Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Not a Royal Visit - But a Distinguished one Nonetheless

At the same time as Kate, William and baby George have been zipping around the drizzly Wellington streets these last couple of days, another distinguished visitor has been welcomed to our capital for a significantly different purpose. Angela Kane, the UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, has spent a second day in Wellington today and has continued her busy schedule speaking to parliamentarians, conducting an interview on National Radio's Nine to Noon, holding a seminar at Vic Uni and giving a public lecture. I was fortunate enough to attend her speaking engagements at university and with the NZIIA so this evening I want to record my impressions of Angela and summarise some of what I learnt from her talks.

Angela Kane speaking at the NZIIA's Annual Foreign Policy Lecture yesterday.

I was prepared for Angela to be astute and articulate and of course I was not disappointed. Dressed smartly in a green jacket and shiny brooch, her style simple but elegant, Angela strode confidently into Laby 118 and didn't muck around as she politely acknowledged the audience and then launched straight into the substance of her seminar. She spoke quickly but chose her words carefully and her speech was coloured with quotations both by well-known figures in international affairs and writers (Angela has a fondness of English and French literature and I noted with a smile that she quoted Lewis Carroll in her address at the Law School in Auckland.) Angela gave a scrupulous and honest view of world affairs: she was not pessimistic but neither did she shy away from the difficulties of achieving global security and what shone through as she spoke was her fierce commitment to the ultimate goal of peace and the role of the UN in achieving this.

Maybe Angela and I share a love of Lewis Carroll?

The essence of Angela's talk at Vic was the importance of congruency - the idea that a collection of different ideas is able to form a complete whole. In terms of nuclear disarmament, this looks like that rare and special occasion when public opinion and foreign policy align. Angela declared New Zealand to be a "shining example" of a country where congruence is in evidence - where our civic institutions and citizen viewpoints work in harmony with our foreign policies, as evidenced by our public's opposition to nuclear weapons and our government's commitment to a weapon-free world. New Zealand is one of just a handful of countries to showcase such congruence (Angela cited Kazakhstan as another example and I guess many African and Pacific Island states would also fit the bill) and we are thus an example to other states suffering the scourge of incongruence. The situation is much more complicated and in need of repair when a state is under a legal obligation to conduct nuclear disarmament, but when it does not uphold this commitment in its national legislation. Angela believes the world needs more congruence and that it is in the interests of every person on this planet to work for this goal. Angela emphasised the ongoing importance of disarmament work. She lamented how her generation has left disarmament for us as an "unwanted legacy" and "unfinished business" but she urged us to continue the work that she and others are doing with the aim to rid the world of nuclear weapons. She concluded with a hard-hitting quotation by Horace Mann that will surely challenge all the 40 or so students present at her talk: Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.

Pragmatic New Zealand - a country of congruence in action!

Angela's second talk was little over an hour later at the Pipitea Campus. This time it was a public address, hosted by the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs and followed by a reception. The theatre was nearly full, and glancing about it seemed we were a mix of university students, working-age men and women and white-haired retirees. Angela was as composed and confident as last time and unruffled when it came to question time - able to easily sweep away the predictable claims that resurfaced about the necessity of nuclear weapons for global security with a few convincing sentences to the contrary. This time she spoke about the global progress made in disarmament more generally; the title of her talk being "Disarmament, The Balance Sheet." Angela commenced her talk by remarking that disarmanent is like beauty - it appears different in the eyes of the beholder. She proposed two main views in regards to disarmament, the optimistic and the pessimistic view. The optimist would focus on the progress already made: the international norms that have been developed, (who talks about the 'biological weapons states' or the 'biological weapons umbrella? Angela asked, which country boasts: I am so powerful, I have a bubonic plague in my laboratory!) On the contrary, countries such as New Zealand, Mongolia, Brazil and South Africa are proud to declare themselves nuclear weapons free. Membership of the biological and chemical weapons conventions is near universal and the international community has succeeded in banning cluster munitions and landmines. The Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize) has destroyed 80% of the global stockpile of chemical weapons. Tens of thousands of nuclear weapons have been destroyed and five regional nuclear weapon-free zones have been created. The humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons has come under the spotlight and there have been major conferences on this topic held in Oslo and Nayarit. (Oh yeah!) So things are looking good, aren't they?

3D printers - will they pose a challenge to peace and security?

But upon hearing this, the pessimist here would be desperate to have his penny's worth, Angela said, although she worded this more eloquently. (Her speech is no doubt available online already anyway - you can have a read!) He would note that the biological weapons convention failed to establish a verification agency and that chemical weapons were used to devastating effect in Syria. The Arms Trade Treaty was watered down and many countries have major plans to modernise their arsenals of nuclear weapons. The CTBT has not come into force and there has been a refusal on the part of many states to even discuss the concept of a nuclear weapons convention. Frightening new weapons are being designed while we speak and we will increasingly have to contend with the challenges presented by killer robots, cyber warfare and 3D printers capable of printing armaments in the future. So perhaps things aren't looking that great after all. Angela reckons the truth is somewhere in between, but whether we tend towards optimism or pessimism, the fact remains that for the good of mankind, we must keep working towards the end goal of peace and disarmament. She upheld the example of Ban Ki-Moon, the most outspoken Secretary-General of the UN on nuclear deterrence, who developed a five point plan to:
  • develop a nuclear weapons convention
  • resume bilateral nuclear negotiations through the US
  • convene a UNSC summit against the use / threat of use of nuclear weapons
  • establish a nuclear-weapons free Middle East
  • and eliminate other forms of weapons of mass destruction
(Apparently Ban Ki-Moon was the first Secretary General to visit Hiroshima and Semipalatinsk, something I found quite surprising, I'd imagined this would be one of the obvious places to travel to if you were in such a high posting in the UN.) Angela stressed that the world is listening to Ban Ki-Moon and that civil society groups (she specifically congratulated Mayors for Peace) have taken up his plans. In order to work towards disarmament, Angela believes co-operation is needed between civil society, nuclear weapons states and non-nuclear weapons states. All manner of people can help on this issue: doctors, lawyers, journalists, environmentalists, students, philosophers and physicists... We must work together and keep the end goal in sight. It is not sufficient to know what we are fleeing, we must also know what we're seeking, Angela said. She finished by urging us all to get on with the work of promoting a peaceful, post nuclear-weapons world.

I don't know about you, but I'd toast to that!

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