Becoming a Peace Researcher: A Profile of Walter Dorn

By Metta Spencer | 1996-07-01 12:00:00

Science for Peace chose an undergraduate science student as their U.N. rep. He has never looked back.

When you first meet Walter Dorn, you may size him up as a corporate technocrat on the fast track - or perhaps a military officer. That's just his manner: neutral, focused, factual, and orderly. Get to know him better and you discover an idealistic guy, an up-and-coming peace researcher who is visionary, productive, and 1000 percent committed. At age 35, he's also a Canadian scientist with a new Ph.D. whose face has been a familiar sight inside the United Nations for 15 years. Remarkably, Walter Dorn has managed to combine lab research with the technical aspects of peace-building.

It all began in 1982 when, as a second-year undergraduate in physics and chemistry at Scarborough College, he went to the United Nations with Professor Eric Fawcett for the Special Session on Disarmament. He became fascinated by the organization and started going down there about every two months. He particularly likes to attend meditations at the U.N. conducted by his spiritual teacher, Sri Chinmoy.

Once he heard by chance that Science for Peace had applied for membership in the U.N. but that the process seemed stalled. On his next visit to New York he inquired about it. The application had been misplaced but, because of his inquiry, it was put back on track. Reporting back in Toronto, Dorn became a minor hero and was appointed Science for Peace's official representative to the U.N. So enthusiastically did he tackle the job that, by 1988 at the Third Special Session on Disarmament, he was given the privilege of addressing the General Assembly.

Observing The U.N.

Dorn spent five years observing the organization before he felt competent enough to write about it. One of his first articles was for Peace Magazine. After finishing a masters degree, he wrote a book, Peacekeeping Satellites: The Case for International Surveillance and Verification and then he reviewed a proposal that was popular at that time for establishing a U.N. reconnaissance capability. As a scientist, he took a special interest in the verification of biological and chemical weapons disarmament treaties. He took a leave from his Ph.D. program to work at Parliamentarians Global Action (PGA), an organization based near the U.N. that enables parliamentarians of many different countries to work together.

The Chemical Weapons Convention was nearing the final stages of negotiation, and PGA wanted to promote the process and inform parliamentarians about their responsibilities under the treaty. Dorn was expected to attend some of the meetings of the negotiators and make suggestions. At that time he was also participating in the Markland Group, a Canadian NGO that developed a proposal of its own: to include a clause requiring that the international law be enforced by domestic law enforcement agencies. All signatory countries would have to pass penal legislation in their parliaments to enforce compliance with the treaty. This suggestion was actually adopted as a feature of the Chemical Weapons Convention. Because of that clause, parliamentarians would have more responsibility than in connection with any previous treaty. They would have to set up a national authority in each of their countries to cooperate with the new international inspectorate. They also had to enact national laws making it illegal for anyone to violate the Convention. They had to review the arms restrictions on imports and exports required by the treaty. They had to pass laws on searches and seizures because this treaty allows for inspections anywhere, at any time. It is the most intrusive inspection regime of any treaty applied on a global basis. Dorn toured parliaments and briefed parliamentarians about their obligations regarding the treaty. In Canada, for example, he testified before the Foreign Affairs Committee, which produced an acceptable law. So far, only about a dozen countries have complete legislation. About 150 countries have signed the Convention but only about 50 countries have ratified it.

"I went to the Nonaligned Summit in Jakarta, Indonesia," Dorn said, "and asked them to support the Chemical Weapons Convention. Some countries were holding the treaty back and I lobbied for progressive wording in the final declaration. For example, I remember briefing the Pakistani representative, who came around and produced something pretty positive supporting the Convention.

"Also, at the French parliament in 1993 I organized a meeting of parliamentarians from 20 countries who later were going to attend the ceremony in the UNESCO building where 130 states would sign the treaty. In fact, one of my tasks was to make sure the parliamentarians for whom I had obtained passes could actually get through security and into the UNESCO building." He chuckled, recalling the event. "The limousines were arriving with the ministers who would be signing the treaty. Barbara McDougall had been escorted in and was standing next to a French guard, who had a silver helmet and a sword held up in the air in front of him. But then he yawned and dropped his sword. If she hadn't ducked, Ms. McDougall would have been hit by this sword. She gave him a disapproving look but I don't think he knew this was the Foreign Minister of Canada, so he didn't care. Anyway, I wrote the first draft of the parliamentary declaration in support of the Chemical Weapons Convention and I'm glad I can say that over 1,000 parliamentarians have signed it in 30 or 40 parliaments. There's a campaign going on now to support the ratification process, which is being held up because the United States and Russia have not ratified it. Russia is holding out to get money from the U.S. to help it disarm because the chemical weapons destruction will cost upwards of five billion dollars."

