Obituary: John Gordon, Former Ambassador to UNESCO

It is with great sadness that the UK National Commission for UNESCO records the death of John Gordon, formerly UK Ambassador to UNESCO and subsequently a member of the UK National Commission for UNESCO.

John Keith Gordon was born on 6 July 1940, to Professor James Edward Gordon and Theodora Gordon, and educated at Marlborough College and Cambridge University, where he obtained a First Class degree in History. He went on to research at Yale University and the London School of Economics. John joined the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1966, subsequently serving in Budapest, Geneva, Yaoundé, Moscow and Brussels before being appointed UK Permanent Delegate to UNESCO in 1983.

His period at UNESCO proved to be a turbulent one, during which the US government withdrew from UNESCO, and the UK threatened to follow suit unless UNESCO enacted a comprehensive programme of detailed reforms. Eventually, it was announced that UNESCO reforms fell well short of what could justify continued British membership, and the UK withdrew on 5 December 1985.

The UK left UNESCO in 1985. Article: “Why Britain should keep faith with the UNESCO dream”. Arthur Gavashon. The Guardian. Oct 4, 1985

This was a deeply difficult outcome for John, obliged as a public servant to follow government policy, but strongly committed as an individual to the principles of UNESCO. Writing many years after the event, he said:

“Walking down the corridor, followed by BBC television cameras, to hand in our notice of withdrawal to [the Director General], was the saddest day of my diplomatic career”.

John went on to head the Nuclear Energy Department in the FCO, dealing among other issues with the consequences of Chernobyl, followed by a secondment to Imperial College London’s Centre for Environmental Technology. He retired from the FCO in 1990, allowing him to pursue his interest in environmental issues as Deputy and Policy Director of the Global Environment Research Centre, Special Adviser to the UK-UN Environment and Development Forum, and President of the Council for Education in World Citizenship.

UNESCO remained a cause dear to John’s heart, and he was a staunch advocate for the UK’s return in the years leading up to 1997, when the incoming Blair government announced that the UK would rejoin. John was a founder member of the UK UNESCO Forum, formed as an umbrella group to represent civil society, which functioned for a number of years while the appropriate format and funding for a new National Commission were under debate. The UK National Commission for UNESCO was eventually established in 2004, and John was an active member from 2004 to 2007, focusing in particular on UNESCO’s role in promoting peace and security.

The UK rejoined UNESCO in 1997. Article: “Cook set to take Britain back into UNESCO”. Ian Black Diplomatic Editor, The Guardian. May 14 1997

John was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2017. He died peacefully at home on 2nd February. He is survived by his wife Elizabeth and their sons Tim and Alex.