Resilience, Peace and Security

How to disarm a dictator

A US Air Force team removes the upper section of an intercontinental ballistic missile. Image: REUTERS/USAF/Airman John Parie

Alexander Starritt
Editor, Apolitical
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Fragility, Violence and Conflict

As the UN’s High Representative for Disarmament, Angela Kane had to negotiate with member states from a seemingly impossible position: with no real leverage, and with them paying for her organisation. In short: how do you persuade a country to give up the expensive chemical or nuclear weapons it has not only bought and paid for, but that it considers vital to its national defence and that, in the nuclear case, have given it a seat at the UN’s own Security Council?

Freer to speak since leaving the United Nations recently, Kane told Apolitical how she went about it – and about one of the great successes in the field: the negotiated ban on chemical weapons in Syria. In the political pressure cooker of summer 2013, when Barack Obama’s ‘red line’ on chemical weapons had been crossed and airstrikes against Assad were being debated, Kane went to Damascus and played hardball with the dictatorship, winning crucial concessions on the ground.

Kane spent 38 years in the UN before leaving to join the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation. She originally joined the UN because, as a German, it was the only place in the US she could work without a visa. Tough, practical, charismatic and given to frequent laughter, she moved around almost all of the UN’s departments, learning from each and eventually rising to the highest levels. She also explains how to get to the top, what women can learn from men, and why you have to bend the rules to make the most of them.

What is the power dynamic when you’re negotiating with member states?
It’s difficult, because, depending on what you want to do, the member states are either saying, ‘Oh yes, yes, yes, we support you, please go ahead.’ Or they’re going to say, ‘We give the strategy and you are basically just executing it. We’re the ones paying for the UN.’

But if you think about nuclear weapons – the numbers have gone down tremendously, from 70,000 at the height of the Cold War to about 16 or 17,000 right now – but nuclear weapons haven’t been outlawed yet and there’s no sign they will be outlawed. Deterrence is in the military doctrine of many countries.

And it depends on who you’re talking to. The nuclear states obviously have a very different approach from the non-nuclear weapon states. So the non-nuclears would be very supportive of whatever I was advocating, and the nuclear states would be rather cautiously warning me: ‘Don’t go too far now.’ They wouldn’t say that outright, because they can’t really say we’ll never abolish nuclear weapons, but it’s very difficult. You have to walk a very tight rope between the member states.

What kind of leverage can you use if they’re paying for you?
I don’t have leverage. The only leverage you have is moral suasion. What else do you have? You have a stated goal, nuclear disarmament, and it’s not happening. What you have instead is an incredibly expensive modernisation regime. Think about the UK, Trident, this whole debate that’s going on now. In the States it’s already been decided: they have modernisation programs for nuclear weapons that go on for over 20 years, and then they belong to a non-proliferation treaty with a stated goal of nuclear disarmament. So what you do is basically you draw attention to this. That’s not always appreciated. But if you want to do a good job, that’s what you do.

The Humanitarian Initiative, a group of states working for non-proliferation, brought the US and the UK to a conference in Vienna and the US had to listen to some of the survivors of atomic testing in Nevada and Utah; and it was very tough for them I’m sure. But it’s a historic fact, you can’t talk that away. It was something that gave a lot of hope to the NGOs and to the non-nuclear weapon states, but right now it’s a minimum position, the only agreement being to hold an open-ended working group.

What do you think is possible in this kind of field, when you’re working against what states perceive as their own interests?
Think about this World Economic Forum in Davos, the debate we had on What If: Robots Go To War. My point was really that the science is going so fast it’s bypassing most of the world. It was only six or eight years ago we started having drones; now you can buy one on the internet for a hundred bucks, and launch it. Unless you pay attention to these things, they get out of hand, and so what you do is draw attention to these new dangers.

Three years ago, I started talking to member states about robotic weapons. And it wasn’t quite right yet. It was too early. Then one country took it up as part of something else, and now it’s taken on some momentum. I still think it’s too slow, but just today I was in a call with Geneva and the World Economic Forum because we’re trying to see if private industry can get involved in this. So things are happening, and that’s what you can do. If you’ve got the energy, if you’ve got the patience, and if you’ve got the knowledge.

