It is with sadness that the Gandhi Foundation has heard of the death of Bill Peters recently. He received the Gandhi Foundation International Peace Award in 2000 along with Martin Dent, co-founder of Jubilee 2000. He received the Cross of St Michael and St George (awarded for non military service in a foreign country) and the Lieutenant of the Victorian Order (awarded for service to the Queen and is a personal award by her). He was a former diplomat who devoted his life to public service and was the co-founder of the Jubilee 2000 Drop the Debt campaign.
Bill Peters who died peacefully in the early hours of Saturday March 29th was born at Morpeth, Northumberland, on September 28th 1923. The son of a cabinet maker and a light opera singer, he followed a distinguished career in the Foreign Office with a very active retirement devoted to public service. The highlight of his career after retirement was his co-founding, with Martin Dent of Keele University, of the hugely influential Jubilee 2000 Drop the Debt coalition, which went on to become the Make Poverty History movement with Jubilee 2000 itself then becoming the Jubilee Debt campaign.
Bill proved himself a formidable scholar in his time at King Edward IV Grammar School and secured a place at Oxford to study Greats at the age of 17, but as with so many young men at the time, his studies were interrupted by World War II. At this time of uncertainty, he married his first wife, Catherine Bailey, known as Kit, in 1944 before deployment to Burma where he saw active service with the 9th Ghurkha rifles. His time with his regiment, which on his arrival in Burma turned out to include a number of Tibetans, made a deep impression on Bill and saw the beginning of a lifelong association both with the Ghurkhas and with the Tibet Foundation, to which he was passionately committed for the rest of his life, meeting with the Dalai Lama several times on the latter’s visits to London.
After the war, Bill returned to the UK to take up his place at Balliol College Oxford, completing his studies in 1948, and going on to do an M.Lit. at the LSE and languages at SOAS. Bill then joined the Colonial Service with a posting in 1950 to what was then the Gold Coast where he worked to prepare for the transition to independence and was asked by the head of state for the new Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, to remain in an advisory capacity. After some thought, Bill decided his career must continue to lie with the Diplomatic service and the Foreign Office and went on to postings in Cyprus, Bangladesh, Australia, India, Zambia and Malawi as well as other appointments further detailed in Who’s Who. During his time in Ghana, Bill was invited to speak to local school children and gave a speech stressing that they could achieve anything they set out to do. In the audience was a young Kofi Annan, who went on to become Secretary General of the United Nations. When they met many years later, Annan told Bill that he still remembered Bill’s inspiring speech.
In 1977, Bill was offered the post of British Ambassador to Uruguay, an exciting role but a dangerous posting, as a recent former incumbent had been kidnapped and held to ransom for several months. After some deliberation, Bill accepted and his time in Uruguay passed without serious incident. Notably Bill made a point of asking to visit political prisoners, a request which was surprisingly granted. During a prison visit Bill met a concert pianist desperate to practice in the hope of eventual release and was subsequently allowed to deliver a silent keyboard to enable him to do so. Afterwards, Bill was informed that his life might be in danger as a result of his actions and took the step of making it clear to anyone who might be interested that he carried a pistol with him at all times.
Bill went on to work as High Commissioner in Malawi before retiring from the Foreign Office in 1983. On retirement, Bill and Kit moved to Deal in Kent. There they took an active part in community life, with Bill spending 18 years as a Governor of Walmer school as well as twice becoming president of the local Rotary Club and being an active member of the Royal British Legion as well as numerous national organisations and charities including U.S.P.G., the Churches Refugee Network and the Tibet Foundation.
A few years after retirement Bill met Martin Dent of Keele University and realised that Martin shared Bill’s long-held concern at what they both considered to be unsustainable levels of third world debt. This shared concern crystallised into a campaign, which Bill and Martin co-founded, to write off third-world debt in time for the Millennium. They called the campaign Jubilee 2000 in reference to the Old Testament Jubilee requirement to cancel debts every seven years. Bill’s diplomatic skills were invaluable in launching Jubilee 2000 and helping steer it through early hurdles as it gathered momentum. It was supported by the Anglican Church, with Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, addressing a rally in Trafalgar Square with Bill and Martin and making Jubilee 2000 the subject of his New Year’s Day Millennium address on BBC 1. Gordon Brown, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, also spoke at a rally in St Paul’s Cathedral, strongly supporting the campaign and confirming the cancellation of debts to the UK.
During this time, Bill’s wife Kit, who was several years older than Bill, passed away in 1998 after a brief illness. Bill continued to play an active role in the Drop the Debt campaign in the lead up to the Millennium, seeing it grow into a series of large- scale demonstrations and twice enter the Guinness book of records, once for the largest petition and once for the most international petition. The campaign launched major demonstrations at every G8 summit from 1998 in Birmingham to Cologne and Genoa with a few people even travelling to Okinawa in Japan, where Bill was able to speak with the Japanese Prime Minister.
Bill received the Gandhi International Peace Award from the Gandhi Foundation in recognition of his efforts and of the success of the Jubilee 2000 campaign, which ‘made possible the provision of basic education and health-care to thousands of people.’
In his later years, Bill retained his keen interest in politics and continued to be an active supporter of the now Jubilee Debt Campaign and of other charities. In 2004 he married his second wife, Gillian Casebourne, whom he met through his charity work. Bill is survived by Gill and her two daughters, as well as by his nieces and nephews.
William Peters, born September 28 1923, died March 29 2014