WATCH Video: Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda the Hon Gaston Browne on the John Ashe Matter
St. John’s, Antigua and Barbuda: Fellow Citizens and residents. I do not pretend that this last week has not been terrible for our nation. The events surrounding former Antigua and Barbuda diplomat, John Ashe, while he was entrusted with the role of President of the United Nations General Assembly, has cast a pall of gloom over all of us and neighbouring Caribbean countries.
The implication of members of the former United Progressive Party government, including the former Prime Minister, Baldwin Spencer, in bribery, money laundering and other corruption charges, has also caused us great alarm.
We have all been deeply troubled that our country’s name has become embroiled in allegations of bribery and money laundering, in connection with the most important organisation in the world, the United Nations.
It is reprehensible that anyone would violate the sanctity of the United Nations for illicit purposes.
In this connection, my government gives the undertaking that – as we began to do from the moment we came in to office in June of last year – we will continue to strengthen the structures and machinery of good governance in our country.
Over the last 15 months, we have encountered a residue of corrupt practices from the UPP regime, involving the abuse of public office and organized misappropriation of state resources.
We have put an end to those practices and we are continuing to do so wherever they emerge.
We intend to have the best and most transparent governance structure in the Caribbean and beyond.
My government will not be popular in this respect, but we are determined not only to uphold the principles of good governance but to implement them firmly.
Changes will also be made in our Foreign Service.
We shall no longer permit Antiguans and Barbudans who are permanent residents of the host country to serve as diplomats.
In addition, we shall begin a process of rotation of our Foreign Service officers, so that none of them exceeds a period of more than 5 years in any posting.
Financial audits have been done on a yearly basis by the Auditor-General,
However, we shall also carry out routine independent forensic audits of all our overseas missions.
I should mention, that one of the first actions that I took when I became Prime Minister in June last year, was to instruct that John Ashe be removed as Antigua and Barbuda’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations.
At the time, I was lobbied by several persons to retain him since, it was argued, he was at the peak of his career.
But I held the view, that he did not fit into the framework of good governance and representation that I envisioned.
Therefore, I stuck to my position.
The only concession, was to the appeal, that since he was President of the UN General Assembly and his term in that position would have ended two months later, his termination was extended to coincide with the end of his Presidency.
Today, I can report that all those, who lobbied me to retain him, have come to admit that my assessment was correct.
Nevertheless, I take no satisfaction from the validation of my position.
I would very much have preferred that this week’s events had not occurred.
It has harmed the efforts that my government and you – the people of Antigua and Barbuda – have so valiantly made to rebuild our country’s economy and to uplift its standing in the international community over the last 15 months.
Who could take any satisfaction in this corruption saga knowing the grave consequences for our country?
But, I say this, the damage is neither permanent nor irreversible.
There will be persons, motivated by rivalry or malice, who will attempt to stain the entire country and this government, for the corrupt actions of the former UPP Government officials.
However, we should note that in other countries of the world, officials have been involved in wrong doing, but the economies did not collapse and the governments did not cease to function.
History is replete with such incidents in countries, large and small.
Those officials received appropriate punishment and the people, the country and the government moved on.
We shall do likewise.
Those involved in this disgraceful saga will also face their accusers in the appropriate courts.
Therefore, I say to you the citizens and residents of Antigua and Barbuda that you have done nothing wrong.
Further, the present government of Antigua and Barbuda has done nothing wrong.
Neither you, the people, nor the present government had any part in the events that were revealed over the last few days.
The persons, who are responsible and liable, have been named in the complaint brought by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, (FBI).
It is those persons who have a case to answer.
It is those persons who will have to face the consequences of their corrupt actions.
And, to the extent that the authorities of the United Nations and the United States request the co-operation of my government in this matter, we shall give such co-operation as a responsible member of the international community.
That is our obligation, and it is an obligation we will fulfil.
I should also draw attention to an observation that was flagged in the complaint in which John Ashe, Baldwin Spencer and others were named by the FBI Special Agent in the Court of the Southern District of New York.
He said, “I know that bribery of a public official is illegal in Antigua under the Prevention of Corruption Act which was enacted by the Antiguan Parliament”.
It is obvious, therefore, that the eyes of the international community are focused upon our jurisdiction, to see what this country’s law enforcement agencies do, in relation to this matter.
Should the law enforcement agencies, in their own independent determination – and I emphasize this – in their own independent determination, make a decision to take some form of action – that is their prerogative.
I make it clear now, that should they do so, it will be no political witch hunt by my government or the political party that I lead.
We did not create this troubling situation.
We simply, deeply regret, that it has involved our innocent people and has slowed our nation’s steady stride since June of last year to build a better and more prosperous Antigua and Barbuda.
I say again, the people of Antigua and Barbuda have done no wrong, nor has my government that you democratically elected 15 months ago.
Indeed, you, the electorate, should be commended for the wisdom and foresight you displayed by rooting-out the corrupt UPP regime at the last election.
Had you not done so, this mess in which their leadership is implicated, would have embroiled the nation as a whole, with more severe consequences.
But, as much as we are disappointed and unhappy about the unpleasant events of last week, as a nation we have an obligation to ourselves to press forward with clarity and conviction.
We have a responsibility to ourselves and our children to continue vigorously, with full commitment; the job that we started in June last year to empower all our people.
We have an admirable and enviable record to show in just 15 months.
No Caribbean country has been the recipient of more foreign direct investment per capita than Antigua and Barbuda in 2015.
Our economy has returned to sustainable growth and is projected to become the fastest growing economy in this hemisphere, according to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.
The investments will bring more growth, increased revenue and employment.
So, let no person in this country – except those who are involved – hang their head in shame, or beat their chest with assumed blame.
Antigua and Barbuda will not be found wanting or uncooperative in meeting its international obligations.
My government will cooperate with the international community in its investigation in this matter.
No government or agency will be able to accuse us of not acting responsibly.
Domestically, law enforcement agencies will determine, in their own deliberate judgement, what actions they might take.
My fellow Citizens and Residents, I end by recalling from the Holy Bible, 2 Corinthians, Chapter 4, verses 16 to 18:
So we do not lose heart.
Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.
For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen.
For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
Let us do our duty in this matter as a responsible nation, but let us not burden ourselves with the behaviour of a corrupt few.
They will have the chance to face their accusers in the appropriate courts.
Let us not focus on this temporary affliction nor become consumed by it.
Instead, let us focus on the job at hand and the eternal glory ahead of us.
We have an economy to rebuild and a country to make prosperous.
Therefore, our time, space and energy should be utilized exclusively to uplift our nation.
We are well advanced on the journey of establishing a sound foundation to transform Antigua and Barbuda into an economic powerhouse.
Let us run unrelentingly, the path that is set before us, in the enduring spirit and resilience of our forebears.
Let us continue to pray for God’s sustaining grace and guidance over our beautiful twin island state.
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