INTERVIEW: UN official cites 'growing impatience' by States for nuclear disarmament

Angela Kane, High Representative for Disarmament Affairs. UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

12 May 2015 – Nuclear disarmament, as envisioned in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), has simply not occurred, according to senior United Nations official Angela Kane, who cites a “growing impatience” by the non-nuclear-weapon States for the nuclear-weapon States to disarm.

Ms. Kane has served as High Representative for Disarmament Affairs for the past three years, a period during which, she says, the very deep gap between the nuclear-weapon States and the non-nuclear-weapon States has grown even wider. As the 189 States parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) meet in New York for the review conference that is held every five years, the veteran UN official spoke to the UN News Centre about developments in this area.

She also discusses her career at the UN, where she has served for the past 38 years in a number of senior positions and from which she will depart at the end of this month. The German national has served on almost every continent and has vast experience ranging from political affairs, peacekeeping, public information and management. The interview has been edited for content and clarity.

UN News Centre: You’ll soon be leaving after a long and impressive career with the UN. When did you join the Organization?

Angela Kane: I joined in 1977. I found myself in New York. I didn’t have a work visa and I thought well, maybe I can find something at the United Nations. So there was an employment office at the time. You had two books – one was for General Service; but if you had a graduate university degree, you could look in the other book. That’s where I looked. I found out it’s not that easy, it’s not like you find something and you immediately apply. But I was very lucky. I passed an exam, a test they had at the time, and I got a job very, very quickly. I started at that time as an editor-writer for the United Nations Yearbook in DPI (Department of Public Information). I stayed there for less than a year because then I was asked to compete for another job in the Secretary-General’s Office, which I got. So then I moved to the Secretary-General’s Office which was a very interesting experience – as a P-2, the lowest professional level, and then to all of a sudden be on the 38th floor.

UN News Centre: What have been the most important developments in the area of disarmament over the past three years during which you’ve served as High Representative?

Angela Kane: What I have seen over the last three years has really been a very deep gap that has opened even wider between the nuclear-weapon States and the non-nuclear-weapon States. There’s a growing impatience by the non-nuclear-weapon States for the nuclear-weapon States to disarm, to actually have nuclear disarmament as it was agreed in the Non-Proliferation Treaty. And that has simply not occurred.

Ms. Kane (second from right) looks on as UN Messenger of Peace Michael Douglas (left) addresses the opening of an academic symposium held on the margins of the NPT Review Conference held in April 2015 in New York. UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

The numbers of the nuclear weapons have gone down, particularly since the Cold War period. But after the expectations when US President Obama came into office with very high promises, particularly in the nuclear disarmament field, that has fizzled to a tremendous degree. And that has been very regrettable because it means that the relationship between the non-nuclear-weapon States and the nuclear-weapon States has become more difficult. That is shown particularly right now during the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, which happens every five years. 

UN News Centre: What is the biggest contribution that the United Nations can make to global disarmament efforts?

Angela Kane: We are not the ones who actually can disarm but we can advocate and we can make a case for it. I think that that has been very effective. The Secretary-General is someone who is very interested in disarmament efforts. He was the first Secretary-General ever to visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I remember when he entrusted me with this job, the first thing he said to me was ‘You must go to Hiroshima and Nagasaki,’ because seeing it yourself with your own eyes and seeing the peace museum and meeting with the Hibakusha, the survivors of the atomic bombing, is extremely emotional and basically brings home what happened there and what we must do in order to avoid another instance ever of an explosion of an atomic bomb. And I did that. I went the first year and it does leave you very humbled in terms of what the people have experienced and also it strengthens your resolve to say ‘never again.’

But what we can do, as I said, is advocate and that’s what we do, I hope effectively. Not everyone may like our position but, on the other hand, we try to basically make sure that to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war also applies to not having a possibility of having a nuclear war. 

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (left) looks over photographs of atomic bomb victims at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum in Japan during an August 2010 visit. UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

UN News Centre: You’ve had a wide-ranging career with the United Nations, including in peacekeeping, political affairs and public information. Where do you think you’ve made the most difference?

Angela Kane: Whatever I did I always tried to make a difference because that’s really worthwhile when you work. I was never content to just sit there and fulfil a mandate that I had been given. I’ve always been ‘rattling the cage,’ as they say, and that’s something that is not always liked in the United Nations. I think someone who kind of follows the script and follows it as it goes along is usually safer. But safe was never my motto. I will give you one example, and then I’ll give you another one from the political field. I joined DPI in mid ‘95 and the UN website had just been launched. That was a great achievement. It was terrific; it was early; it was pioneering. I joined the week it was launched. It had a couple of pages; it was rudimentary but, as I said, it was very much pioneering.

After about a month, I said to the Under-Secretary-General – it was Samir Sanbar at the time – ‘What is being done to develop this?’ It was like tuning into the same television programme every single day. And he said, ‘What do you mean?’ And I said, ‘Well you need to develop more.’ And he said, “Do you know anything about it?’ I said, ‘Well, I’ve never done it but I’m interested in it.’ And he said, “Fine, you got it.’

