Interview with Angela Kane, High Representative for Disarmament Affairs

Angela Kane, UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs. UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré

8 January 2014 – In March 2012, Angela Kane of Germany was chosen by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to be High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, heading the office that promotes nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, and supports disarmament regimes involving other weapons of mass destruction. It also promotes disarmament efforts in the area of conventional weapons, particularly small arms which are the weapons of choice in contemporary conflicts.

Ms. Kane has held a wide range of high positions in the United Nations during a long career in the Organization. Prior to assuming her current post, she was Under-Secretary-General for Management, following a term as Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs. She has also held leadership positions in peacekeeping and public information, and worked on disarmament issues earlier in her career in relation to the World Disarmament Campaign.

The UN News Centre spoke to Ms. Kane at the end of 2013, a year in which the field of disarmament saw a great deal of activity.

UN News Centre: Ms. Kane, 2013 seems to have been a very active year in the field of disarmament.  What would you identify as some of the most important accomplishments?

Angela Kane: I think 2013 was a very memorable year for disarmament.   First of all in April, we saw the adoption of the Arms Trade Treaty and this had been some six, seven or eight years if not longer in the making and we had a conference which did not reach agreement.  At year’s end we have 115 countries that have already signed it, and 9 ratifications.  That is a really fantastic achievement.  We only need 50 ratifications for the treaty to come into effect, I think that any high-level meeting on nuclear disarmament advances nuclear disarmament, simply because it underlines the urgency of what needs to happen.and we expect that if it doesn’t happen by the end of 2014 it will certainly happen in 2015. 

Another historic development was over the use of chemical weapons in Syria.  The Syrian Government had come to the Secretary-General to ask for an investigation of an incident that took place Khan al-Assal near Aleppo.  The Secretary-General accepted that request.  He received similar requests from other Member States and this was an effort that resulted in the finding, by an investigation team, that chemical weapons had in fact been used on a large scale in the suburb of Damascus called Ghouta and several other smaller incidents as well.  And it also resulted in Syria acceding to the Chemical Weapons Convention and ridding itself of the chemical weapons it had at its disposal. 

UN News Centre: Can you tell us a little about how the adoption of the Arms Trade Treaty came about?  When do you see it becoming an effective tool in reducing conflict?

Angela Kane: When you look at the fact that all the other items in the world are regulated by trade regulations – it can be clothes, it can be fruit, it can be bananas, tomatoes, you name it – arms exports, arms imports have never been regulated before.  So in effect, it isn’t really a disarmament regulation per se, but a trade regulation.  What it will do is ask parties to keep track of arms: Where are they being sold to?  Where are they being traded to? Are there Governments that receive them that are known to have committed human rights abuses?  And in that case the exporting countries should prohibit such exports to a country that use it for human rights abuses.  So actually it is both a trade regulation and it will also contribute to transparency, tremendous transparency in the arms trade, meaning there are no more shady deals being made by arms brokers.  Let’s not forget that the arms trade has expanded considerably in the last couple of years due to insecurity in the world.  I think it stands now at $85 billion a year.  It’s a huge amount of money.  [The ATT] sheds light on it: Where does it go, who sells it, who receives it?

UN News Centre: Going back to Syria, could you give us an overview of your work in that area?

High Representative Kane and members of the UN mission to investigate alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria brief journalists on 13 December 2013 on their work. UN Photo/Amanda Voisard

As I mentioned, the Secretary-General received a request from the Government of Syria to investigate alleged chemical weapons use and he set up an investigation commission headed by Swedish scientist Åke Sellström, with experts from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and also from the World Health Organization (WHO).  The team did advance research and it travelled to Syria twice and did on-site investigations , particularly in the area of Ghouta, to take environmental and medical samples such as blood and urine and hair.  They came back with a positive finding that Sarin in fact had been used, not only in Ghouta, on a larger scale, but also in smaller scale incidents in several other locations.

UN News Centre:  Can you describe your office’s current contributions in the ongoing efforts?

Angela Kane: After Syria acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention and became a member in October, there were firm deadlines established by the OPCW.  A joint mission of OPCW and the United Nations was established and there are several departments in the UN that have a role.  The Office of Disarmament Affairs of course for the chemical weapons issue that we deal with, the Department for Field Services (DFS) for the logistic and transportation support, the Department for Political Affairs (DPA), because there’s also the political track going on in Geneva and with Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, who is going to organize a conference in January, to make the peace solution possible. Also the Department of Safety and Security has a very strong role, because ensuring the safety and security, particularly the transport out of the chemical material out of Syria, is extremely important.  So we are all working very collaboratively, as the UN, but with the OPCW.  The head [of the joint mission], who is a senior official from the Netherlands, Sigrid Kaag, is reporting both to the Secretary-General and to the Director-General of the OPCW.

UN News Centre: You yourself travelled to Syria this year.  Can you share your first-hand insights from those visits.