You also scored a big success in Syria, negotiating with Assad’s government for a ban on chemical weapons (although chlorine barrel bombs are still in use). How did the deal come about?
Obama was threatening airstrikes after the chemical attack on Ghouta, the inspection team was in Damascus, it was a very dicey situation. But it was apparently an offhand remark that Kerry made to Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, saying, ‘If only they would agree to give up chemical weapons, then we wouldn’t have a problem.’ Lavrov apparently took him up on that, and forced the Syrians to come clean. A week before, the Syrians had said to me, ‘We don’t have any chemical weapons, we would never use them against our own people.’ The whole thing was just unreal.

What part did you play in it?
Before Ghouta, I’d put together the inspection team and all the infrastructure and then, when the Syrians didn’t agree to the conditions, I threatened to close down the mission. They were saying, ‘You can’t, because you’ve got this mechanism [for bringing Syria into an agreement banning chemical weapons].’ And I said, ‘Just wait and see. I’m going to go away for a week and when I come back, if things haven’t changed I don’t see the point of going on.’ Then the ambassador called and said, ‘I’m giving a press conference in one hour’s time and we’re going to invite you to come to Damascus and negotiate.’

And it’s very tough, because you come from the States, you have a time change of eight hours, you have to travel overland from Beirut to Damascus because you couldn’t fly in. I was jetlagged, it was Ramadan so they were deprived. And we negotiated. After two days, I said, ‘I don’t think we’re going anywhere, so I think I’m going to book my flight and get out of here.’ And then all of a sudden, things started happening. They agreed that we could investigate two additional sites, though I didn’t tell them what they were because I didn’t want them to destroy the evidence. And that was a really great success.

But then the attack on Ghouta happened.
Yes, while the team was in the country. And then I had to negotiate again to get access, because Syria is a sovereign, independent country – you can’t just traipse wherever you want. So you have to rely on their cooperation, even though they’re not in control of the territory. And I had to get a ceasefire because the team can’t go there if you’re bombing it. So they said, ‘OK, we’ll stop for two hours.’ But it takes a good hour to travel there, so in the end I got five hours. But these things – you can do things.

Angela Kane with the Syrian inspections team

In your 38 years in the UN, you worked in almost every department and in countless countries. Do you think that’s useful for professional development?
I do. I do. Whenever young people come to me, particularly women, and say, ‘What you’ve done is so unusual,’ I always tell them that I never went for the next promotion. Oh yes, I always wanted to be promoted. But I always went for the job that was interesting. And I always volunteered for things. I got one job because I volunteered on a committee that was in addition to my normal work and people thought it was a little bit stodgy, but I found it very interesting and I came to the notice of someone who was higher up than I was.

You get exposure that way, plus you learn about other things. And I’ve gotten some jobs simply because I’ve stuck up my hand and said, ‘Yes, I’ll volunteer.’ That I think for women is not that usual. I think men are much more easy-going in terms of saying, ‘Oh yes, I can do that. That’s easy. I’ve done something like that before.’ And women are much more careful and say, ‘Oh, I don’t really meet all the requirements.’ Well, you don’t, because it’s a new job. You’re still learning.

You know, I got very frustrated with the bureaucratic structure of the UN, but if you know how to work it, you can negotiate and get results.

How do you work a system that big?
You have to know it. You have to know where the boundaries are. And the boundaries you only learn by testing them, frankly. Because if you are just there blinkered and you say, ‘Oh these are the rules and I follow them…’ I don’t mean to advocate not following the rules, but sometimes there are also different interpretations that can be given to the rules.

The other thing I learned is: don’t spring surprises on governments. Because they’re very conservative. It’s much better to say to them: this is what I intend to do, how would you react? And sometimes you run up against a barrier and you just have to step back and accept it. You just say: fine, let’s see what else we can do.

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