So all of a sudden, I was in charge of developing the UN website. And it was a fantastic experience because you had people who were so enthusiastic about the project. We learned, at that time, HTML. We had a snowball effect. We got pages together. We changed it several times. We redesigned it. Then we launched it in French. Then there was pressure to launch it in other languages. It was a wonderful team effort… … you know it’s not like we were going home at 5:30… but because people were so passionate about it… and that was one of the most heady experiences that I think, at the time, was so worthwhile. But it swallowed me. It was very, very difficult because there were other tasks that needed to be done, but this was really so intense and it was just kind of at the cusp of this major explosion in the Internet. It was part of a revolution that I’m still very, very proud of.

Every job that I have done, particularly in political affairs, you often don’t see the ‘successes’ because it’s not very visible. It’s very rare that you have a breakthrough. One of the early experiences I had was to work with Alvaro de Soto [Special Advisor to UN Secretary-General] on the El Salvador peace accords. That was ground-breaking. He did all of the work, all of the negotiations. But he said to me, ‘You need to basically be my person in New York. I’m mostly in the field negotiating with the Government and the rebels, but I need someone I can bounce ideas off.’ He would then bounce off ideas saying, ‘We’ve run up against a problem in the negotiations. Can you find a solution to it?’ And that was very creative. I mean it was fascinating. I loved that.

UN observers, tasked with training El Salvador’s national police force, look on as a Salvadoran police officer (far right) makes a traffic stop in February 1992. The UN helped forge the landmark 1991 peace agreement that ended the country’s 12-year civil war and then deployed a mission to verify the implementation of the accords and assist with post-conflict peacebuilding. UN Photo/J Bleibtreu

And then he said to me, ‘We need a whole chapter in the peace accords on how to establish a national civil police, and can you do something about this?’ I knew nothing about how to establish a national civil police. I put together a team and then travelled to El Salvador and we actually put together, with the help of this team, the chapter on the national civil police in the El Salvador peace accords. That was something that was very tangible.

The other example that I wanted to give you is the Syria chemical weapons investigation. It was something that I certainly did not expect when the Secretary-General entrusted me with the job and it took over my life for all of 2013. I think that the investigation was really ground-breaking because we’d never had an investigation according to a mechanism that was established by the General Assembly in which, after a very short period of time, the team went there with a lot of personal danger to themselves and established that chemical weapons were in fact used in the vicinity of Damascus.

UN News Centre: From your experience, is the Organization doing enough to promote the advancement of women within its own ranks?

Angela Kane: Now it is. I think that Secretary-General Ban has really made tremendous strides in appointing more senior women, particularly at the Assistant Secretary-General and Under-Secretary-General levels. But it could be more at the lower levels. When I started there were very few women. There were certainly no role models. I don’t think I ever had a woman as a boss because they just didn’t exist. There was still this feeling of, ‘Well can you really entrust a woman with certain responsibilities?’ I remember when I became an Assistant Secretary-General in the Department of Political Affairs. I was responsible for everything except Africa, south of North Africa. And people said to me, ‘Well how can you do this job because you have to deal with people in the Middle East and would they accept you as a woman?’ I have never had a problem because if you have a mandate and if you have an authority, you simply exercise that authority. But y ou don’t ask people whether they agree with whether you’re a woman or a man. So if you’re afraid of tackling that, you shouldn’t take that job.

Assistant-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Angela Kane addresses a Security Council meeting on the situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question, in April 2008. UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras

But it is true that there is primarily, still in many ways, a male culture. But it has changed tremendously over the last couple of years. And I’m very happy to see that. I think there could also be more done in terms of encouraging women to take on more responsibility. That is not happening enough. I find that you have to expose yourself. You have to go out there. You have to talk. You always have to volunteer for something. I volunteered on I don’t know how many boards and committees – none of which were in my job description – but simply because I always wanted to learn something. I think that’s what needs to be done more but that’s an initiative that every woman herself must take…

Also, DPI has the Speakers Bureau and they’re always asking for people to speak to various groups. Now you try that once, because you also have to speak to teenagers who are coming to the UN and they’re kind of sitting there with their blackberry or iPhone, and they’re not really interested in what you’re saying. You try to capture their attention. It’s a great training ground for speaking publicly. Because I still find that women are more reluctant to speak up in meetings, and that’s a shame because I believe that they do have a lot to say. Sometimes maybe the male says it better or the male says it first. But on the other hand, this is something that I think really has to happen.

An aerial view of the Mereb Bridge, which recreated a physical link between Ethiopia and Eritrea when it reopened in July 2001. Ms. Kane served as the deputy head of the UN Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE), which was set up in 2000 to monitor the ceasefire between the two nations and was terminated eight years later, owing to crippling restrictions imposed by Eritrea on the mission. UN Photo/Jorge Aramburu

I was the Deputy SRSG in a peacekeeping mission – 4,500 troops – and I had to go out and speak to them all the time. This was in Ethiopia/Eritrea. So basically, here you go, and again, the hurdle that I had to overcome… I had to learn about military ranks… and how many people are in a battalion… what is a lieutenant colonel versus a colonel… I’ve never been in the military so how was I supposed to know? So that was something that I had to learn about. But, on the other hand, that’s just a learning curve that you do very quickly. But you have to have the courage to then go and to address troops.

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Excerpts of interview with Angela Kane. Credit: UN WebTV

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