Angela Kane, one of the United Nations’ most respected and experienced officials and the lead negotiator in 2014 in persuading Syria to give up its chemical weapons, has announced unexpectedly that she will be leaving the organization. She has been the UN’s High Representative for Disarmament since March 2012.
Reports are circulating around the UN that Kane, one of the few high-ranking women in peace and security, was being moved from her position to accommodate an aide to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who will be out of a job when Ban’s second term ends in 2016. On Feb. 25, Inner City Press, quoting unnamed sources, reported that Kim Won-soo, Ban’s senior adviser and former chief of staff and a fellow Korean, was in line to replace Kane. There has been no official confirmation of that report, but several people close to Kane and disarmament affairs say that the apparent move was what propelled her to quit the organization where she has worked for 38 years.
Kane confirmed in an email as she traveled to Qatar for a NATO conference that she was leaving. In a letter she sent on March 1 to colleagues and friends announcing her departure, Kane said that “working for the United Nations . . . has never been ‘just a job.’
“For all of us, however, there comes a time when we need to say good-bye, and for me, this moment is approaching,” she wrote, assuring the disarmament community that she will remain at the UN through a crucial five-year review of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which takes place at UN headquarters from April 27 to May 22. “We will face the challenge of the NPT Review Conference together, but after the Conference, I will be leaving the United Nations,” Kane wrote to her colleagues.
Born in 1948 near Hamelin, Germany, Kane 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.
Kane built her career on her own, without needing government interference, as is the rule in most other cases. Almost by happenstance, she enrolled at Bryn Mawr College on a scholarship after a Bryn Mawr student who was her roommate at a school in Switzerland, where Kane had gone to perfect her French, persuaded her to apply. Kane had left Germany during a period of student turmoil and the chance of moving to an American college came at an opportune time. After graduating from Bryn Mawr, she got a graduate degree in international studies from Johns Hopkins, and then a job at the World Bank before she was hired for what was supposed to be a temporary contract by the UN. She was soon hooked by the work of the organization.
“I did not anticipate staying here for my entire career,” she wrote in her letter to colleagues. “But we all know that life takes unexpected turns, and once the passion of working for the Organization took hold in me, there was never a thought of doing anything else.”
In an interview in October 2014, Kane told me that she had always looked for, and found, interesting jobs. “I’ve never shied away from assignments,” she said, accepting even a sideways move “as long as it’s interesting.”
She said in the interview that 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.”
The road has not always been smooth. She met objections from governments and UN staff who saw themselves as guardians of all information they preferred not to share when she was asked to consolidate and improve the UN website. When Ted Turner set aside a billion-dollar gift to the UN and the organization needed to find a UN official to act as liaison with Turner’s UN Foundation, Kane — the first choice for the job — was pushed aside when the Latin American-Caribbean region demanded the position.
“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. 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.’ “
If reports about the circumstances of her departure from the UN are confirmed, it will be another example of government interference. There is speculation that Germany is demanding another high post and there can’t be two Germans at that level in the eyes of regions outside Europe. Or a place has to be found for Kim Won-soo.
For whatever politically motivated reason, the departure of Angela Kane will be a great loss.
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.