Tribute to debt relief champion

Bill Peters
Bill Peters

A remarkable Morpeth diplomat, who inspired former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, has died at the age of 90.

William (Bill) Peters CMG CVO MBE, distinguished diplomat and debt campaigner extraordinary, died peacefully in the early hours of March 29.

In 2000, Mr Peters wrote: ‘I became aware of the debt crisis in Malawi in 1983. I resolved to work tirelessly to bring world wide awakening to the sheer injustice and error involved.’ That was a resolution he kept – with a vengeance.

Bill Peters was born on September 28, 1923, in Morpeth, the son of a cabinet maker and a light opera singer. He attended King Edward VI Grammar School, before going up to Oxford at the age of 17. The war intervened and he saw active service in Burma with the Ghurkhas and met a number of Tibetans. This was the beginning of a lifelong association with both.

With the close of the war, Mr Peters completed his studies and entered the Diplomatic Service. His many postings included one in Ghana, where he once spoke to schoolchildren and encouraged them to aim high. Among those inspired was a young Kofi Annan, who later as Secretary General of the United Nations, told Mr Peters he still remembered hearing him.

Mr Peters proved to be an outstanding diplomat, eventually becoming Ambassador to Uruguay, where he exposed himself to danger by visiting political prisoners, and High Commissioner to Malawi.

The latter position was to lead to the supreme achievements of his life, since for many years after he retired in 1983, ‘he campaigned almost single-handedly among distinguished people for debt remission, traversing the world several times in pursuit of his mission. Bill had a very special role as a pillar of the Jubilee organisation in financial, administrative, and policy matters. He has an amazing capacity to use the experience of his diplomatic life, and the obvious respect in which he is held, to make contacts with people who carry weight in decision-making, and to put the cause of poorer nations before them.’ (Lambeth Degree Citation, 2001)

During the early 1990s, Mr Peters linked up with Martin Dent OBE, who was to become his close friend and colleague, and who had formed a Jubilee 2000 group at Keele University. Their association with Isobel Carter (Tearfund), Ann Pettifor (Debt Crisis Network), and others led to the launch of Jubilee 2000 as a national and international campaign in April 1996.

The following year this blossomed into the Jubilee Debt Coalition, a wide and powerful grouping, which included churches and faith groups, aid agencies, the BMA and the TUC. Messrs Peters and Dent were the Vice-Presidents.

Grassroots activists were committed to the continuation of the debt campaign after 2000, fearing that the promises made by politicians and creditors would be forgotten or diluted without a vociferous body of campaigners. We were greatly buoyed up by the Vice-Presidents’ support. Indeed, the structure of the Jubilee Debt Campaign, which re-launched in 2001, was strongly supported by the pair who became founding board members.

In the same year, Mr Peters was awarded a Lambeth Degree (the degree of Master of Letters) by the Archbishop of Canterbury. He also received the Gandhi International Peace Award for his contribution to the campaign.

Mr Peters was predeceased by his first wife Catherine (Kit), whom he had married in 1944 and who died in 1998. In 2004, he married Gillian Casebourne and is survived by Gill and her two daughters.

He was buried on Friday.

By Dr David Golding CBE and Roger Chisnall, Jubilee Debt Campaign