Interview with John W. Ashe, President of the 68th session of the General Assembly

John W. Ashe, President of the 68th General Assembly. UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

20 September 2013 – On 18 September 2013, John W. Ashe of Antigua and Barbuda took the gavel as the President of the 68th session of the General Assembly, the main deliberative, policymaking and representative organ of the United Nations. Comprising all 193 Member States of the Organization, it provides the only forum for multilateral discussion of the full spectrum of international issues covered by the UN Charter.

Following his election as Assembly President on 14 June, Mr. Ashe and his team outlined their priorities for the session under a theme entitled, “The Post-2015 Development Agenda: Setting the Stage!.” Under it, he is encouraging Member States and other stakeholders to promote dialogue, reflection and commitment to the formulation of an effective new agenda to overcome poverty and insecurity and ensure sustainable development, to be launched during the 69th session following the 2015 deadline of the current Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Prior to his assumption of the Assembly Presidency, Mr. Ashe served simultaneously as his country’s Permanent Representative to both the United Nations and the World Trade Organization, positions he held since 2004. He has served in a leadership capacity on many of the governing bodies of the major UN environmental agreements, including as the first Chairman of the Executive Board of the Clean Development Mechanism of the Kyoto Protocol to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).  He holds a Doctorate in Bioengineering. 

The UN News Centre spoke to Mr. Ashe on the eve of the General Assembly’s annual general debateOne can not overemphasize the importance [of the general debate] and the need to hear from the heads of State and Government themselves on how they see the post-2015 development agenda emerging, when Heads of State and Government and other high-level officials gather to present their views about pressing world and national issues.

UN News Centre: Mr. Ashe, you’ve spoken extensively of your priorities and aspirations for the 68th session of the General Assembly.  Now that you’ve actually taken the gavel and are about to host some 90 heads of State and Government and many other world officials, has your perspective changed?

John Ashe: Well, if it has changed it has been brought more sharply into focus, now that the day is actually here.  We do hope that when the heads of State and Government are here, that they will indeed address the theme that I have identified.

UN News Centre: Yes, you have put a lot of effort into creating the focus for this session, “Setting the Stage,” for the post-2015 development agenda.  How do you see your role in keeping that focus?   To inspire, seek consensus, guide?  Because the focus can wander.

John Ashe: Well, as it ought to, given that we have other pressing concerns.  But the short answer to that is that one has to be a mixture of all three – you have to inspire, you have to seek consensus and, of course, you have to make accommodations for the vagaries of the position.

John Ashe greets Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (right) ahead of the opening of the 68th Session of the UN General Assembly. UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

UN News Centre: Has your office communicated with world leaders coming to the general debate to encourage them to address this theme?

John Ashe: Well, at the end of the day you’re dealing with sovereign countries and their respective heads of State and Government.  So it’s impossible to dictate what they should speak about. The usual way of communicating is with their representatives here in New York.  And the short answer to that is, yes I have done so.  But ultimately, a head of State and Government has 15 minutes of fame and I’m sure they intend to fully use those 15 minutes to speak on virtually anything they so choose.

UN News Centre: Have you gotten feedback on willingness to take up the theme?

John Ashe: Well, as I said you’re dealing with sovereign countries, so it’s not a give and take.  But let’s just say that from the representative level here in New York, the response has been positive. 

UN News Centre: How would you describe the function of the general debate in accomplishing the priorities of the entire session? 

Mr. Ashe accepts the gavel from outgoing General Assembly President Vuk Jeremic (centre) at the final plenary meeting of the 67th Session. UN Photo/Evan Schneider

John Ashe: Well, this is an opportunity to hear from the highest levels of Government on how they see the post-2015 development agenda emerging.  So, it’s an important time frame for us to get, as we would say, in my days as a Permanent Representative, guidance from our heads. So that’s why it becomes important. So one can not overemphasize that importance and the need to hear from the heads of State and Government themselves, on how they see the post-2015 development agenda emerging.

UN News Centre: Since Rio+20 (2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development), there’s been a lot of input on the post-2015 agenda, we’ve had global consultations, conferences in such bodies as the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and other activities.  Do you see any consensus building at this point?

John Ashe: Well, I don’t think that the intent is to arrive at consensus at the outset.  The intent, I hope, is to identify a common set of parameters on which everyone can agree ought to be included in any agenda, and then working to shape them in a way that people can ultimately find consensus.

UN News Centre:  Do you see any elements at all that seem to be common to all the input that we’ve had so far?

Mr. Ashe addresses attendees at the Peace Bell Ceremony on the occasion of the International Day of Peace 2013. UNTV

John Ashe: Well, there are different strands of work that are ongoing. Two, which I’m sure you’re familiar with, have to do with the sustainable development goals – that would be a very important exercise – and currently, we just started discussions at the intergovernmental level on financing, or what is generally known as the means of implementation, which is also an important plank going forward.  The outputs of these exercises will come to the General Assembly at the start of the 69th session and that would be an important time period, I think, to start pulling everything together. 

UN News Centre:  Do you see an interest in integrating the resulting targets into a more comprehensive approach in response to criticisms of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that they were kept too separate?

John Ashe: Well, I must admit I hadn’t heard – I’ve heard other complaints but not that specific one – but more importantly, I think what we have now put in place is substantially different from what was put in place for the Millennium Development Goals.  There the approach was more top down.  Here, they’re trying to have a more bottom up approach.  So you have many bosses, some of course not in agreement, but what one hopes is that there will be a core set of goals identified at the end of the period that we can all agree on, and it can make up for the perceived shortcomings of the Millennium Development Goals.

UN News Centre: How would you like to see the relationship between the General Assembly and the Security Council develop under your session?

Mr. Ashe, as Co-Chair of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20), with Maurice Strong, Secretary-General of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. UN Photo/Maria Elisa Franco

John Ashe: Well, I hope it will be a cordial and collegiate one.  Of course, there are differences between the two bodies.  One has a certain cachet, so to speak, and the other is a more deliberative type of body. At the end of the day, they have their separate responsibilities and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future.

UN News Centre: On Syria, in particular, has any consensus developed on how it can be addressed in the General Assembly?

John Ashe: Well, as you know, the matter of Syria, at least currently, is being dealt with by the Security Council, where rightfully it does belong, because you’re talking ultimately about action under Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations.  That’s solely within the purview of the Security Council.  If and when the matter comes before the General Assembly, then I’m sure we will deal with it accordingly. 

UN News Centre:  Do you think there is any kind of Security Council reform that could make the relationship with the Assembly more effective?

Mr. Ashe, as Permanent Representative of Antigua and Barbuda, speaking on behalf of the Group of 77 and China at a General Assembly thematic debate on climate change. UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

John Ashe: On the overall question of Security Council reform, there is no shortage of ideas.  There are quite a few.  Where the difficulty lies is in getting Member States to agree on a core set of ideas, and that’s what I’m hoping to turn my attention to this session.

UN News Centre: You’ve spoken before of your turn from medicine to diplomacy as a career interest, because you thought you could help people with survival and well-being just as effectively. Will this mean that you’ll have a focus on the well-being of individuals and communities during the session?

John Ashe: Well, that has always been a goal of mine and perhaps that is why I drifted into sustainable development as a core area, given the potential to do something that would benefit future generations.  I don’t think that that will change during my tenure as President of the General Assembly. 

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