.

* back in England, lived in Westcliff-on-Sea in Essex and attended Southend High School for Boys in the 1960s and then in the early 70s studied law at King's College, the University of  London and after coming out, took his first steps into the world of gay rights activism, becoming involved with the newly formed 'London Gay Liberation Front'.

* after his bar finals, worked in a commercial law practice, found the work boring and in 1977, at the age of 26, became and for the next 15 years worked as the Legal Officer of 'Justice', the British section of the 'International Commission of Jurists', 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.

* in 1977 joined the 'Campaign for Homosexual Equality', the leading lesbian and gay advocacy organisation which in its founding press release affirmed the then novel idea that 'freedom from discrimination on the grounds of a person’s sexual orientation is a fundamental human right'.

* co-founded the 'Campaign's Law Reform Committee' and played a leading role throughout the 12 years of its existence and at the 1978 conference co-organised a meeting of activists from 14 countries to set up an international gay rights organisation and took charge of and infused a sub-group, which became the 'International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association', with its human rights ethos and objectives.

* working with the Association over the next 25 years achieved for sexual orientation the :
- removal of  'homosexuality' from the World Health Organisation 'Classification of Diseases'.
- prohibition of discrimination under the European Convention on Human Rights.
- prevention of discrimination in employment under European law.
- bringing of litigation cases against criminalisation laws in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
- bringing cases against discriminatory laws in Greece, the USA, Canada, Germany, Australia and the USSR.

* in the late 1970s when Merlyn Rees was Home Secretary, took up the case of Robert Weeks, who, when 17, had been given a 'discretionary life sentence' for stealing 35p from a pet shop while armed with a starting pistol and released on license, was reimprisoned on the orders of the Minister after an incident of drunken behaviour.

* when Robert was refused early release, represented him and successfully challenged the decision before the European Court of Human Rights in what proved to be the first of a number of cases which eventually resulted in the powers for review of life sentences being transferred from the Government to the Judiciary.

* helped Robert get out of a vicious circle of re-offending by assisting him to abscond from an open prison, organising travel documents, then, with the compensation awarded by the European Court of Human Rights, helped him buy a small plot of land in France for market gardening and when he returned to Britain, put him up until he could find a home, found him a job, and even organised his marriage and continued to support him in one way or another until his death about 10 years ago.

* in the late 1970s, took on the legal preparation of the Case of Jeff Dudgeon, a Belfast shipping clerk who was challenging the 'law against same-sex relations' in Northern Ireland before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
* asked Lord Gifford QC to present the case which led to the historic 1981 ruling that criminalisation of same-sex relationships violated the European Convention, the world’s first successful LGBT rights case brought before an international human rights tribunal which was followed over the next 20 years, 23 European jurisdictions decriminalising homosexuality and so freed millions from the fear of prosecution.

* encouraged by the success in the Dudgeon Case, organised three further cases, challenging discrimination in the 'age of consent', 'privacy laws' and the 'Armed Forces' all of which were rejected out of hand by the Court which refused to apply the principle of non-discrimination to lesbians and gays and continued to do so until in 1997, when it started to adopt a less discriminatory approach and in 1998 finally gave the ILGA 'consultative status'.

 * had a quiet, irrepressible optimism and belief that, however worrying the immediate circumstances or bleak the outlook, eventually things would come right and worked patiently and positively for LGBT rights through the dark years of the 1980s.

* concerned that miscarriages of justice in Britain were going unremedied, suggested a tv series which led in 1982 to BBC's 'Rough Justice' in which he acted as legal commentator, supplied many of the cases, saw the programme become  instrumental in securing the release of 18 prisoners and contributed to the setting up of an official body for reviewing miscarriages of justice.

* in 1989 joined the working group to set up 'Stonewall', a lesbian, gay and bisexual rights charity and for the first six months of its life, allowed it to operate from the front room of his house and saw it emerge, in the years which followed, as the largest gay equality organization not only in the Britain, but in Europe.

* in 1992, moved to Brussels to set up and direct the office of the 'European Human Rights Foundation' and working with Stonewall and ILGA, published 'Homosexuality: A European Community Issue' which demonstrated how the human rights protection offered by the EU could be applied to gay men and lesbians and was an important first step in the process of convincing officials of the need and practicality of taking measures against sexual orientation discrimination which eventually led to the historic adoption in 1997 of 'Article 13 of the Treaty of Amsterdam', which saw member states empower the EU to take action to combat sexual orientation discrimination.
* as Executive Director of the Foundation, led a team with offices in Prague and Warsaw which ran European Commission programmes in support of civil society in East and Central Europe, the Balkans and the countries of the former Soviet Union and untroubled by convention, on one occasion, surprised a visiting Commission official who found him in shirt-sleeves and brandishing an electric drill.

* in 2001, 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 and drafted a programme for British embassies to support LGBT rights around the world which served as an example for the EU and the US State Department.

What made Peter special as a human rights activist, who left the world a better place for having been here, was his exceptional knowledge of the law, legal procedures, international human rights instruments, how institutions worked and most importantly : how to get things done.

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