A luxury-loving diplomat susceptible to bribery, a clutch of rich Chinese with business interests and an open door to the top leadership of the United Nations General Assembly. It all adds up to not only a blow to the integrity of the UN but also a stark demonstration of the dysfunction of an international system that is out of the control of even its secretary-general.
If the criminal charges filed against John Ashe, president of the UN General Assembly from 2013 to 2014, are proven, said Preet Bharara, the United States attorney in New York, it will confirm that “the cancer of corruption that plagues too many local and state governments infects the United Nations as well.”
Bharara added in a statement on Tuesday: “As alleged, for Rolexes, bespoke suits, and a private basketball court, John Ashe, the 68th President of the UN General Assembly, sold himself and the institution he led. United in greed, the defendants allegedly formed a corrupt alliance of business and government, converting the UN into a platform for profit.”
Ashe was not a UN official in the strict sense of the word or a leader of the UN. He was, instead, a persuasive ambassador from the small Caribbean island country of Antigua and Barbuda (population 66,422), who propelled himself into the chair of the General Assembly, a virtually independent part of the UN system, through horse trading and cultivating relationships in regional blocs. Like the Security Council, the General Assembly is constituted and run by governments, not by the Secretariat, which the secretary-general — currently, Ban Ki-moon — administers.
That structure has double flaws: There is no official vetting of candidates for president of the Assembly. The seat rotates around regions of the world, and in 2013 it was the “turn” of Latin America and the Caribbean. A powerful figure in the Caribbean subgroup known as Caricom, Ashe led a successful campaign for the job, first with regional support and then backing from the Group of 77 nations, which now number 134 members, plus China. The Group of 77 holds a solid majority in the General Assembly, of which UN employees and diplomats say, “nobody wants to mess with.”
Over the years, the qualifications and performance of Assembly presidents have varied considerably. Last year, for example, the foreign minister of Uganda, Sam Kutesa, held the seat, from which he railed against LGBT rights in defiance of stated UN policies. Earlier this year, the Assembly, in a move led by Russia, tried to revoke an action by Ban Ki-moon granting benefits to legally recognized spouses of same-sex couples employed by the UN, where an advocacy organization for LGBT rights flourishes. Such employees are permanent staff members — international civil servants — not ambassadors from member countries or Assembly delegates. Ban went ahead with his reform, ignoring the Assembly.
“Yes, there have been good and not-so-good PGAs [presidents of the General Assembly] in the past,” Anwarul K. Chowdhury, a former ambassador from Bangladesh and later under secretary-general and high representative of the UN globally, said in an interview with PassBlue. “I believe one is good if he/she had undertaken truly proactive initiatives in the best interest of the UN as a whole and got the priority business of UNGA accomplished in a participatory and transparent way.”
Chowdhury, along with numerous officials in the UN Secretariat, noticed the frequent absences of Ashe from the General Assembly and New York when he should have been presiding over the Assembly. He was absent from UN headquarters more than half the time (some say three-quarters of the time) during his year in office from September 2013 to September 2014, often traveling to China.
“I find that in recent years, the PGAs and his office have received lot of high profile [attention] while travelling all over the world, invited by Member States as well as non-state actors,” Chowdhury said in an email. “That has attracted the attention of many private individuals in taking advantage of that office.”
“I believe that there should be restrictive guidelines on travels and on number of days he/she is out of New York when the GA is in session,” he said. “Transparency regarding purposes of travels is needed, as brought to the fore by this week’s allegations.”
“This is the primary need if we want to avoid further damage to the image of the UN,” Chowdhury added. (Mogens Lykketoft, the current president of the General Assembly and a Dane, told the media after the news broke about Ashe that Lykketoft’s office publicly posts his own itinerary.)
Francis Lorenzo, a high-ranking diplomat from the Dominican Republic, was charged with Ashe this week by the US government as well. Both men face potential jail time, though the allegations against Ashe cover only fraudulent income tax returns and a failure to pay taxes on $1 million received in bribes dating to 2011, which the US has traced.
Ashe has permanent US residency and should have lost his diplomatic immunity when he was no longer an ambassador or the Assembly president, since a new government of Antigua and Barbuda has denounced and disowned him as its envoy in New York. But Ashe is expected to try to have that immunity restored. Lorenzo, a US citizen, who from US documents allegedly appears to have been an instigator of the bribery transactions and a go-between the Chinese and Ashe, faces conspiracy and bribery charges.
Four others — Ng Lap Seng, a citizen of China, the Dominican Republic and Portugal; and Jeff Yin, Shiwei Yan and Heidi Hong Piao, all naturalized US citizens — have been charged in connection with what was described as a multiyear scheme to pay more than $1.3 million in bribes to Ashe in exchange for official action as General Assembly president and as an official of Antigua and Barbuda to advance Chinese business interests there and in Kenya.
Yan and Piao also face charges of conspiracy to commit money laundering, which can carry a 20-year sentence. Ng and Yin were arrested on Sept. 19 on a separate allegation of making false statements to customs officials about a total of $4.5 million in cash they had brought into the country since 2013.
At the center of the UN focus and the Ashe scandal is his role trying to persuade Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to lend his support in 2012 to the construction of a conference center in Macau, which would have apparently benefited Chinese business interests, particularly a company owned by Ng. There was no suggestion of money involved. The secretary-general’s spokesman, Stéphane Dujarric, said on Tuesday that a letter from Ashe had been located in UN records, asking Ban to circulate a request to member nations asking support for the Macau venture. (The UN document reference number was given as A/66/748.)
Ambassadors from member countries often petition the secretary-general in person or in writing for favors. Until now, there is no evidence that Ban acted on the request from Ashe, who was an envoy and not yet Assembly president.
More news will surely ensue beyond the US charges by Bharara. Behind this case is the enormous power of China within the UN, even without Chinese business connections to bribery schemes. (China keeps the Dalai Lama out of UN headquarters, for example, even when world religious leaders are participating in meetings, as Pope Francis did in September.) In this current bribery case, the Chinese business parties involved seemed to also be trying to further an active China economic presence in the developing world, focused on Antigua and Barbuda as well as on Kenya.
Even before Ashe took office in September 2013, there were signs of impending controversy. He had rejected the assignment of a spokesman made by the UN Department of Public Information and instead hired an inexperienced outsider from the staff of South-South News, a newcomer media organization with murky foreign support, rumored to come from Chinese money. There are reports that the UN’s inspector general was aware of the move and the large salary to be paid to the spokeswoman, Afaf Konja, who was born in Iraq but is now an American citizen.
South-South awards an annual prize at a gala that “honors those that uphold the founding principles of the United Nations and celebrates the achievements of the Global South,” according to its website. (The site does not explicitly link South-South awards to South-South News, but the latter promotes the awards.) Ashe and Lorenzo were listed on the awards committee until the charges filed this week, when they were summarily removed.
On Tuesday, as the charges were announced, Diego Rodriguez, the FBI assistant director-in-charge of this case, warned: “The charges announced today,” he said, “are sending a message to those who come to the United States from other countries with corruption plans or bags full of cash — no one is above or beyond the law.”
[This article was updated to reflect that John Ashe was not a former prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda.]
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.