“At first I thought it was a scam when I got an email from UN”

Karen Smith is a university lecturer in International Relations at the Institute for History and she occupies a unique position: she has one foot in the academic world and the other in the world of the United Nations. As a Special Adviser, she helps the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to remind countries that they have the ‘responsibility to protect’. “There should be more structural connection between government and academia, because it has benefits for both sides.”

This means that alongside her academic work, Smith – who was born in Johannesburg – spends much of her time engaged in political lobbying. “I have to remind countries that they accepted a political responsibility in 2005, at the World Summit of the United Nations in New York: the responsibility to prevent atrocities being committed against their own populations and those of other countries.”

Her task is therefore to ensure that the ideas and implementation of that ‘responsibility to protect’ are channelled correctly. To fulfil this task, when she was appointed in 2019 she was provided with a small office and staff in New York. “There isn’t an exact job description, but my role is to make sure that countries take action on the basis of this responsibility. And we also work on prevention, so if we see a high-risk situation in a country, we issue a warning.” She cites Myanmar as a ‘textbook example’ of “what can happen if the international community ignores the risk of atrocities for the sake of other interests.”

A scam?

She initially thought it was a scam when she received an email from the office of the Secretary-General of the United Nations. “They said they were looking for a woman from the ‘Global South’ region, as it’s called.” And that is precisely the region on which Smith focuses in her research for the University.

“I look at the perspectives on international relations and the foreign policy of countries in that region, and their impact on how global issues are handled worldwide. This is particularly fascinating with the new coronavirus: in the past, it was the United States and the European Union that ran the show, but now there’s a new dynamic, because the US is retreating and China is rising.”

Policymakers vs. academics

Smith thinks that the people who make policy at the highest level could gain a great deal from interacting with researchers. “They simply don’t have the time to read and reflect in the same way as academics. When I’m at the UN, I run from one meeting to the next, and there’s no time for reflection. Policymakers there are tremendously reliant on other people to give them information. And that information has often already been filtered.”

She therefore considers it essential that policymakers should collaborate more with academics. “And academics need to share their research results to improve decision-making, for instance by sending their results to individuals and institutes that can make good use of them.”

Smith would also like to see more of the ‘revolving door’ principle.

“There ought to be more professors who have also had experience in government, for example as policymakers, like Condoleezza Rice. She was the Secretary of State (equivalent to the Minister of Foreign Affairs; under George W. Bush from 2005 to 2009, ed.) but then went back to the academic world. This interaction is important, and it has benefits for both sides. In fact, that’s something I teach students: to look at how their studies translate to the real world.”

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