John Ashe UNGA

Kourosh Ziabari – Tehran Times: The President of the 68th session of the United Nations General Assembly said in an exclusive interview with Tehran Times that any nuclear agreement between Iran and the six world powers that can address the concerns of the international community should be welcomed by everyone.

According to John W. Ashe, the economic sanctions imposed on Iran by the United States and its allies are destructive and cannot be considered helpful as long as they complicate the livelihoods of the innocent people.

On the humanitarian situation of Syria, Mr. Ashe believes that the UN is facing a problem which is the lack of access to humanitarian relief. He however hopes that those who have caused such problems and humanitarian catastrophes in Syria would be brought to justice one day.

John William Ashe was elected the President of the United Nations General Assembly in December 2011 by the consensus of all the 33 GRULAC countries. GRULAC is the bloc of Latin American and Caribbean nations at the UN General Assembly. Since he was chosen unanimously, no public voting was needed to secure his appointment as the President of the General Assembly.

The Antiguan diplomat was the ambassador to the United Nations for Antigua and Barbuda since 2004. He has also held his country’s ambassadorship to the World Trade Organization. From 1989 to 1995, he worked at Antigua and Barbuda’s permanent mission to the UN, holding different positions including the Scientific Attaché, Counselor and Minister Counselor.

John W. Ashe has presented several initiatives for the empowerment and development of the General Assembly and has masterminded several efforts for the realization of the UN Millennium Development Goals. Millennium Development Goals, known as MDGs, are eight international development goals established following the Millennium Summit of the United Nations in 2000.

Mr. Ashe took part in an exclusive interview with Tehran Times and responded to our questions about the UNGA’s plans for the eradication of poverty, promoting gender equality, post-2015 development agenda, the growth of xenophobia and Islamophobia, the Syrian crisis and Iran’s nuclear program. What follows is the text of the interview.

Q: How much of the UN Millennium Development Goals are possible to be realized having in mind that we have one year to 2015 and there are some goals that are still left unaccomplished, such as halving the number of people living below the poverty line or eliminating gender disparity. How much is it possible for the United Nations to realize these goals?

A: Well, on the question of the goals, you might be correct that there is still less than one year to go before realization. If the question is will all the goals be achieved, the shorter only answer is no. If the question is have we considered the promises we made in achieving the goals, the answer is yes. And it’s totally a variety of reasons but perhaps the most widely acceptable reason has to do with the fact that we are still emerging from the various crises in 2008 and 2009 including economic and financial ones that I think has slowed progress to the realization of the goals. That being said, the member states have of course undertaken to redouble efforts to ensure that most, if not all the goals, are met by 2015 and what can only remain hopeful at this step.

Q: Right. What do you think can be the role of the General Assembly and the UN member states, all the 193 member states, in realizing these goals? How much can the General Assembly contribute to helping with the achievement of these goals which were set in the UN millennium summit in 2000? What’s your idea on that?

A: Well, ultimately the UN is made of several member states and of course the actions and the measures taken by them are agreed at the General Assembly level where you have various countries having equal voice. And, as I said, the member states have undertaken the pledge to realize all the goals. If one looks at one of the more popular ones, which is reducing extreme poverty by half, that particular goal was met five years ago. About five years, we had a schedule for 2010 but we still have also 1.2 billion people living in extreme poverty. So much more is to be done. Now, is it possible that you could bring 1.2 billion people out of extreme poverty by 2015? That has been likely. I think we have enough to build on so that we can plan much better, going forward.

Q: Would you please tell us more about the post-2015 development agenda and its details and how the General Assembly is going to further the progress of this agenda through coordination and policy-making efforts?

A: As of today, there is no such thing as post-2015 development agenda. We are just beginning to turn our attention to it. Clearly, at the starting point, we will have to build on the MDGs and on the successes that were achieved and also try and learn from the shortcomings wherever they exist. So, as I said, the process has just started. We will hopefully make progress by 2015. But as of yet, there is no post-2015 development agenda. Member states are just beginning to turn their attention to it. And that is why, as the President of General Assembly, I have asked for fifteen to sixteen sessions to be held on the post-2015 development agenda in the second stage.

Q: Regarding the post-2015 development agenda, would you please elaborate on the reports released by the twenty-seven members of the high level panel appointed by the Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon who were supposed to brief the secretary general on the results of their consultations and studies in May 2013?

