Interview with Patricia Lewis, Director of the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR)

17 February 2008
Interview with Patricia Lewis, Director of the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR)

UN, Disarmament, research institution, UNDIR, Patricia Lewis, Geneva, studies,

She is a nuclear physicist and a specialist on arms — quite an unusual background for a woman many would say. She is a highly respected expert and can tell you all that you need to know about disarmament — either its technical or more "human" side. There is no doubt that Patricia Lewis likes her work, and she has this gift of making the most badly informed person become interested in the issue. At least, we came out after having met with her with a completely different perception of disarmament and all the related issues. So let the expert talk and explain …

Q: You are an arms control specialist and a nuclear physicist. Why did you go into this field and what is so exciting about it?

I was trained in physics, and did a Ph.D. in nuclear structure physics which, via India, took me to New Zealand where I worked at the University of Auckland. I did a lot of my research there, and also at the Australian National University in Canberra. That was in the mid-1980s. It was at that time that there was a big debate in New Zealand about nuclear weapons onboard visiting ships and the general election in New Zealand was fought largely on the issue on nuclear weapons.

As a physicist at the University of Auckland, I was often asked to help people out, for example, to test whether the water was polluted with radioactive elements or not, etc.

Two colleagues of mine (Peter Wills and Robert White) and I set up Scientists Against Nuclear Arms (New Zealand), which was part of a global scientific movement. We put together a lot of factual issues, briefing sheets for the peace movement and for politicians. We gave evidence in Parliamentary hearings. So, that was how I became involved.

Then I thought I was going to become a journalist — a science journalist — so I went back to London and looked at that possibility. It just happened to coincide with the setting up of a new think-tank called VERTIC, which is a verification research body in London.

VERTIC brought together science and science policy to look at how to verify international arms control treaties and disarmament treaties. We have to check that nobody cheats on them — which was and still is a very big issue. VERTIC started off with the whole idea of banning nuclear arms tests and whether such a ban could be properly monitored. That was the point that the debate had reached.

Very soon, we expanded into the intermediary range nuclear forces treaty, the whole issue of missiles, conventional forces in Europe and so on. We even expanded it further to look at climate change and biodiversity — this work is still going on. The organization still exists. It is flourishing, and is still doing the same kind of work.

I became the first employee of this organization. Later, I
became the director, and from there I came here to Geneva. So I went from pure science, to applied science through science policy, now to international relations policy.

Q: Do you feel it’s difficult being a woman in this kind environment?

There have been occasions when … I think every woman can recognize the feeling of being invisible to a lot of people in a meeting room. Every woman could tell you about ideas that they have had that nobody will take any notice of, until a man, five minutes later, will take up the same idea. Then everyone will say: "That is such a good idea!"

I think that this could be said by women in any field. For me, I have worked a lot with men in the science field, so I can say that I’m bilingual: I speak male and female language!

Q: So there is a difference?

Oh yes! We speak differently, and I’m quite comfortable in both. I’m quite happy to talk about hardware and technicalities, and I’m also happy to talk about the relationships and the importance of symbolism, for example — which is still considered being soft!

Having said that, there are a lot of women in our field. In fact in UNIDIR around three-quarters of the staff are women, including at the senior level. Our gender balance is the wrong way round. We have a problem — we are not able to recruit enough qualified men; they are working in other institutes. Frankly, when I interview people and we take the best-qualified person, often its women. I think that is just because there are so many very good women in our field. There has also been an opening up of new topics in our work, such as the issue of landmines, small arms, cluster ammunition issues, space security, bio-weapon issues. These particular topics have attracted a large number of women into the field, partially because they have come through different routes — not just the international relations/political theory route, but from the humanitarian side, where they have seen the impact of these weapons on people’s lives. Mainly, that’s where the debate has been, and that’s where, I think, women have had an opportunity to move into the field and really make a serious contribution.

Q: UNIDIR is a research institute. What kind of research do you do?