He is confident that the Chemical Weapons Convention can be enforced. "Some cheating may go on," he said, "but to make it militarily significant would be difficult because if one country wants to challenge another country, it can sponsor an inspection. Within 12 hours the international agency goes in and inspects the area that is named. So I think it will be very difficult for a country to maintain secrecy over years. Libya is one of the few countries that will hold out. They do have chemical weapons and might consider using them. However, if both the U.S. and Russia ratify the treaty, it will be hard for Libya to invent any excuse for keeping such weapons."

Membranes, Ions, And Verification

In 1993, Dorn returned to the University of Toronto and his research in physical chemistry. He received his Ph.D. in 1995. His basic research on methods of detecting chemicals can be applied to many different areas, including chemical and biological arms control. It is based on the processes by which ions move through membranes.

Dorn is continuing his work on the technology for peacekeeping and arms control. Now he is writing a paper on a variety of surveillance technologies: ways of sensing landmines, ways of detecting troop movements early, and so on. This will be a chapter in a book to be called Technology for Peace. He has a number of friends who strongly favor the greater use of technology by the U.N. for peacekeeping operations, and he thinks Canada in particular should specialize in communications technology - especially remote sensing systems. This is actually happening. "Canada has formed a group called 'Friends of Rapid Reaction' with the Dutch," said Dorn. "They're promoting the idea of giving the U.N. a vanguard force, a 24-hour operations centre so they can mobilize quicker. I'd like to see Canada do a lot more of this kind of thing."

As an NGO representative to the U.N. Walter Dorn often goes around the Secretariat, dropping into offices and trying to be helpful. The Secretariat and the Secretary-General's office have grown in responsibility more than any of the other U.N. organs, and Dorn disagrees with criticisms that the Secretariat is wasteful. Sometimes he is able to assist with one of their tasks. For example, he compiled a 60-page index for the Chemical Weapons Convention.

During these visits Dorn became acquainted with a Swede, Colonel Christian Harleman, who had set up a training unit in the Department of Peacekeeping Operations. The Ethiopians had asked Harleman to help them set up an institute for the training of diplomats and for research in the horn of Africa. When Harleman left the U.N. he invited Dorn to serve with him on a five-member planning team to establish an institute for peace and development in Addis Ababa. On the first trip Dorn worked on writing up a research program with some other people, including the military leader and the foreign minister, and he expects to return there this summer. He also set up an e-mail system for the Ethiopian foreign ministry and is developing for the institute an information management system similar to the one the U.N. uses. The Organization for African Unity, just a few miles away, is setting up an early warning mechanism, and the Ethiopian institute will cooperate with them and with the U.N. to provide input to a common information system warning of conflicts in Africa. They will train not only Ethiopians but also Somalis, Eritreans, Kenyans, and Sudanese.

Secrets Of The Archives

Although he finds the institute a wonderful challenge, Dorn does not want to be based in Addis Ababa for a lengthy period, so he will just consult there for a few months at a time. He will also do some research in the U.N. archives. "I love to read other people's mail," he explained. "Especially the Secretary-General's mail. And there's a lot to be learned from the archives. The U.N. never had a propaganda machine to tell the world about its tremendous contributions - and besides, it was often in the U.N.'s interest to play humble and give credit to the parties that settled the dispute. So on many occasions the U.N. played a very significant role that has not been properly credited. This summer we're studying the Cuban Missile Crisis, where we think the Secretary-General had a decisive role. He made the proposal that Khrushchev accepted. The Kennedy administration wanted to make it look as if they did it single-handedly, but we recently discovered that there were negotiations at the U.N. and U Thant mediated them. In fact, they developed a 19-article treaty that is never mentioned. Subsequently there was an agreement that was signed in secret. The Soviet missile withdrawal from Cuba was tied with a U.S. pledge of nonintervention and withdrawal of U.S. missiles from Turkey.

"This is just one example of the Secretary-General's effectiveness. I don't think anybody in the world does as much good in so many places in the world as the U.N. Secretary-General in trying to keep peace where there's so much animosity. His job has been called the most impossible one in the world but he and his staff do an amazing job.

"As long as I believe that human beings are good," Dorn said, "and that our future can be bright if we work at it, I will continue to believe in the United Nations."

More than just believing in the U.N., Walter Dorn is devoted to making it work.

Spencer edits Peace and teaches Sociology and Peace & Conflict Studies at University of Toronto.

Peace Magazine Jul-Aug 1996

Peace Magazine Jul-Aug 1996, page 20. Some rights reserved.

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