General Assembly President Ashe calls for UN reforms

The Road to the Post-2015 Development Agenda

MediaGlobal Bureau Chief Nosh Nalavala interviews the President of the General Assembly John W. Ashe

Photographs and transcription by Jessica Karcz and videography by Ang Chen.

Nosh Nalavala: Your Excellency, a mere 18 months from now, the United Nations will launch its agenda for articulating the relationship between “humankind and our physical environment.” You stated, “the agenda must be completely and wholly universal.” I presume you mean the Post-2015 Development Agenda? It sounds like an overarching agenda. Could you tell us in simple terms what you mean by that?

John Ashe: Well the key driver in any developing agenda going forward would be the eradication of extreme poverty as we currently know it, and so in putting together a development agenda that has to be front and center. It cannot be development for development’s sake. We do have other concerns that we would need to address. First and foremost, there is the environment and what we need to do about that. So going forward I think we should be looking toward a sustainable development agenda. An agenda whereby development is done in a holistic way where we do have the concerns for the environment addressed and ultimately, which was the goal of the whole process, is that we leave for future generations a planet that they can inhabit.

Q: You have indicated that we must draw on the lessons learned — from the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), both in terms of results achieved and opportunities missed. Could you elaborate on the achievements, and more importantly missed opportunities?

A: For one thing, regarding the Millennium Goals we had hoped that we would achieve all eight including the targets associated with them by 2015. Clearly that will not be the case. There have been some achievements, for instance, we have done significant progress in issues of poverty, although extreme poverty still remains with us. We would probably largely meet the education goal. As we go forward we need to look at what we did wrong and make the corrections whether it is midcourse, end course, so whatever we put in place for the Post-2015 period, we do not repeat the same mistakes.

Q: . . . and the missed opportunities you refer to?

A: We missed an opportunity back in 2008 when we were unexpectedly hit by the financial crisis. I think that crisis significantly derailed the progress and countries largely abandoned efforts to meet the goals and focused on other things. I think given the importance of these goals and what they mean in the long term I think we should avoid losing focus on the future. Whatever we put in place should be such that we can focus on them and achieve them given the time frame. Looking back, some would say that some of the targets that we set were a tad unrealistic, so we need more realistic goals and more realistic targets.

Q: Overcoming poverty and insecurity and ensuring sustainable development have been age-old challenges, yet they are being termed by you as “new and emerging development challenges.”

A: What is happening is that those challenges have existed, and perhaps will exist as we go forward. This has to do with one of your favourite topics: climate change. I think this has cast a new light on some of the challenges that we currently know and some that we are yet to face. We now know that if the sea rises by a certain amount, as predicted by the scientific panel, and we see a bit of that exactly one year ago, as in New York, when Superstorm Sandy came ashore with almost 14-foot waves that flooded and took out the power in major parts of the city, they are saying that some parts of the city have not recovered even a year later. With that overlay, climate change is now beginning to take on a new urgency. I think the challenges will, if they are not new, will certainly be multiplied.

Q: Many of the outcomes of the Rio de Janeiro United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development are expected to come to fruition, as claimed by your predecessor. The Conference in Rio did not bring about any tangible resolutions for Small Island Development States (SIDS). Could you please explain?

A: What was being referred to was in the 68th Session and beyond — some of the outcomes will come to fruition. For example, three things that Rio pronounced on: one was the need to put in place sustainable development goals, and a process has now been put in place and that is supposed to come to pass at the beginning of the 69th session. It also calls for a process that looks at financing for sustainable development in the long term and that process has been set up. They are both intergovernmental processes, unlike the MDGs, which were developed elsewhere, and the member states were asked to accept them. The third thing, with respect to SIDS, in all fairness, Rio was not about them, but Rio endorsed a conference specifically for them and that conference will be held at the end of August beginning of September 2014 in Samoa. I think there were some significant outcomes that are on stream and will come to fruition by September of 2014.

Q: You have declared the theme of the 68th Session, as well as that of the annual general debate of the General Assembly, to be “The Post-2015 Development Agenda: Setting the Stage.” How are you as President of the GA setting the stage for the road ahead, especially in terms of the climate agenda?