We do research on how to assist governments in thinking about disarmament, how to move negotiations forward, how to assist them in their thinking on the implementation of treaties, for example. It is quite a wide range of research, and our work goes beyond disarmament in its very narrow sense. Our mandate is to look at the whole aspect of disarmament, in the context of international security. We have divided our work up into three main regions, each of which is framed as a question of security:
* disarmament in global security;
* disarmament in regional security;
* and then what we call human security.

For example, disarmament in global security means looking at very large weapon systems that affect the globe, such as the nuclear issue — the missile issue and nuclear weapons testing. For regional security, we would, for example, be looking at disarmament and arms control in the Middle-East Peace Process or the relationship between India and Pakistan. In the human security aspect, we are talking about the impact that weapons have on people’s lives. The issues of landmines and small arms easily fit into that area.

To some extent, of course, all of these are connected. Obviously, the impact of nuclear weapons on people’s lives is a human security issue, and the matter of small arms is a global problem. So there is a lot overlap, but it sometimes helps to look at things with a particular focus.

Q: Disarmament is in fact a much broader area than we initially thought it would be.

Our purpose is to provide increased security for people, and that has to be our focus. So we need to think about disarmament in that context. If, for instance, you disarm a group of people who are then are shot to pieces — how did we help? But if you disarm both sides, and you do so in a transparent way, then the number of people getting killed will be reduced and you will have helped everybody. So that is why you really have to understand the security context.

We do a lot of long-term research within that field. We also do short-term research on, for instance, what is needed now in negotiations and what is needed now in implementation. We are also charged to do a lot of long-term thinking for the United Nations.

For example, right now we have a big project looking at how we might assess the security needs of people who come from very different communities. For example, let us say we have a situation in a State that has been in conflict — such as a civil war — for decades. Within that State there are many types of communities, often with many different cultures. What frequently happens is that the UN comes along, charged by the international community through the Security Council with a mandate for peacekeeping, weapons collection, developing the country, assisting with health and humanitarian issues, and so on. One thing that is not done at the moment is to try to assess the security needs of the people. We are looking at how you might do that and get it right, which is quite difficult.

People may have a different conception of their security needs. Even from the north to the south of a country, there could be quite a different viewpoint on how they see their world. So we are dealing with people working in the field of ethnographical communications (it used to be
called anthropology) that understand the way people express themselves in their culture. Together we are trying to find a way of providing a mechanism for the UN to assess the needs of community security.

We have recently, for example, been in Ghana, working with a group of people in a region that had a very isolated conflict and who have their own way of thinking about the meaning of security. For instance, they do not have a word for "security". This is actually quite common. They have words for "protection" and for "safety", but we are talking about something in-between. If you start to understand the way they think about these things, and then you work with people from their country, then you can better understand how to assist them and how to provide security for them.

Is weapons collection the main issue? Will this provide security? If so, how is it best done in a way that will keep them secure rather than making them more vulnerable?

Q: In this context, are you working closely with the Department of Peacekeeping Operations?

We are working with a number of UN bodies. We are in the research phase, and once it becomes implementable it obviously moves on beyond us. We are like a Petri dish in a laboratory.

For example, we are about to do some work in to Nepal, where we shall work with UNICEF as well as UNDP and the UNODA and others. In Ghana we are working closely with UNDP Ghana. We have a group of experts and a group of interested agency officials who come from all over the UN, who advise us and give us direction by telling us what they need.

Q: There are many conflicts around the world, and I presume that this will keep you busy for some time?

Well, the idea is to find a way of being able to ask the right questions in order to get the right answers. There is a translation exercise. The questions we have must be translated in order to be understood by the community and then the answers have to be translated back to be understood by the other.

Q: Each culture is different, and you have to adapt to each culture?

This is true. There are techniques that have been developed in academia that can be applied. We take academic knowledge and see how we can apply it to a very real practical problem, for example, in a post-conflict situation. There is a lot of academic knowledge out there that never finds its way into real situations just because there aren’t enough bodies like ours taking what they know and trying to find a way to make it fit with what needs to be done.

