Welcome to our new column, Security Council Presidency, providing insight into the United Nations Security Council member sitting in the rotating seat of the president every month. The column began in July, when Sweden was president, led by the country’s UN ambassador, Olof Skoog.
For August, we profile Karen Pierce, Britain’s ambassador to the UN, through an interview with her and her press office in New York. Pierce is only one of three female ambassadors on the 15-member Security Council (along with the Polish and American envoys).
The column is meant to be an informative capsule of not only the country’s ambassador but also the ambitions of the country in the presidency for the monthlong stint. A short country profile is also part of our new feature.
Britain’s Ambassador to the UN: Karen Pierce
Ambassador to UN Since: March 2018
Languages: English, Japanese
Education: London School of Economics (master of science degree in international strategy and diplomacy); Cambridge University (M.A. in English)
Her story, briefly: Karen Pierce, who is 58, grew up in a town called Preston in Lancashire, northwest England. Her father was an architectural draftsman and her mother was a secretary; Karen was an only child. “I didn’t grow up in a political family at all,” Pierce said in an interview with PassBlue, “but I ended up in politics because it was outside of my circle of experience.”
She was the first member of her family to attend university, according to a BBC profile in April 2018, and she has had a long career working for her government, moving around the world but repeatedly returning to London. She met her husband, Charles Roxburgh, who works for the British Treasury, at a sherry reception at Cambridge University while they were students, according to the BBC. Her inspiration for joining the British foreign office? Apparently Margaret Thatcher, per the BBC.
In March 2018, she was named Britain’s ambassador to the UN in New York. Before that, Pierce was most recently the director general for political affairs of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office — the foreign ministry — in London, from 2016.
Pierce joined the FCO, as it is known, in 1981. Her first posting was in Tokyo, in 1984, after which she returned to Britain to work in the Security Policy Department in 1987. She then worked in Washington, D.C., as the private secretary to the British ambassador to the United States from 1992 to 1995. After that assignment, Pierce held several positions in London, including on the Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova desks; as deputy head of the Balkans Department; and as head of the European Union Department while also head of the Afghanistan Political Military Unit after the 9/11 attacks on America. She returned to the Balkans desk from 2002 to 2006.
Pierce then moved to New York to be the deputy permanent representative to Britain’s mission to the UN. In 2009, she moved back to London to become the director of the South Asia and Afghanistan Department and then Britain’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. In 2012, she moved to Geneva, where she was the ambassador to the British mission to the UN, World Trade Organization and Other International Organizations until 2015. She was Britain’s ambassador to Afghanistan from 2015 to 2016.
Pierce said in the interview with PassBlue that some of the most instrumental moments in her career were her work on the Russian invasion of Georgia and nonproliferation, as well as Security Council resolutions on Iran. “They were good achievements and are related to what I am doing now,” Pierce said.
In the BBC profile of her, Staffan de Mistura, the UN envoy for Syria, said that Pierce is a “no nonsense” person who tends to propose ideas “out of the box.” Her vivid sense of style was also noted in the profile. Comments from friends and colleagues noted her penchant for colorful clothes, an “extravagant accessory” and for being “very attached to her high heels,” sending the message, one person said, that Pierce is not afraid to hide her femininity.
How do you like New York City? “I love New York and I’ve always wanted to live in New York City. I love being back here. It’s a fantastic place, full of energy. I like the UN and NY — I don’t really have a favorite neighborhood because we live in government accommodation.”
What do you miss about the UK? “I miss my family. I came here by myself because my husband works for the UK Treasury, so he can’t come here and we have to commute,” Pierce said. “I also have two sons — one is working and the other one is studying — but none of them are planning on working in international affairs. They are interested and they do follow my work at the Security Council. I also miss my garden.”
How has Brexit affected the UK’s work in the Security Council? “In 2019, the UN will be a more active stage for the UK to be an independent foreign policy force — and we are thinking now what we’d like to do in practice to give expression to that,” Pierce said. “I still hope to have a very deep and cooperative relationship with EU institutions and European partners. We share similar values and goals and expect to continue to work closely with our EU partners.”