A: As you have mentioned [sic], the Secretary General did empower a panel to advise him on what could presumably be part of the post-2015 development agenda. The Secretary General has presented that report to the member states. On this report that is presented to member states, we will see what member states decide to make use of the reports. As I said, the exercise has not begun earnestly at the inter-governmental level and I’m sure you’re well aware that there is a lot of activity to be done in the civil society on the post-2015 development agenda. But the member states are just now beginning to turn their attention to it. And, as the President of General Assembly, I will be convenient, and we had a debate in the middle of February, here in New York, to look at water sanitation and sustainable energy and see how those three components would fit into post-2015 development agenda.

Q: Would you please talk about the features and missions of the “My World” survey and the “World We Want” platform which are intended to collect public viewpoints on the priorities and preferences of the citizens on the UN development goals and the post-2015 development process? Why has the United Nations launched these projects and how will it capitalize on them to use the results of the people’s votes to further its goals?

A: Given your personal knowledge of the MDGs, I’m sure you are aware how they were devised. It was more of an up-down approach and some have criticized the goals as being far from reaching, or some critical areas were omitted. At this time now, a more bottom-up approach is being used to reach out to what we would call the citizens of the world and get their views on what should be the key in the post-2015 development agenda, and the exercise that you cited is one such example where attempts have been made to hear the voices of the citizens of the world on what they consider to be important in any post-2015 development exercise.

Q: What is the role of young people, young students and young professionals in the large-scale policy-makings in the UN? How are they cooperating with the UN General Assembly? Has there been any certain summit or high-level meeting for the young people from across the world to take part and opine and express their viewpoints on the Millennium Development Goals or other UN General Assembly-related programs? What I want to ask is that, how do you involve and engage the young people in the decision-making processes in the General Assembly and its programs?

A: Well, you know, The UN has made a principal effort to engage young people and the youth in its activities. And I believe an envoy for the youth has recently been appointed and some high-level meetings have been planned for this year. I don’t know the exact date, but for years it has been going on. As for my own activities as the President of General Assembly, one of the high-level events that we have been convening will look at the demands of the young as the citizens of the society and most specifically how they can contribute to post-2015 development agenda. For sure, the answer is youth have always been an integral part of the UN and there has always been an outreach and that has become more intense. I think it was the last year or two and it’s foreseen that at least as far as this President of the General Assembly is concerned, we are quite clear on engaging the young people in how they see post-2015 development agenda and imagine it.

Q: As a high-ranking diplomat and as expert as well, what do you think is the source of the excessive poverty in Asia, Africa and Latin America? And how can the United Nations, and in particular the General Assembly, play a role in eradicating poverty in these regions through boasting entrepreneurship opportunities or increasing the job opportunities? What’s the practical solution for eradicating poverty especially in these regions which I named, where there are many failed states that have no stable central government and the people are suffering from excessive poverty?

A: As you yourself are well aware, poverty is a very complex phenomenon and I don’t think there is a single answer or a single approach one can use to eradicate it. As I said before, considerable steps have been made to eradicate poverty but there are still gaps and too many people are living in extreme poverty. So I think going forward ought to be the goal in eradicating extreme poverty. And a variety of projects would have to be used because it differs from region to region, from community to community. In some cases it could be caused by different religions, could be caused by war, could be caused by conflict, criminal law or otherwise. So there are a variety of reasons why poverty does exist. What I think is important though is our mission that we as the international community want to do something to address it in a comprehensive way. And I hope that the eradication of extreme poverty would be central and overarching to our efforts in the post-2015 development agenda.

Q: Has there been any cooperation between the General Assembly and the UN Population Fund in realizing gender equality and precluding violence against women, preventing abortions, increasing reproductive health as well as reducing infant and maternal mortality? What are your practical solutions for these phenomena? Has there been a plan by the General Assembly to tackle and address these concerns?

A: Well, as you know, General Assembly doesn’t really cooperate with specific arm of the UN. These programs have been set out by the General Assembly to deal with specific issues; for example we have the United Nations population activities, and we also have the recently established arm of the UN called UN Women. We should look specifically at the question of gender at the entire UN system. So member states have taken specific actions to deal with some of the shortcomings that you’ve identified. And I think given time, we will see how and what progress has been made. As always if a problem exists, then there is still work to be done. But I think considerable efforts have been and are being made on the issues related to gender equality.

Q: You know that child labor is a pervasive phenomenon in the developing and underdeveloped countries. We also have the phenomenon of child soldiers or the children who are taken to the battlefield involuntarily and by force. How is it possible to prevent these disasters from happening and secure a calm and peaceful life for these children while assuring their right to education, food and shelter across the world not only in developing countries?