Angela Kane: We had been negotiating here in New York about access to Syria – there has to always be a legal agreement:  How does it work?  What are our obligations?  What are the obligations of the Government?  That did not move forward very quickly.  In the end, the Syrian Government invited Professor Sellström and myself to come to Damascus to negotiate it.  So we flew together to Damascus.  It was a very difficult negotiation, I will tell you. It was not easy. Syria is a sovereign State and they felt that some of the requests that we had were basically not acceptable to them.  But in the end we made an agreement that we would investigate three incidents: the one at Khan al-Assal, which was at the origin of their request as well as that of other Member States and two other locations.  The team went to Damascus to investigate those incidents in August, when the large-scale incident in Ghouta happened.   This had not been part of the original agreement.  So again I flew to Damascus to negotiate with the Government to have access to those sites and they did agree. 

Ms. Kane speaks at a special event marking the opening for signature of the Arms Trade Treaty on 3 June 2013. UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

The area where this alleged chemical outbreak happened was not under control of the Government.  We had to leave the security provided by the Government at an area where the Government was no longer in control and then had to negotiate with the opposition forces to have access to the area, to have access to the patients, first aid responders, medical staff, and other people who could give us information so that the team could record the case studies, take the samples and then also leave the area without being hindered by anyone.  And the Government had to agree to abide by a ceasefire for that time.  The first time the team went in, they were deliberately targeted by snipers the moment they left the Government security zone and the first vehicle was very deliberately attacked.  They had to turn around, change vehicles and then go in again, despite the dangers that they knew they were exposing themselves to.  So I have very high respect for the selflessness, for the dedication of the people, the team leader and also the OPCW and WHO team that went in to get to the truth of the matter.

UN News Centre: How do you feel about the overall effort by the OPCW and the UN as it has evolved in these past few months?

Angela Kane: I think that there has been a tremendous and very constructive cooperation.  It’s absolutely unprecedented.  It was brokered, let’s not forget by the United States and the Russian Federation and it was very much a surprise, I think to all of us, how quickly it went.  But it was also the urgency of getting the materials out of Syria.  The deadlines are very tight.  They may slip a little bit because of the security considerations.  Snow and very cold weather has also impeded movement.  We’re tackling all of these various issues.  It’s also expensive to destroy chemical weapons materials.  Countries that have a lot of it, like the United States and Russian Federation, have slipped a little on their deadlines simply because it is so costly to destroy them.  

UN News Centre: What can you tell us about the state of nuclear disarmament?  Did the high-level meeting in September move the agenda forward?

Ms. Kane, as Under-Secretary-General for Management in 2011, meets the family of one of the UN staff members who lost their lives in the line of duty, during a ceremony at UN Headquarters. UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

Angela Kane: I think any high-level meeting on nuclear disarmament advances nuclear disarmament, simply because it underlines the urgency of what needs to happen.  The cornerstone of the whole architecture is clearly the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which has three pillars.  One of them is nuclear disarmament.  But when you look at how much disarmament has actually taken place, it really isn’t there.  There’s an increasing urgency on the part of those countries that do not have nuclear weapons to say to the nuclear weapons powers: You need to disarm, you need to fulfil your side of the bargain.  Having a high-level meeting with many ministers underlined the fact that more needs to happen. 

In 2010, when you had the last review conference of the NPT, there was a 64-point action plan that was developed and that put specific obligations on the part of the nuclear weapon powers.  But when you look at how much has happened on those action points, you see a lot more needs to be done before the next meeting, which will take place in 2015.  I’m just hoping that events like this high-level meeting will give an impetus to the countries that need to do more in this realm to actually proceed on the nuclear disarmament road.

UN News Centre: Regional disarmament efforts are often below the radar screen.  What can you tell us about your efforts in this area?

Angela Kane: Regional disarmament efforts you are right are not very often reported.  Maybe in the region where they occur, but if you think about how long Latin America and the Caribbean has been a nuclear-weapons-free zone – the Treaty of Tlatelolco was the first one to establish this – this is now accepted; it’s not even talked about anymore.  But you’ve had other treaties; you have the African nuclear-weapons-free zone treaty, the Treaty of Pelindaba, for example.  What made it possible was that there were a number of States who possessed nuclear weapons or materials and decided to give them up.  I wish that we would look at that more as an example.  Also Mongolia, which is bordered by Russia and China, two nuclear weapons States, so it couldn’t join a zone, declared itself a nuclear-weapons-free State.  I think that that is a very interesting development.  Again I wish this would be written about more.

Ms. Kane, as Under-Secretary-General for Management with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon following the first meeting of the Capital Master Plan (CMP) Advisory Board on renovations to UN Headquarters, in May 2010. UN Photo/Mark Garten

You also have thousands of cities now that the mayors have declared to be nuclear-weapons-free.  I think that that is something that really needs to be encouraged.  Because what we’re lacking is civil society involvement on a large scale.  We have very dedicated and knowledgeable civil society movements, but it isn’t the mass movement that I remember in the late 1970s, 1980s, when you had the special session of the General Assembly on disarmament.  I think we need more of that and I wish there would be more reporting on this.  So I’m very happy when people learn about it and they say, well, what can we do to join this, what can we do to advance nuclear disarmament, what can we do to make our world more safe.

