Message from John Ashe, President of the 68th Session of the General Assembly


John W Ashe: Setting the Stage!

On 14 June 2013, 193 member States of the United Nations elected me by acclamation to serve as 68th President of the United Nations General Assembly. It was a poignant moment in that I was about to assume a huge responsibility, while at the same time taking the next step on a journey that began purely by happenstance.

As I walked to the podium to give my acceptance speech, I couldn’t help but reflect on the fact that, as young man, my chosen field of diplomacy was not what I had in mind; in fact I aspired to a career in medicine. Fate – or in this case, two unplanned conversations – would redirect my path toward diplomacy. The first conversation took place the summer after I finished my Ph.D in Bioengineering. I had the good fortune of a chance encounter with my country’s Foreign Minister (and future Prime Minister), who suggested I consider putting my atypical background to work at the United Nations for a year.

Initially perceiving it as an interesting “gap year,” I accepted, with every intention of pursuing a medical career. This remained my plan for a number of months, until one day I walked into a large meeting room and there encountered a second chance conversation, which is now commonplace – the lingua franca – for many within the UN system: a group of delegates discussing the impacts of climate change.

For me, this was truly life-changing. As I stood there listening to the discussion, I came to the full realisation that matters of survival were not only within the purview of medical doctors; I had for the very first time a sense that I could fulfil my purpose to serve in the hallways of diplomacy just as easily as in the hallways of a hospital.

The same year that I happened upon the climate change meeting, delegates were also preparing for the Rio Earth Summit of 1992 – which profoundly influenced my thinking. As it turned out, both climate change and the key concern of the Rio Summit, namely sustainable development, have shaped my career path and, I hope, will play a significant role in my tenure as President of the 68th session of the UN General Assembly.

During my term as General Assembly President, the United Nations will embark on a process with the potential to guide the course of humankind for decades to come: defining parameters for the post-2015 Development Agenda. It will arguably be one of the organization’s boldest and most difficult tasks to date, set against the backdrop of a rapidly changing world with new and emerging challenges.

For this reason, I have identified ”The Post-2015 Development Agenda: Setting the Stage!” as the theme for the 68th session. Furthermore, I have decided to convene a number of events and thematic debates throughout the session to assist member States and other stakeholders as they develop the parameters that will ultimately shape and define this agenda. To this end, my team and I have identified some key questions for consideration, with the hope that the answers will inform our work as we proceed. They include:  

1)    What role should women, the young and civil society play in a new development agenda?

2)    How can we incorporate human rights and encourage the rule of law?

3)    How do we maximize the benefits of South-South, Triangular cooperation and ICT for development?

4)    How can we strengthen new and existing partnerships for better development outcomes?

5)    How do we promote stable and peaceful societies so that all people can benefit from development gains without living in fear?

6)    How do we address the persistent challenges of water, sanitation and sustainable energy?

During these debates and high level events, UN Member States and other stakeholders will have the opportunity to share their ideas and begin to make critical choices. I strongly encourage active participation and engagement of all. Ultimately, if we are to succeed with this challenge we have set for ourselves, we will need to develop fresh ideas, enthusiasm and a spirit of compromise for the greater good.

Up to this point, a number of related processes have been taking place concurrently, each with a similar objective. Discussions on accelerating the outstanding Millennium Development Goals, Climate Change and Sustainable Development Goals are all ongoing. My goal is to start the process that pulls the best from each of them, ultimately culminating in the most effective, feasible and inspiring development agenda possible. Beginning this September, it is time to start the debate on the post-2015 Development Agenda in a serious and focused way.

In my circuitous path to diplomacy, I am keenly aware of the unique opportunities life has afforded me to serve. For the 68th session, I simply ask that we make a collective effort, so that together we can truly effect change and contribute to a more sustainable future for all.