Dr J. Peter Greaves − A Tribute  

Dr J. Peter Greaves


To comprehend the devastation that was wrought by the génocidaires of Rwanda, few reports are as informative as that produced by UNICEF.  Called “Starting from Zero”, it describes the consequences of the crime of genocide on the country’s children. In the aftermath, an estimated 100,000 children were lost — separated from their families, orphaned, abducted, or abandoned.  Most of Rwanda’s children had witnessed extreme forms of brutality, and 90 per cent of them had at some point thought they would die. Most children felt they had no future and did not believe that they would live to become adults. An estimated 300,000 children were murdered and 300 children, some less than ten years old, were accused of genocide.  The overall death toll in the genocide of the Tutsi, April-July 1994 is one million people.

The focus for UNICEF was the country’s children, and a team arriving in July found a country looted and destroyed, ransacked by the retreating genocidal forces of Hutu Power.  In the capital Kigali, from a previous population of 300,000 people, some 50,000 people were left alive. Lacking adequate food and water, they were terrorized and traumatised. The schools and churches where victims sought shelter were massacre sites.

“Starting from Zero” recounts the efforts of a UNICEF team to help and protect children in Rwanda between July 1994-December 1996. Nigel Fisher was the UNICEF Representative with a team that was housed in what had been Kigali’s most prestigious office building, quickly abandoned by World Bank officials in April. Daniel Toole, the Deputy Representative recalled the extraordinary post-genocide Western policies, the reluctance to provide funding for the country, and an insistence that Rwanda should “get over the genocide” and hold elections.

Peter Greaves was serving the last years of a distinguished career at UNICEF headquarters in New York. A steadying presence, the team in Rwanda was grateful for his support, and Dan Toole was reassured. In those terrible months Peter had provided calm, direct technical, and moral support for a team operating in the world’s most challenging circumstance.  No one was more dependable than Peter, and Toole continued a long and lasting friendship with him long after his posting in Rwanda.

When Peter Greaves died on December 16, 2021, Dan Toole wrote:

“We have lost a staunch believer in the good that drives people, a crusader against the bad and even evil in this world and a strong spokesman and friend of children, the poor and the forgotten of this world… I tried to live up to his example.”

I met Peter Greaves in July 1996 after he had retired. I was two years into my research into the circumstances of the genocide of the Tutsi and Peter made sure I obtained copies of the crucial UNICEF reports. [1] Peter became a staunch ally. He was aware of the world’s indifference in those terrible months in 1994. He had read the erroneous press reports of “tribal warfare” the news coverage that contributed to the inaction. Peter realised the negligence of governments in the Security Council, who so casually abandoned a UN peacekeeping mission in the direst conditions and without resupply.[2] In those three terrible months not one country called on the perpetrators, the génocidaires, to stop the massacres. This was a preventable genocide, and a moral test everyone failed.  At the outset, all that had been required was a reasonably sized militarised force with a strong mandate and sufficient means.

When others failed to do so, Peter spoke out about the UK government’s own failure over Rwanda. He wrote letters to parliamentarians, journalists, and others to explain that this genocide was not a blip in history. It was a milestone event of the twentieth century.

One letter went to the Labour Party MP Tony Lloyd. In November 1997 Lloyd was a Minister of State at the Foreign Office and had given a talk to the Westminster Branch of the UN Association (UNA-UK), describing a “massacre” in Rwanda. Peter wrote to query why Lloyd had failed to use the word genocide and had sought to lay the blame for the tragedy on the UN for its inadequacy, and not those governments making crucial decisions in the Security Council, including the UK. The UK had a sacred trust, as one of the five permanent members of the Security Council. Peter wrote: “Unless we are prepared to fully understand what really happened, we would be unlikely to be able to prevent anything so terrible from ever happening again”.

Peter worked for most of his life for UNICEF.  He was a world expert on micronutrients and had been head of the UNICEF Nutrition Section. Dan Toole said it was his luck to work with Peter, recognising his dedication, his determination and clarity of vision. Peter was legendary for having recognised – with children dying from the ravages of wholly preventable infectious diseases — the critical and central importance of a handful of low-cost interventions including immunisation, oral rehydration, and breastfeeding.

