After 28 years helping resolve international conflicts, United Nations career diplomat Angela Kane ’70 has been appointed its top political affairs officer.
By Tom Nugent
Bringing peace to El Salvador
They drove four hours in a Jeep through the swamps and jungles of rural El Salvador. Armed only with some camping equipment and canteens full of precious water, they hiked up the side of a towering mountain. At a tiny village flanked by a waterfall, they visited a local Catholic priest. He smiled and nodded as he shook their hands.
“Si, si! Muy bueno—they know you are coming, amigos. They are ready to talk. They will meet you near the dirt road above the waterfall.”
Angela Kane ’70 says she “took a deep breath.” Twice before, her scheduled meetings with the leaders of El Salvador’s armed guerrilla movement—the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN)—had been aborted at the last moment, after black government helicopters bristling with machine guns roared through the sky.
But on this sun-walloped afternoon in August 1991, Kane and her UN Central American Peace Process negotiating team would finally make contact with the soldiers who had been fighting for land reform and social equality in El Salvador for more than a decade.
The meeting took place around 3 o’clock, near the summit of the rugged mountain, when a group of men dressed in ragged fatigues and brightly colored headbands stepped from the nearby forest-cover into a tiny clearing.
Kane and three other members of her team were surrounded by a dozen Kalashnikov rifles.
“That was a pretty suspenseful moment, to say the least,” Kane told the Alumnae Bulletin during an interview at the United Nations this winter following her appointment in September as Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs and Conference Management. “We had come to El Salvador in the hope of talking to both sides in the ongoing civil war, so that we could assist with negotiations aimed at creating a lasting peace. To accomplish that mission, as the personal representatives of the Secretary-General [Javier Pérez de Cuéllar], we needed to hear from the guerrillas. Up until then, however, just finding them had been an extremely challenging assignment.
“Our meeting that day was fraught with uncertainty, because we had not been allowed to inform the authorities about our visit. If the El Salvador government had decided to attack the guerrilla hideout right then, we’d have been casualties who just happened to be there when the shooting started.
“Fortunately for us, there was no gunfire that afternoon—and we were able to get some excellent feedback from the rebels. As it turned out, one of the things they wanted most was legitimate jobs, preferably in the civil service; for example, to be included in the new national police force that was being created under the peace agreement [the Chapultepec Peace Accords], which finally took effect in 1992. And they also told us: ‘We want our women to be able to get an education, and to be eligible for service in the new civilian police force.’ Later on, of course, we did manage to get these points included in the political settlement that ended the civil war…which meant that our meeting on the mountain that day actually played a key role in bringing peace to El Salvador.”
Kane said she felt “some fear—that’s only natural. But I guess I’m kind of lucky in that I’ve always been able to shut out my fear of death or injury in situations like that one.
“I’m not foolhardy, mind you, and I never take unnecessary chances. On the other hand, I do believe there’s a certain inevitability about what’s going to happen. And I don’t think there’s anything to be gained by worrying about your safety. Either you get through the situation, or you don’t. And so I just turn my back to the danger, whatever it might be. I can’t do the work I’m supposed to do if I’m sitting there paralyzed with fear.
“I shut it off, that’s all—and then I do my best to concentrate fully on the task in front of me.”
Kane gives a speech in Africa with a religious leader in attendance.
Trouble-shooting and innovation
Kane’s promotion after 28 years working for the United Nations received a wide welcome inside the UN, particularly among staff frustrated by “parachutists” descending on them through political appointments. “For that, Secretary-General Kofi Annan deserves a great deal of credit,” reported the agency’s internal publication, UNForum.
Kane will draw on the experience and knowledge she gained during her years of trouble-shooting in some of the world’s hottest conflict areas, according to friends and colleagues at the UN.
Among her accomplishments since signing on as a researcher in 1977:
• Assisting the peace process in Ethiopia (2003–2004): While serving as the Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General for the UN mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea, Kane helped resolve long-standing issues stemming from one of the world’s longest and most violent civil wars.
• Overseeing conflict resolution in the developed world: As director of the UN’s Americas and Europe Division of Political Affairs, Kane assessed political developments and emerging conflicts among 89 countries in the western hemisphere during the late 1990s, and gave support and political guidance to UN missions in the two regions.
• Indonesia and Thailand: As a UN field operative in Jakarta, Indonesia and Bangkok, Thailand in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Kane helped to defuse local conflicts and promote understanding in complex political environments that demanded diplomatic and nuanced communications.
• Taking the UN online: While managing a large division of the agency’s department of public information, with responsibility for publications and UN publishing policy, from 1995–1999, Kane oversaw global marketing and sales information resources, and the development of the online communications program—a task that required her to design and implement the complex systems that now link UN worldwide operations to the Internet.
“I took the plunge into online communications,” she recalls, “and I found that I really loved the challenge. From day one, I refused to be intimidated by the Worldwide Web or by the technology involved in connecting our systems to it. Instead, I developed a keen interest in this rapidly evolving communications tool, and I enjoyed the process immensely.”
