Angela Kane has covered a lot of territory for the United Nations, but one of her toughest jobs in a career spanning more than three decades may be negotiating with Syria to begin the still-uncertain process of destroying the chemical weapons that President Bashar al-Assad only recently denied he had.
“It wasn’t easy,” Kane said recently in an interview in her UN office in New York, as disarmament specialists from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons were about to begin their delicate and dangerous task of checking the list of outlawed arms that the Syrians have given them against ground realities and possible unpleasant surprises. Work on dismantling the weapons — missile heads, bombs and equipment to mix the poison compounds — has already begun.
Kane became the UN’s high representative for disarmament, heading an office once known as the Department of Disarmament Affairs, in March 2012. The Syrian civil war had begun a year earlier and rapidly became more lethal as rebels advanced in some areas and government military forces responded with heavy weapons.
Charges and countercharges of chemical weapons use became a focus of debate by early this year, but the Security Council was deadlocked on how to respond. That deadlock was broken in September by United States Secretary of State John Kerry and Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, and the Council voted unanimously to demand that the chemical arms be destroyed. This work would technically be done by Syria under the supervision of UN inspectors and specialists from the intergovernmental Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, based in The Hague. (The organization was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on Oct. 11 for its efforts to destroy these weapons in Syria and earlier work.)
With her wide experience in war and peace to draw on, Kane emphasized repeatedly in conversations that this difficult and dangerous mission is just the first step in a bigger task. Urgent needs are felt by Syrian civilians who have been plunged into a human catastrophe of epic proportions, with millions driven from their homes. At least 100,000 civilians and combatants have been killed. A peace deal of some kind must be reached, the UN says; negotiations on that are due to begin in mid-November with not much hope in the air.
Kane, who was born in 1948 in Hamelin, Germany, has served the UN on almost every continent. She has been assigned to positions in Indonesia and Thailand, worked on peacemaking in El Salvador and was deputy special representative of the secretary-general in Ethiopia and Eritrea. At UN headquarters, she has been assistant secretary-general for political affairs, under secretary-general for management and an adviser to a former secretary-general on global disarmament issues and the World Disarmament Campaign.
Personally as well as professionally, Kane has traveled a long way. “I come from a very small town; I grew up in a village outside that town, where there were no working women — there were none. I didn’t know any divorced people. We didn’t have any divorce. It just didn’t exist.”
“My mother — she had no education — never worked in her whole life,” Kane said. “But she told me, ‘Child, you’d better get an education because no one can ever take that away from you.’ ” Kane enrolled at the University of Munich in the turbulent 1960s, when student unrest gripped both European and American campuses. “I started studies there and then I left because all of the difficulties. I felt it was too big a town and I had a very good time socially, but I didn’t have a very good time academically.”
Kane left Germany because of the student turmoil and went to Switzerland to improve her French. There, she had a roommate from Bryn Mawr College, who urged her to go to the US and enroll at the school. Kane got a scholarship and finished her first degree at Bryn Mawr. “I have to say that for me, going to Bryn Mawr was empowering,” she said. She also holds a degree from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. A job at the World Bank preceded her joining the UN.
Kane said that she always looked for interesting jobs — something that was easier done at the UN in the past than it is now, when officials get type-cast and often limited to one area or another. “I’ve never shied away from assignments,” she said, accepting even a sideways move “as long as it’s interesting.”
She thinks too many men — therefore most high officials — are more focused on the next promotion in their career paths. “I’ve done all kinds of things,” she said. “I’ve done public information, I’ve done political, and I’ve done peacekeeping. That has always appealed to me, and I really reject the view that you always look for the next promotion.”
Samir Sanbar, a former under secretary-general for public information, was one of her bosses (and he promoted her without being asked). Sanbar, who is retired and publishes a gossipy blog on UN affairs, UN Forum, said in an e-mail that he had known Kane since they met in Jakarta as he was reopening a UN information center there. Later in 1994, when Kane was a political adviser to Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, their paths crossed again. Sanbar was then running the UN Department of Public Information.
“She expressed an interest in 1994 to join DPI while we were flying back from Geneva,” he said. “I had launched the UN web site against the desires of many senior Secretariat officials and diplomatic missions, who initially refused to authorize financial and staffing requirements as they felt that we may be giving too much information to the public. My point was that that’s precisely our mission.
“I suggested to Angela that if she would help consolidate the web site I would support her promotion to D-2 level as one of three directors in the department and move the web site into her area, which included publications and the Dag Hammarskjold Library,” he said.
Sanbar continued: “She put her heart and mind to it and we were able to show delegations and skeptical Secretariat officials that they would be the main beneficiaries of that venture, as well as new valuable audiences, particularly youth and civic groups. She had some problems with a couple of staff who thought they were more knowledgeable in library issues than a newcomer; but that was gradually overcome through practical results.”
The controversy over starting a public UN Web site was not the first Kane had faced down or the last. “Basically, I’ve had my knocks,” she said. “One of them was when I was much lower [in the organization]. Someone lied to me: ‘Yes, you’ll get the promotion.’ But it didn’t happen, and I was so furious about being lied to.” She appealed and won, but the next boss in the unit never acted on the decision.
“I think that what frustrates me sometimes is that we are so boxed in by member states: ‘You can’t do this, and you can’t do that; it has to be this way,’ ” she said. “I think the philosophy that has really been created by all of these oversight mechanisms [affects us] in a negative way. It subjects us to all kinds of rules and strictures.”
Her most recent experience was trying to create a strategic planning unit in her disarmament office. “After having been here for just under a year, I said let’s take a look at this,” she said. “I wanted to create a little strategic planning unit: Take one person from here, one person from there, because I thought this office had a lot of overarching issues that didn’t fit into nuclear weapons, that didn’t fit into conventional weapons. But basically, I was told by one member state, ‘You don’t do any strategic planning, we do it. You just execute it.’
“So that’s something that I find very, very difficult. In order to do a really good job, sometimes you have to be a little more creative.” Also, because of interference by member states, she added, hiring and promotions take a long, arduous time. “I’d like to see a little more confidence from the member states.”
Kane has not been afraid of public comment. In March this year she wrote a blog for The Huffington Post titled “The Myth of the UN Gun Grab,” which took on the claims in the United States that the UN planned to use a new Arms Trade Treaty to disarm American citizens.
“The United States debate on guns is a national one, and that’s the way it should be,” she wrote. “Some, however, are trying to drag the UN into the fray, because of its alleged intention to end private gun ownership in this country. . . . This absurd but often repeated claim deserves a strong rebuttal. So let me set the record straight.” And she did.
If more UN officials would do that more often, the American public and some of its politicians, whatever their motivations for their ill-informed comments, might know more about the organization and how it really works.
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.