A: I don’t think any President of the GA can do that if you are referring to the climate agenda. Back in the late 80s the GA took a decision to set up a negotiated track that is the UN Triple C. The negotiations are held outside the GA and a decision was taken to have a comprehensive agreement by 2015. That is a parallel track that has nothing to do with the Post-2015 Development agenda. It would be naive if we were not paying attention to what is happening on that track because we have the same set of member-states. It is unlikely they will move forward elsewhere and lag significantly somewhere else. Even though the climate change negotiations are discussed elsewhere, the same member-states are participating toward putting together a development agenda.

Q: Toward the road to Paris climate talks, isn’t climate agenda an overarching priority in the Post-2015 Development agenda?

A: If the General Assembly sitting here in New York deliberating on what is happening first in Peru this year, Lima maybe, and then a year later in Paris? No, but yes, they would certainly be keeping an eye on progress there, and that could affect some of the progress here. There is a link, but I think the link is more casual rather than direct.

Q: As part of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States, the Caribbean Community, and your own regional group, the Group of Latin American and Caribbean States, what are your concerns about the impact of climate change on developing countries, particularly Small Island Developing States?

A: There is a chair that takes care of these issues. The larger point, is climate change a concern? I am from a SIDS Antigua and Barbuda area and I used to be heavily involved in the climate change negotiations. When I left in 2010, I was the chair of the Ad Hoc working group in the Kyoto Protocol. Now as president of the GA I cannot be involved in a specific issue, but yes I am mindful of what goes on in the negotiations. As a matter a fact I will be in Warsaw to address the opening of the high-level segment.

Q: You have advocated three thematic debates: the role of partnerships; ensuring stable and peaceful societies; and water, sanitation and sustainable energy in the post-2015 development agenda. Where do you position climate change in the post-2015 agenda?

A: As president of GA I try not to focus on a specific interest group, but having said that, we do need to be careful. The reason why the GA took the decision back in 1988 to set up a separate negotiating track is because the member-states still do believe, that that will be the best way to advance that cause, to address those issues in a specific forum rather than as part of the GA’s agenda. Ultimately of course, we all know what goes on there and climate change is dealt with in some way, shape, or form. I think it would be foolhardy to now try and bring the discussion on climate change when there is a separate track for it, there is a separate agenda for it, and there is a separate timetable for it, back into a discussion for the Post-2015 Development agenda.

Q: But it will help the Agenda . . .

A: I don’t think we would advance the cause there, and I think we would do great harm to the Post-2015 Development agenda, at least at the elements of it, if we were to embed climate change within that. Having said that though, I am sure you are aware the Secretary-General himself has announced an initiative that will take place at the start of the 69thsession when he will convene heads of state and government in a discussion on climate change. His goal and he made no secret of this, is to give impetus to the negotiations but not to subsume them and to take them on.

Q: As a diplomat from Antigua and Barbuda, the adaptation measures from the climate change programme of action from your country, do you feel that SIDS who are suffering from the impact of climate change can take any lessons from how your country has adapted to climate change?

A: I think the question of adaptation is not country specific, the measures of course would have to be applied over a long term and one of the things that has belaboured adaptation has been the implementation of it, because of the lack of funding. Having said that, several funding streams have been set up including the Global Environmental Facility and of course we now know that plans are in place to set up a Climate Fund that is supposed to be several billions by 2020. Whether or not we actually get there, we will see in due course. There are some inherent problems but countries are taking action, perhaps small steps. We in the Caribbean are somewhat fortunate, unlike our colleagues in the Pacific where you have atolls, very low-lying areas, and in some cases below sea level. The urgency, although it does exist, you get a different perspective when one looks at what happens in the Pacific compared to what happens to the Caribbean in terms of sea-level rise.

Q: The underlying themes of your presidency are the contribution of women, the young and civil society, human rights and the rule of law, and the contribution of South-South and triangular cooperation, and information and communication technologies for development to the Post-2015 Development agenda. Based on the commitments made by developed countries at the Istanbul Programme of Action, what is your expectation from these countries toward vulnerable countries? Do you see a North-South dialogue and how will South-South Cooperation be a success?