Q: Are you working closely with other research institutes all over the world?

Yes, we are, depending on the research projects. We work a lot in partnerships and we are entirely funded by voluntary contributions. So if there are any benefactors out there … We do fundraising to carry out projects and to pay the staff’s salaries.

Q: How does it work? Do governments fund you?

We put together projects proposals the whole time. There are some governments that give us some core money which is fabulous … because it permits us to pay the salaries of the general staff, editorial staff, etc., — we do a lot of publications. The project I mentioned earlier is co-funded by the Governments of Sweden and the Netherlands.

We have another big project called Disarmament as Humanitarian Action that has been running for years. The whole idea is to rethink the way we do disarmament from a humanitarian perspective, in other words the impact of weapons on people. When the Disarmament Conference is discussing the finer points of nuclear weapons, nobody is talking about what these weapons actually do to people. We came to the conclusion that part of what had gone wrong in the discussions about nuclear disarmament and nuclear arms control is that the human side of the problem has been neglected. So the understanding of why you are doing something, which is so fundamental to get these things right, has gone. We have become so caught up in the history of negotiations, the technical details, the rules and procedures — all those superficial things — instead of focusing on what we were actually trying to do, which is to prevent war, to get rid of weapons of mass destruction because of the impact they have on people. If we can focus on that, maybe we can cut through some of the politics and the nonsense we have to deal with the whole time.

What we have done is that we have brought in some very interesting people to help us think it through — an economist, a game theorists, a mathematician, a physicist, a psychologist, a primatologist.

A primatologist is a specialist on primates such as chimpanzees … Sometimes when you see your behaviour translated into another group of animals, you see it for what it is. We have Frans de Waal, who is a leading Dutch primatologist. He told us about how conflicts are resolved in chimpanzee society. What can happen is that two males have a fight. Later, they would go and sit in an area — not looking at each other, both of them rather grumpy. Along comes an older female, and she would take one of them gently and leads him to the other so that they could make up. We all know how that works! When our primatologist illustrates other aspects of behaviour, we can also start to understand about some of the very fundamental issues of fairness, which seems to be a very important feature of animals that live in society.

If we understood about fairness, perhaps we could deal with things like security and weapons better. We could understand that if one country develops nuclear weapons, another country wants them as well. We all know from our own behaviour that if somebody has something, we want it too. If we are denied it, we may be prepared to do all sorts of things to obtain it. We can get very angry about it, even if the thing itself is not actually very good. It is just being denied something that somebody else has which makes us angry. We see that with our own children and with other societies, and then we pretend that we are not like that too.

This project has brought together this type of thinking and we have adopted a multi-disciplinary and multi-facetted approach to thinking about how we do our business. One idea that we have been trying to get through to people is that the way we work together is often as important as what we are trying to do. For example, when you work in a very large group, it can be hard to keep all those people in one’s head — the relationships between people. Quite often they are split up into smaller groups. People work better in smaller groups. So, that would be one thing to look at — why we work better in smaller groups and how to manage a place like the UN where we have 192 Member States, each with several delegates on the delegation. How to manage these relationships in a way so that trust comes to the fore, rather than trust breaking down. What we see the whole time in these big conferences is that trust breaks down quite often unless somebody is deliberately managing it in a way that builds trust. So we brought in a psychologist to work with us and experts working on the economics of trust, for example.

Q: What is your role in comparison with the Conference on Disarmament and the other disarmament bodies?

We are part of what is called the "disarmament structure" within the UN. So you have the Office of Disarmament Affairs, based in the Secretary-General’s Office, with the High Representative Mr Duarte. They implement, among other things, the decisions made my Member States in the First Committee of the General Assembly. We connect to them — but we are not part of them. We are a separate body within the UN that is voluntarily funded and that conducts research. We have our own mandate; we have a board of trustees that is also the Secretary-General’s Advisory Board on Disarmament Issues, which advises the Secretary-General and also monitors our work.

