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Obituary: John Gordon (B3 1954-58)

John Gordon (B3 1954-58) has died aged 77 was the UK’s permanent delegate to Unesco from 1983 to 1985, and remained deeply committed to its principles of peace, security and sustainability throughout his life.

His time there proved to be a turbulent one, during which the US government withdrew from Unesco and the UK threatened to follow suit, eventually doing so on 5 December 1985. This was difficult for John, obliged as a public servant to follow government policy.

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.”

The son of James Gordon, a materials scientist and author of several popular engineering books, and his wife, Theodora, John was born in Fleet, Hampshire. He was educated at Marlborough college and Cambridge University and went on to undertake research in history at Yale University and the London School of Economics.
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In 1966 he joined the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, serving in Budapest, Geneva, Yaoundé, Moscow and Brussels before his appointment to Unesco. His main area of expertise was the Soviet bloc – and he built strong networks with dissidents in both Hungary and Russia, where he was the culture attache.

John went on to head the FCO’s nuclear energy department, dealing, among other issues, with the consequences of the Chernobyl nuclear accident of 1986, followed by a secondment to Imperial College London’s centre for environmental technology. He retired from the FCO in 1990, which allowed 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. A committed environmentalist, he campaigned for sustainable development in Oxfordshire, and planted thousands of trees on his property in the Lake District to replace those lost during the second world war.

He was a staunch advocate for the UK’s return to Unesco in the years leading up to 1997, when the incoming Labour government announced that the UK would rejoin.

John was a founder member of the UK Unesco Forum, and of the UK National Commission for Unesco, established in 2004 as a link between civil society, the British government and Unesco. He was an active member of the National Commission from 2004 to 2007, focusing in particular on Unesco’s role in promoting peace and security.

He is survived by his wife, Elizabeth Shanks, whom he married in 1965, and their sons, Tim and Alex.

Reprinted with kind permission from The Guardian Website.