He died of pancreatic cancer in February 2014.
In the 1970s he joined GLF and subsequently CHE. He quickly became involved in setting up CHE’s law reform committee and was a well-known figure at CHE conferences. The law reform committee work involved drafting policy papers including CHE’s evidence to the Criminal Law Revision Committee’s inquiry into the age of consent, and lobbying Parliament on legislation affecting lesbians and gay men, such as the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 which covered soliciting. The committee met regularly each month from 1977 to 1989 and Peter’s contribution and legal expertise were central to this work.
In 1977 he became the legal officer of Justice, the International Commission of Jurists.
In 1978 Peter was contacted by the Dutch gay group COC to discuss setting up an international gay rights association. The resulting meeting at the CHE Conference in Coventry in August 1978, attended by activists from 14 different countries, led to the setting up of the International Gay Association (now the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, ILGA. Peter played a leading part in defining its goals and work programme which involved lobbying the European Commission, MEPs, and members of the Council of Europe. He continued to provide advice and support through the 1980s and 90s.
He was a member of the legal team in the case of Dudgeon v the United Kingdom before the European Court of Human Rights. Together with Paul Crane, another lawyer and CHE member, he was responsible for preparing the legal arguments underlying the case. After four years of argument culminating in the presentation to the court in Strasbourg by barristers Lord Gifford and Terry Munyard (another CHE member) this resulted in the historic judgment in 1981 that the right to a private life under Article 8 of the European Convention includes the right to a private sex life, the first time that gay rights were recognised by any international human rights tribunal, and paved the way for other highly significant judgments in the ECHR. The Court's decision led to the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Northern Ireland, and ultimately to decriminalisation throughout Europe.
In 1989 he played a significant part in setting up Stonewall as a full-time lobbying organisation in response to the passing of Section 28. For the first six months of Stonewall’s existence it operated from the front room of his house in Islington.
Peter’s other work for gay rights included taking cases to the European Court on the armed forces, and arguing for an equal age of consent (for which CHE member Richard Desmond bravely put himself forward as a seventeen year old test case). Peter was involved in persuading the UK Charity Commission to agree that explicitly gay organisations could be given charitable status in law: London Friend was one of the first charities to benefit from this.
Peter also worked for several years for Justice, the organisation dealing with miscarriages of justice, taking up cases of immigration and prisoners’ rights. In 1982 he put forward the idea for a television documentary series investigating such miscarriages; this led to the BBC series Rough Justice; he became a familiar figure on the programme and provided a number of case studies. It played a role in securing the release from prison of 18 people and is widely credited with the eventual establishment of the official body to review miscarriages of justice.
Subsequently Peter’s career took him to Brussels where in 1992 he set up the European Human Rights Foundation and was an adviser to the European Commission, before in 2004 returning to London as a human rights adviser to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. In that capacity he drafted a programme for British embassies abroad to promote the rights of LGBT people around the world. It provided an example for the development of similar programmes by the EU and the US State Department.
His friend and long-term collaborator in CHE and ILGA, Nigel Warner, has spoken of Peter’s “extraordinary understanding of how things worked and how to get things done”, his “extraordinary generosity and patience in supporting and mentoring others” and his “quite irrepressible optimism that, however worrying the immediate circumstances, eventually things would come right. This kept him working patiently and positively for LGBT rights all through the dark years of the 1980s. ... His personal commitment to fighting injustice ... could go well beyond just providing legal support: he was willing if need be to take significant personal risks to help others.”
- http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/mar/20/peter-ashman Obituary in The Guardian, 20 March 2014.
- http://www.ilga-europe.org/home/news/latest/peter_ashman Nigel Warner, "Peter Ashman - an important figure in the founding of ILGA" ILGA Europe.
- http://andyquan.com/vale-peter-ashman/ Andy Quan, "Vale Peter Ashman".
Partly based on the article by Nick Billingham in the CHE Annual Report 2013-2014.