UN News Centre: Your office maintains some critically important databases, such as on global military expenditures as well as tool kits and publications.  How can you hope to get this fascinating data out to young people?

Angela Kane: How to get more information to young people is always a challenge. Reporting on what happens in some countries – let’s say, how much money do you spend on armaments?   Or maybe how little money you spent on armaments?  – would be good to have widely published.  I do urge people to go to our website, which is, but you have to look for it a little bit.  You don’t find it in the newspapers.  I found that even on the Arms Trade Treaty, there was a lot of misinformation in the papers that was patently untrue.  We try to correct it, writing letters to the editor and they would not correct that misinformation.  It was very sad to see the media, which can be so very helpful, sometimes be quite unhelpful.  Throughout North America, in the US but I think in Canada as well, they said, well, the ATT means that private citizens will no longer be able to carry arms.  Well, of course that’s nonsense.  Absolute and utter nonsense.  The national legislation on carrying arms is the national legislation.  It’s got nothing to do with exports.  As someone said, it’s just like if you have a regulation about the export of tomatoes, it means that means you are prohibiting people from eating tomatoes.  It’s absolutely nonsense.  I think that the media can play a positive role through accuracy and also by talking and writing about positive trends.  We’re always happy to supply people with that.  We have all kinds of information on the web site that could be very helpful for the public at large or for students, but it’s very hard for us to make it available to everyone individually.

UN News Centre: In March 2014, you will have been High Representative for Disarmament Affairs for two years.  How do the challenges compare with those of your previous posts and how is your office meeting these challenges?

Excerpt of interview with Angela Kane. Credit: UNTV

Angela Kane: Challenges are always challenges and they’re always different in whatever job you have.  I’ve enjoyed them all tremendously.  There are some that are more difficult to tackle, though.  When I look back over my two years in March next year, I think that I’ve come at a very interesting time to disarmament.  Not only because of the Arms Trade Treaty and the chemical weapons issue; there’s also the issue of the conference on a nuclear-weapons and other weapons of mass destruction-free zone in the Middle East.   It was part of a deal to extend the NPT indefinitely.  We’ve been working very closely with the facilitator of this effort the Ambassador of Finland, as well as the three co-sponsors, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and the United States.  The UN is the fourth party.  It’s a very, very difficult conference to organize, in terms of getting the political parties together, meaning the League of Arab States and Israel. We have not held it as it was mandated and agreed to be held in 2012, but we’re getting very close, having organized two consultative meetings.  We will have another one in early February to discuss the modalities, the agenda and how to go about it.  Let me remind you it’s unprecedented because zones free of nuclear weapons exist, but not one that includes all weapons of mass destruction. 

Let me mention another challenge.  That is the Conference on Disarmament, for which my colleague in Geneva is the Secretary-General’s Special Representative. On the one hand, what you have is a body that has not been able to negotiate - and it is a negotiating body.  I have also seen progress over the last two years, – very slow, very incremental.  There’s a working group that has discussed new issues.  There is a new group of governmental experts that has been created just now, that will start work next year under the chairmanship of Canada, on a fissile material cut-off treaty.  There is a lot of urging for more progress.  All of these efforts are making things move.  Challenges are here to be tackled, I will certainly do that together with the very good team that I have.

UN News Centre: Are there any other accomplishments you would like to flag that you feel are not understood by the general public?

As Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs in 2008, Ms. Kane addresses a meeting of the Security Council on the Middle East. UN Photo/Evan Schneider

Angela Kane: In conventional arms, beside the ATT, in areas such as small arms and light weapons, there are a lot of things that are moving, but they are moving out of the limelight and maybe that is not a bad thing, because sometimes when States aren’t under the spotlight they can make good progress.  We need to make more progress, but what is important is to keep the dialogue going, to have meetings to draw attention to this.  And let me mention one other challenge, and we haven’t really talked about it at all, and that is [Security Council] resolution 1540 on counter-terrorism.  We have a very strong programme to raise awareness, to look at the banking sector, to look at customs.  There’s a lot of work that needs to done with Member States and other partners to make sure that counter-terrorism is actually effective.  We’ve had peer reviews, like the review between Croatia and Poland, for example, to share experiences.  All of that contributes tremendously to progress but it doesn’t always happen in the limelight.

UN News Centre: What are some of the issues that we should be looking at in the coming year?

Angela Kane: It’s the issues that I’ve already mentioned - 1540, I think that’s a very important one.  The ATT, because countries that ratify it may need to change or adapt legislation and there’s a reporting mechanism.  They might need some help for that, which we are very happy to give if they’re asking for it.  Also the chemical weapons will remain a very strong preoccupation, simply because the issue is not just the removal from Syria, it is also the destruction, and the timeline for that is the end of June.  The Conference on Disarmament will convene again at the end of January in Geneva.  We will have the group of Governmental Experts on fissile material.  Another group of governmental experts concluded its work this year on information security, on cyber security, with a report that underlines some important principles.  It is in the field of disarmament because of the military aspects. This was seen as so significant that the Member States decided to endorse another group of experts to start next year to continue that important work. 

Read related news story:

UN disarmament chief relays plans for chemical weapons probe to Syrian Government