De Mistura, the UN envoy for Syria, said in the BBC interview that with Britain not being linked directly to the European Union “common approach” after Brexit, it would need a “personality showing that the UK has its own identity,” suggesting that Pierce is the right person for that role in the UN.
Priorities of Britain’s presidency of the Security Council in August 2018: An “effective, efficient presidency that will focus on issues where the Council can make a difference,” the press office said. The aim is also to make the presidency “inclusive” by inviting a diverse range of briefers to speak to the Council, including women and representatives of civil society. “We will engage closely and transparently with civil society and media,” the press office added.
Two discretionary events will be held: The first, on Burma, marks a year from the outbreak of the Rohingya crisis. This briefing, the press office said, aims to inform the international community about the situation on the ground, including refugees in Bangladesh, and discuss progress since the memorandum of understanding that was signed among the Burmese government, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the UN Development Program. Secretary-General António Guterres is expected to brief for the UN at the meeting.
“The UK has long historical ties with Myanmar,” Pierce said, “and we were interested in Aung San Suu Kyi [currently, State Counsellor] when she was released from jail, and the most recent crisis sparked lots of renewed interest in Myanmar and possible human rights violations taking place there.
“Most people in the Security Council agree with us that we should stay engaged at high-level intensity and some members preferred to keep meetings private, but because of the one year anniversary and the intense public interest in the Security Council mission, we believe it is right to do this session in public. So far, the whole Council is quite united on Burma.”
The second event is an open debate on mediation and conflict prevention, which will enable UN member nations to consider the role of mediation in bringing peaceful solutions to conflicts and reflect on the contribution that the UN can make in mediation processes. Guterres and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, as a member of Guterres’s high-level mediation board, are expected to brief the Council, according to the press office of the British mission to the UN.
“We wanted to do it because [it is a] topic the Security Council hasn’t discussed for a while — it is part of an effort on conflict prevention,” Pierce said. “The secretary-general would like the UN to be more receptive on mediation and support.”
In addition, another major priority is Yemen: Martin Griffiths, the UN envoy for Yemen, will update the Security Council on the humanitarian and political situation, including around the vital port of Hodeidah and his work to restart political negotiations, the press office said.
Head of State: Queen Elizabeth II
Prime Minister: Theresa May
Foreign Affairs Minister: Jeremy Hunt (after Boris Johnson resigned on July 9, 2018)
Type of Government: Constitutional monarchy headed by the prime minister
Year Britain Joined the UN: 1945
Years in the Security Council: One of the permanent-five Council members (China, Britain, France, Russia and the United States)
Closest Allies on the Council: Other Europeans, the US, Peru and Kuwait
Population: 62.8 million
Memberships in Regional Groups: European Union (for now), Group of Seven (G7), Group of Twenty (G20), NATO, Commonwealth
Adult Literacy Rate: 99% (2014)
Maternal Death Rate: 10 per 100,000 (2014)
GDP per Capita: Britain: $39,720; world: $10,172 (2017)
Emissions (tons of CO2/year):5 (world average, 5)
Total Contributions to UN Operating Budget (rounded): $108 million (2018), making Britain the sixth-largest contributor to the UN
Total Contributions to UN Peacekeeping Budget (rounded for six-month interim amount): $386 million, making it the fourth-largest contributor among the permanent-five members (in order: US, China, France, Britain, Russia)
Contributions to UN Funds and Programs (rounded): $3 million (2018)
Electric Power Consumption: 5MWh (world average: 3mWh)
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This article was updated.
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Stéphanie Fillion is a New York-based reporter specializing in foreign affairs and human rights who has been writing for PassBlue regularly for a year, including co-producing UN-Scripted, a new podcast series on global affairs through a UN lens. She has a master’s degree in journalism, politics and global affairs from Columbia University and a B.A. in political science from McGill University. Fillion was awarded a European Union in Canada Young Journalists fellowship in 2015 and was an editorial fellow for La Stampa in 2017. She speaks French, English and Italian.