A DAY IN THE LIFE…
David Fearnhead talks to Lancashire-born Karen Pierce Britain’s United Nations’ ambassador based in New York. She is the first woman to fill the role
An endless circuit of opulent reception parties with great mounds of gold wrapped confectionery is purely an invention of advertisers and chocolatiers. Today’s ambassadors to the United Nations are more likely to be found in war zones or inspecting the aftermath of a massacre. It’s more genocide than G&Ts on the lawn, and it takes a specific sort of person who looks at all the chaos and sadness in the world and thinks they can make a difference.
Dame Karen Pierce almost bristles at the suggestion that she has a warm and friendly demeanour as witnessed during her press conferences. Later on, I discover why.
“It was just the most awful set of stories and very, very, moving to be speaking with these people who had lost everything. There were two girls whose family had been shot in front of them and one woman who’d been raped eleven times,” says Dame Karen as she talks of visiting a Rohingya refugee camp.
“A couple of little girls threw themselves at me and started to cry. I was about to start crying as well. A lot of the other members of the Security Council, men and women were crying. I remember thinking to myself, if I start crying then that is going to be their story and that shouldn’t be the story. The story ought to be about these women. I’ve got to say something helpful, I’ve got to work out how we bring this to the Security Council. I had to focus quite hard on that.”
“I’ve been to the sites of massacres and it’s always moving and upsetting. You’d expect it to be, but when you are an ambassador you need to maintain a certain amount of poise and distance because you’ve actually got to go and do something about what you are seeing.”
The foundation of the United Nations after WW2 was built upon ‘never again’ but all too often we do see it happen again. From the Balkans to Burma, Dame Karen has seen the worst that mankind can inflict upon others and it only reinforces her resolve in the UN’s task to end such conflicts.
“We should make sure that ‘never again’ means something. We need to visit these camps and talk to these people and get their direct experiences because it reminds you that terrible things do still happen and it’s all our duty to try and do something about it.”
That desire to do something about it started early and in an unlikely place – the breakfast table. One Sunday around the age of 12 she was flicking through the colour supplement and was captivated by a photograph: “It was this fantastic image of an American diplomat being pipped aboard an aircraft carrier. From then on I wanted to be a diplomat,” says Dame Karen.
She also flirted with the idea of becoming a nuclear scientist or a jet fighter pilot before returning to the idea of a career in diplomacy. Ambition was not going to be stifled by background or gender.
“It had never occurred to me that it wouldn’t be possible. It entered my head that I might not get it, in the way that you might not get the pass marks required, but it never entered my head that I wouldn’t get it for extraneous reasons.”
It’s a mindset she accredits to her parents who always told her she could be whatever she wanted to be and also to her early education.
“Broughton Primary School was fantastic. It inculcated everyone with a can-do ambition. I get a bit worried when I hear teachers say to the pupils, ‘That’s not for you’.”
“When I was at Cambridge we showed some state school teachers and students around and they were saying things like, ‘Oh this isn’t for the likes of us’.”
“My friends and I all came from state schools, so why is it, ‘Not for the likes of us?’ Of course it is. I think it’s very sad when people operate these self-denying ordinances. You should give it a go. My grandparents worked in a mill, my mother was a school secretary, and there are lots of people in the Foreign Office from all kinds of backgrounds.”
As a student Dame Karen was someone who read a lot, and not just the dry textbooks of academia but a lot of fiction. “Oddly enough I think fiction introduces you to different characters and the way they behave in different circumstances, so that was quite helpful.”
What advice would she have for any 12-year-old who is perhaps browsing this magazine at the breakfast table and is inspired to a career in diplomacy?
“There is something very important about charm and conciliation even when you don’t feel it. The better way out is to diffuse the situation rather than amplifying it. The most important thing is to listen and if you can help someone, you should.”
In her time she’s travelled to parts of the world most of us would avoid, in an effort to solve conflict. When I ask her what is it in her that drives her to visit such places she replies with humour, but also truth: “I think I’m very bossy to be honest.”
To illustrate the point she tells a story of her schoolteachers disbelief at her being an only child.
“I was that bossy they told my mother they assumed I was the oldest child in a family of six or seven. I’ve no idea where that trait comes from. I do want to sort things out and want things to be the best they can be. I have to watch myself. If I’m not careful I can get myself into a situation where I let the best be the enemy of the good. So knowing when to be ambitious but when to stop is quite important.”
She’s been present at some of the biggest events in recent history. From the weapons treaties that brought about the end of the Cold War, tackling ebola, to achieving the first unilateral trade agreement for 20 years in the WTO. In Afghanistan she helped the Afghan government find a way to peace with a focus on economic stability. Right now she’s tackling Syria, and worked hard to get a resolution for the Yemen. All this while trying to cajole countries into an agreement on climate change.
Yet she remains positive for our future: “When I first came to the UN I was very disappointed by how difficult it was to get agreements on things that should have been straight forward. I remember being a bit depressed by that, but I’ve found that things have gotten better and perhaps I am more realistic in that I know what to expect. I also know better which people to call and how to move things forward.”
Of Britain’s place in the world, Dame Karen says we are still admired for our justice and rule of law. One of the things she is often told when visiting other countries is: “Britain has influence here, please use it.”
However, she does offer a word of grounding: “We are not in the past, but the 21st century and it’s important that we remain humble and listen. We are very good at talking to people who think like us, but we must also be willing to have conversations with people who don’t think like us.”