A: To be fair, it would be incorrect to make a blanket statement about commitments and who has made them. It is true across the board, developed countries have not lived up to their commitments, but if one looks, at least some of them (particularly in Northern countries) they have exceeded their particular commitments. It is true, as a group they have fallen far short of the commitments they have made, and they probably will make future commitments that we know they will not keep. That is not to say that one should simply give up hope. I think those commitments are needed and certainly my colleagues in the developing country group will certainly insist on them. Increasingly it is beginning to be seen that more and more countries are going to have to depend on their own domestic resources to implement their development activities.

Q: Do you see an imbalance between the North-South dialogue and your emphasis on the success of South-South cooperation?

A: That is an interesting question, I think there are two things — there is the South-South, the North-South and Triangular cooperation. Both are proceeding but I think more and more we are beginning to see South-South cooperation, and perhaps long term, that is what we should have expected. No one should have expected that the North would simply pull money to the South. There are countries that are called emerging countries India, Brazil, and so on, and they are beginning to emphasize North-South-South cooperation. Perhaps we are now approaching an equilibrium point where they will both be equal. I don’t think one should dominate the other, and I don’t think the North-South Triangular Cooperation should disappear. I think each has an important role to play and as part of a greater cooperation effort, you should have both.

Q: You have called for reform to revitalize the United Nations and the GA’s work programme. What exactly do you mean?

A: I did preface that by saying that any organizations that does not perform dies. You cannot have an organization as large as this one, and certainly one that has such an important role to play, where every member-state has a voice, and more importantly, when it comes to voting, has one vote. In other words Antigua and Barbuda’s vote counts the same as that of the United States in the GA, it is different of course in the Security Council (SC). You simply can’t be doing business the same old way day in and day out, you have to adapt, and to adapt you have to reform. There is a broad view of the organization, the need for it to adapt current and emerging times, and to do so it has to reform and constantly reform.

Q: So what are you specifically asking in terms of reform, because it is a very important call for the UN to reform. What you are actually saying is that it desperately needs to be reformed otherwise it will fail in several different aspects of its working?

A: I wouldn’t say desperately needs. I am saying that reform ought to be part of the way we do business. For example, there is absolutely no reason why we should keep adding new programmes without examining the impact of those that we have agreed to and whether or not they are still viable. A second way, and it will be forced upon us if we don’t address it, we simply have less money to do more things and so we are going to have to establish priorities and to do that we are going to need to do things differently or more efficiently hence some sort of reform is needed.

Q: On the debate on NEPAD (New Partnership for Africa’s Development) you said “experts now agree that Africa offers the most promising prospects for economic growth in the world, with Sub-Saharan Africa as the second fastest-growing region.” In fact, the Sub-Saharan region has suffered from several constraints and many countries are still nowhere close to achieving the MDGs and lack of political governance is creating instability. Do you truly believe that NEPAD is a success considering that it has marginal representation at the UN?

A: The economic growth aspect to what I was referring to happens to be true but there are other constraints, governance, and you pointed to some of them, and perhaps having a voice on international forums, those constraints still exist.

Q: In what ways is NEPAD successful?

A: For example, as a body focused on the development of Africa I think it has made great strides. They have put in place a voluntary mechanism that is now ten years old. I think about 33 countries have signed on to it. They are an independent body free from political interference. I think they are putting in place a number of mechanisms that will ultimately benefit individual countries.

Q:  I wanted to know your thoughts on what MediaGlobal News is trying to do, bringing young people from all over the world and putting together courses in journalism, development issues and climate education (we have been doing it for 8 years). Do you have any thoughts on that?

A: I think it is a noble effort and I think it is one that you should continue, and you should be encouraged to continue. No matter what our views are, whether we accept climate change or we deny that it exists, evidence is all around us and ultimately we are talking about the future, because these are future events, the events that will happen in the future. Clearly the people that you ought to be addressing are the young because they are the ones that will inherit the future, and if you can educate and more importantly provide them with the tools to educate others then I think it is a noble thing that should to be continued.


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