A: Well, as you know, the countries in complex situations do not have opportunities that are available to the countries that are not under extreme conditions, and opportunities particularly for young people are very limited. And so they are sometimes forced to engage in the type of activity that you have just identified. And clearly, what we do need to address is the overall situation in a particular region or country, particularly if it is a complicated one. And development is one approach, governance is another, and the rule of the law and human rights are other approaches. There are a number of approaches that are available but clearly within an area, a region or country of complex situations that result in this limitation of opportunities for the young people, we should take very serious steps.

Q: What’s your viewpoint regarding the growth of xenophobia and discrimination against the religious minorities in the world? As a Muslim citizen, I can tell you that Islamophobia has grown very much in the Western societies and the Muslims are subject to different sorts of discrimination and prejudice. The same goes with other religions, sects and denominations. Does the UN have any plans to fight xenophobia and religious prejudice which may finally result in sectarian violence and conflict?

A: The UN, I think, is the one institution where member states get into and engage the international community to define solutions to the various conflicts that exist today. Ultimately such sectarian conflicts in different countries require the leaders to take steps and fight hatred wherever it is, whatever for, whether it is in the regional level or at the community level or at the country-wide level like in this case as you said, for religious reasons wherever hatred exits. It needs to be tackled at all levels beginning with the community itself, then at the regional and country level and ultimately at the international level. So all actors would need to get involved to address this ongoing extremism that we see exists today throughout the international community.

Q: Let’s get to some current affairs. What do you think about the ongoing crisis and violence in Syria? It’s said that fighters from more than 80 countries are present in Syria and are taking part in onslaughts on the innocent and unarmed civilians. Millions of people have witnessed the total destruction of their homes and have lost their closest relatives and thousands of others have fled to neighboring countries. What are the UN’s plans for reconstruction process in Syria and providing the refugees with shelter, drinking water and sanitation facilities? Will Syria be a habitable place for the homeless Syrians in the foreseeable future?

A: The situation in Syria is indeed tragic and certainly does require the intense and corporate action by the international community. I was listening to a recent press conference by the UN Secretary General where he pointed out that what the UN faces is the lack of access to the right humanitarian relief. And I’m sure that ultimately, there will be preparations that create a condition to allow for the necessary access. But as I said, there are many sides to that particular situation that exists in Syria. And the innocent people who ultimately suffer though are the citizens and I think for that reason alone, it requires all sides of that conflict to step back and take serious action about what is happening because these are the citizens for particular region and particular area in Syria that ultimately are suffering. And we hope that when the ceasefire comes, all responsible will be brought to justice.

Q: What’s your viewpoint on the recent interim nuclear deal between Iran and the six world powers? It is widely believed that this interim accord will pave the way for a comprehensive and long-term agreement and will solve the nuclear controversy once for all. How do you interpret this agreement and how do you evaluate it in terms of alleviating the concerns of the international community over Iran’s nuclear activities?

A: Any agreement that ultimately removes the threat of a nuclear catastrophe is certainly welcomed and ought to be welcomed by the international community. And the fact that despite all these misgivings on both sides, they have been able to reach an acceptable agreement is something which I think will be welcomed by the international community.

Q: As a senior UN diplomat, what do you think about the humanitarian impact of the sanctions which have been imposed against Iran in the recent years? You surely know that these sanctions have prevented the ordinary citizens from accessing medicine, foodstuff and other consumer goods. What’s your take on the fairness of these sanctions?

A: I for one believe ultimately that actions that puts citizens who are clearly innocent at the risk is not a good thing. But we hope the effect at minimum is that it results in a global situation that would benefit all countries in whatever dispute; however, I think it is something that we should welcome- i.e. an end to any action that puts citizens under disadvantage.

Q: As the final question, what’s your viewpoint regarding the election of moderate President Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s new president and that the international community and many international organizations as well as many world leaders have welcomed his election and his platform of constructive engagement with the international community? How is his election, in your view, going to bolster Iran’s foreign relations, Iran’s international image and Iran’s relations with the UN?

A: I think, first and foremost, the people of Iran have spoken and they have elected an individual whom they have decided ought to lead them and that is something which one should respect. And certainly, speaking of the president, he has made some bold pronouncements at the outset, and if one looks at the record, he is certainly doing his best to develop those pronouncements. And over time that would be the ultimate judge, we will see how these [promises] will turn into action. But it seems to me, first and foremost as I said, that the people of Iran have spoken. The president has indicated quite clearly what he intends to do and he is certainly going about doing that.

This interview was originally published by Tehran Times daily.