Caribbean U.N. diplomat forged ambitious development agenda

President of the 68th Session of the United Nations General Assembly John Ashe, from Antigua and Barbuda, speaks during the 68th United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday Sept. 24, 2013.
President of the 68th Session of the United Nations General Assembly John Ashe, from Antigua and Barbuda, speaks during the 68th United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday Sept. 24, 2013. AP

As world leaders gather Tuesday for a global conference on climate change, a veteran diplomat from a small Caribbean island will be among them — but as a civilian.

John William Ashe, once the ambassador of Antigua and Barbuda to the United Nations and now the outgoing president of the U.N. General Assembly, has been invited to participate in the U.N. Climate Summit ahead of a week of debate by leaders from almost 140 countries.

During his term, Ashe’s U.N. colleagues say, he moved the General Assembly closer to completing work on a forward-looking agenda for poverty reduction and economic growth through sustainable, environmentally conscious development. Some of them noted Ashe’s work as a mark of prominence for the Caribbean’s presence around the world.

“President Ashe has been extraordinary in addressing the concerns of small island states,” said Michael Mitchell, a Grenada national and senior advisor with the Joint Office for Commonwealth Permanent Missions to the United Nations, a grouping of small British Commonwealth nations. “His sense of professionalism in dealing with the diversity of the world representation is a credit to all Caribbean people.”

Mitchell was among more than 100 attendees at a reception for Ashe last week, when fellow ambassadors joined U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to wish the Antiguan well.

Of the theme Ashe chose for the last General Assembly session — “Post-2015 Development Agenda: Setting the Stage!” — Ban said: “He set the stage, he kept his word, and he’s leaving us just a few remaining points so that his successor can finalize this.”

At the official opening of the General Assembly’s 69th session, Ambassador Sam Kahamba Kutesa of Uganda, the incoming General Assembly president, said Ashe “worked tirelessly” on the development agenda and promised the final product would be “transformative, brings tangible benefits [and] leads to improved livelihoods for all.”

The post-2015 development agenda to eradicate poverty builds on an eight-point plan for U.N. members, known as the Millennium Development Goals. With a deadline of Dec. 31, 2015, few nations are expected to meet all eight goals, according to the latest report on the plan’s progress.

However, the post-2015 agenda is more inclusive of nations with special considerations and regional vulnerabilities, which some have credited to Ashe’s national origin.

“It’s not easy to get all these governments in an open working group to agree,” said Alicia Barcena, executive secretary of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. “I think John Ashe was instrumental for that purpose.”

Development is hardly the only topic world leaders will tackle this week. Along with climate change, the crises in Syria and Iraq — the U.S. will host a Security Council briefing on threats to international peace caused by foreign terrorists — Ukraine and Palestine are expected to come up frequently during speeches by the world leaders who will address the assembly.

In the regular work of the General Assembly, there are a number of items that roll over from previous year, as was the case during Ashe’s term. He told the Miami Herald last week that an unexpected resolution to establish a Nelson Mandela Prize, following the death of the former South African leader in December, was something he was pleased to bring about.

“My fond hope is that within 10 years, this prize would be equivalent to if the U.N. hands out the Nobel Peace Prize,” Ashe said.

Ashe believes he has left Kutesa a “clean slate” to begin his term. With the pressure now on his successor, Ashe said he is comfortable being a spectator.

“I will be keeping an eye and interest on what is happening here, particularly in the near term with the post-2015 development agenda,” he said.

He said he would not return to his post as ambassador of Antigua and Barbuda, and had not decided what he would do next.

The irony is not lost on Ashe that he is attending Tuesday’s climate change meeting during his first full week as “Citizen John.” Last year, he told the Miami Herald that the issue of the environment was what sold him on a career as a diplomat 25 years ago.

Today, he is more interested in helping his two teenage sons with their math homework. Ashe was a math major as an undergrad and, much in the way he used his environmental science background to inform his work on the post-2015 development agenda, his next long-term project will be to oversee his sons’ academic success.

“It’s important that my kids do well in math,” he said. “They can do whatever else they want in the other subjects. I’ll leave that to my wife.”