Because of its catastrophic impact on child and maternal survival and development, the scourge of malnutrition was considered a significant global problem and in 1989 the UNICEF Executive Board had requested the Executive Director to submit to its next session a policy strategy for the improved nutrition of mothers and children in the developing world (E/ICEF/1989/12, decision 1989/12.)  [3] The strategy adopted in 1990 was thanks in large part to the field work in Tanzania, India and elsewhere, distilled by the nutrition team in New York of which Peter Greaves was a key player. The current UNICEF Nutrition Strategy (2020–2030) is guided by UNICEF’s Conceptual Framework on the Determinants of Maternal and Child Nutrition devised at this time.

The son of Methodist missionaries, a large part of his childhood was spent in Kenya. He had a degree in biochemistry from Cambridge, and a PhD at the University of London. Peter had initially joined the British Nutrition Foundation and later the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), and posted first to Cairo, and then to Delhi, India.  Peter left the FAO to join UNICEF and was appointed head of UNICEF’s Regional Office for South America. In Brazil he created a programme for street children in Rio, providing education, ‘safe’ part-time work, a safe place to sleep, and a hot meal. In 1983, with a colleague Roger Shrimpton, he developed and implemented a primary health care plan to tackle the appalling infant mortality rate in the poorest Brazilian state, Maranhão. This achieved a 33% reduction in infant mortality.

Afterwards, in UNICEF headquarters in New York Peter had helped formulate global initiatives to improve breastfeeding practices. The Ten Steps to Successful Breastfeeding  became the basis for the Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative (BFHI).

“He was the diplomat, the counsellor, to whom each of us ran to when the going got tough, the real backbone, the glue, that held the Nutrition Section together”, the maternal health and nutrition expert Margaret Kyenkya-Isabirye recalled. When global standards were under negotiation between UNICEF and the WHO, Peter had originated and edited every document produced. The draft of the eventual Innocenti Declaration for Protection, Promotion and Support of Breastfeeding (1990) was produced by Peter in two hours.

“I watched in awe, as he proceeded to calmly and diplomatically get all the bickering parties to sign off on the document that was finally printed. And he smiled and told stories through it all. His intellect, honesty, kindness, all with a humble approach was a gift to all of us.”

After his retirement, Peter was engaged in research, writing, teaching, mentoring and activism. He campaigned against the multinational food conglomerate Nestlé, offering help to those trying to protect whole communities from violations of the international codes of conduct regulating the marketing of baby milk. Peter was a voice of conscience. He could be relied upon to ask the inconvenient questions.

“Peter gave guidance in a uniquely subtle way, and never pompous was always modest”, said Gabrielle Palmer, the author of the best-selling and powerful Politics of Breastfeeding, first published in 1988, and in its third edition. Peter had been a steadfast friend. He was a supporter of all righteous causes, she said.

Patti Randall, the director of the campaign, Baby Milk Action and IBFAN (the International Baby Food Action Network) – encompassing more than 270 citizens groups in more than 160 countries — enjoyed decades of support from Peter as advisor, supporter, networker, proof-reader, and campaigner.

“Peter’s impact on our campaign was invariably behind the scenes but hugely effective, not least because he understood that misleading and predatory marketing has to be stopped”, said Patti.

Peter was never blind to the world’s harsh realities. And he never wavered in his faith in international cooperation, one of the world’s most difficult endeavours, and yet the world’s only hope.  Peter was scathing of the project to remove the UK from the European Union and took to the streets to demonstrate against it. Peter was an environmentalist before it was fashionable, and he was Greta Thunberg’s most enthusiastic fan. A good and compassionate man, Peter was decent, gentle, and honourable.

[1] See chapter 18 “Starting from Zero”, in “A People Betrayed.” (Zed Book 2000/Revised 2009).

[2] See Linda Melvern:  United Nations Observer Mission Uganda-Rwanda (UNOMUR) and United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda 1 (UNAMIR 1) United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda II (UNAMIR II) The Oxford Handbook of United Nations Peacekeeping Operations. Edited by Joachim A. Koops, Norrie Macqueen, Thierry Tardy, Paul D. Williams.  OUP 2015

[3] The Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted by the General Assembly on 20 November 1989, brought together, for the first time, all rights related to the survival, development, and protection and participation of children.