Kane was responsible for the development of the United Nations home page, in all official languages. In announcing her promotion, UNForum, also noted her key role in the CyberBus education project, which encouraged students around the world to learn about each other’s countries and how the UN works.
Angela Kane shares a cup of coffee with sisters in Africa who help to implement humanitarian projects.
Desperate struggles with The Faerie Queene
Born and raised in the town of Hameln, Germany, of Pied Piper fame, Angela Kane arrived on the Bryn Mawr campus as a sophomore in 1968, after a friend who had studied in America advised her to apply to “this terrific liberal arts college in Pennsylvania, where they really do give each individual student a great deal of personal attention.”
Kane enrolled. She just managed to cover her expenses through scholarship aid and working part time, but she was so poor she couldn’t even afford long-distance calls home, except for brief exchanges at Christmas and for birthdays. “I struggled for money and with the cultural differences,” she recalls today. “This was 35 years ago, remember, and academic life at Bryn Mawr was a matter of ‘sink or swim.’
“I remember having to read Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in Middle English for English 101. I was having a great deal of trouble with modern English—and there I was, trying to figure out this 14th-century version of the language, can you imagine? Then we went on to [Edmund Spenser’s] The Faerie Queene—and I nearly lost my mind, trying to translate it into a story I could understand.
“I kept looking at the text again and again and asking myself: ‘What the hell are they talking about?’ ”
With the help of academic advising and some “very generous friends among the other students,” Kane managed not only to survive—she jumped to junior status after her first semester and graduated in two years, majoring in French. “I felt like I was swimming upstream, and I never had enough money,” she recalls, “but several friends took me to stay in their homes for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and they really saved my life at that point. They treated me like family, and their kindness to me was enormously helpful. I’ve never forgotten it, and I still see a few of them from time to time.”
After graduating in 1970 and signing on for a brief stint as a research analyst at the World Bank, Kane decided to compete for an entry-level job at the United Nations. Fluent now in English, French and German, she landed her first post after a series of harrowing examinations, and she never looked back. Today, she says she’s “more convinced than ever that the United Nations has a major role to play in resolving global conflicts and making the world a better place for all of us.
“The UN isn’t perfect, and we have to continue working on its flaws,” she says. “Of course, it’s also true that the world faces some immense challenges, and they’re waiting for us immediately up ahead. The competition for water is already getting intense, and I don’t know what we’re going to do when the oil runs out, for example, and I don’t think anyone else knows, either.
“Obviously, the oil situation is going to cause some major economic stresses and issues, worldwide. Terrorism and controlling the weapons of mass destruction—these will also be huge problems for all of us in the days ahead. And yet, I must say that I’m basically an optimist.
“Somehow, we’ve always managed to muddle our way through these kinds of problems. Solutions don’t always come in a neat package. Just knowing that we have a world organization like the UN to help with communication, diplomacy and international cooperation makes me feel very hopeful about our prospects—and about the world we will eventually be turning over to future generations.”
A diplomat’s schedule
With a portfolio that includes the entire world apart from Africa, Angela Kane’s days as Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs start at 5:30–6 a.m. She devotes an hour every morning to the New York Times and later reads media summaries from major newspapers around the world, cables, background notes and other sources. Once in the office, a round of calls goes out to staff in other time zones or to diplomats and colleagues from other organizations who want to debrief her on current affairs.
After morning meetings with the directors of the department and her own staff, Kane continues her rounds of consultation. Ambassadors call on her to exchange views on political issues or offer support for initiatives of the Secretary-General. When called upon by member states, Kane briefs the Security Council on matters under their purview, for example, recent developments in the Middle East.
The diplomatic work often reaches beyond the conference rooms of the UN Headquarters in New York. On behalf of the organization, the Assistant Secretary-General travels widely, sometimes in quiet diplomacy that can de-escalate tensions and change political situations on the ground. Such missions are usually kept low key as their success depends on the confidentiality of the discussions. On other occasions, the trips are intended to lends visible support of the United Nations to political processes. Recently, Kane attended the inauguration of 31 supreme court justices in Ecuador on behalf of Secretary-General Kofi Annan. This festive occasion marked the conclusion of a joint effort by the United Nations, the Organization of American States and the Andean Community of Nation, to offer technical assistance for the selection process of the judges, as requested by the President and Parliament of Ecuador.
On Kane’s recent trip to Japan, she discussed the broader political agenda of the United Nations after the world summit of September 2005 that brought together more than 100 world leaders to discuss the future challenges of the organization. With senior government officials, she talked about UN reform, the expansion of the Security Council, and new intergovernmental bodies, such as the Human Rights Council and the Democracy Fund. With Japan being the second largest contributor of the UN budget, financial aspects formed another prominent topic on the agenda.
In the margins of an official trip, Kane likes to do some sightseeing, fully aware that even these lighter moments in her schedule have diplomatic significance. A Japanese tea ceremony, the visit of a religious shrine or the attendance of a cultural performance are appreciated as an effort to get to know the host countries and their people.
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