Then you have all the parts of the UN such as, for example, the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna; the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague, etc.

Then you have the Member States’ deliberating and negotiating bodies. The negotiating body is the Conference on Disarmament that happens to be based in Geneva. Strictly speaking, the Conference of Disarmament is not a UN body as such. It consists of about sixty-five countries, and they have their own rules and procedures. Having said that, it is part of the UN because it’s in the same building and is serviced by the UN. Many of the ambassadors accredited to the Conference on Disarmament are also accredited to the UN.

Then we have the First Committee of the General Assembly that discusses disarmament and security. There are other things like the Security Council and the work that is being done on Resolution 1540, the Resolution that prevents the technology of mass destruction weapons reaching non-State armed groups, such as terrorists, etc. There are many other facets that I have not discussed. That is the big picture of all the different things going on, and we play a little part in that. We are the research sector and the brains trust — as we sometimes call it in the UN. We have the right or the privilege to challenge what States say, and produce information that we can stand by and, of course, we must stand by it, even if sometimes it does not please many of the governments we work with. But, to be effective, is it so important that we have that independence of action and thought!

Q: Do you have a feeling that your work is not very well-known in the "outside world"?

I would not expect UNIDIR to be known in the "outside world". We have a specific mandate. Rather than trying to get in touch directly with the outside world (a tremendous effort for a UN body like ours depending on voluntary funding), we work with NGOs and some journalists to disseminate the information. That is a better way.

We occupy a unique niche, and what we need to do is to find the right links. But, of course, we are not doing that perfectly by any means. What we have done is to set up a blog site ( You have to send a letter to the editor to become involved in our debates and they can be quite challenging. People enjoy that. We do reach people all over the world. One of the things we have done recently is to look at where our publications go; we are trying to increase the impact. We then examined where our on-line activities are mostly coming from. What we have found interesting is that we have increased our publication activity in Africa enormously, but not in Asia. On the other hand, our on-line activity in Asia is much higher.

Q: Who would you like to reach? Only decision-makers, or ordinary people?

I think we do reach ordinary people. A month ago, for example, we have set up UNIDIR on Facebook. We had a large group of young people who worked with us as young researchers. We have between ten and twenty young people who work with us each year and we have now formed an alumni group on Facebook. Then, through Facebook we connect to the blog site and from the blog site to our main website. Our main website is more sober; it’s where our publications are; we have a highlight section and a quarterly bilingual journal Disarmament Forum that we send out as a hard copy to 5,000 recipients. The most of the people who get the hardcopy are experts, university libraries, people in ministries working on the issue, etc.

The journal is written in a way that is accessible to the general public — short articles and written in a style that you do not have to be an expert to understand. Our books, I would say, are much more intended for the experts. Then our blog site is supposed to reach out to a younger audience — people in their 20 and 30s — who are really thinking about this issue.

Q: Where would you like to see UNIDIR in a couple of years from now?

I would like to see it on a sounder economic basis so that we can concentrate more on our research programmes rather than on searching for funding the whole time. Having said that, I do not want a situation where I do not have to look for funds for programmes, because I think it keeps us on an interesting edge — and I like the edge we are on. I would like to see us continue to develop a very dynamic multi-disciplinary approach to the work which we have begun. We are quite young. Most of my colleagues are below the age of 35, so I would like to get some older heads in here.

We do not have a large permanent staff here at UNIDIR. We have a core of staff who stay a bit longer, but nobody is permanent. I think it’s very important that in a research institution people come in, bring new ideas and take our ideas with them when they leave. I like to think of UNIDIR in that way as a very fluid, dynamic place for people to spend time, to learn about and contribute to UN work and take all that knowledge with them.

Q: What about funding?

In my ideal world, I would love to have a regular core income to be able to fund core staff. Then we could use the energy we expend on raising funds to carry out research. This would make us more cost-effective and more competitive with other similar but non-UN research bodies.