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The Policy Ask with Patricia Lewis: “Weapons treaties have been destroyed through political posturing”

The director of the international security programme at Chatham House on prohibiting nuclear weapons, preparing for cyberattacks and the character of Nelson Mandela.

By Spotlight

Patricia Lewis is the director of the international security programme at Chatham House. She has previously served as deputy director at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, a non-profit devoted to curbing the spread of weapons of mass destruction. She was also formerly director of the UN Institute for Disarmament Research, and director of the Verification Research, Training and Information Centre (VERTIC) in London, a non-profit devoted to disarmament.

How do you start your working day?

Black coffee, the papers, social media and emails. And, depending on the day, either a commute to Chatham House via the Piccadilly Line or to my desk at home in London or Ireland.

What has been your career high?

It is an impossible question to answer. I was an academic physicist in my early career and there is nothing like teaching quantum physics to young people, or seeing nuclear experiments reveal nature’s wonders. I loved working in arms control at the Verification Research, Training and Information Centre (Vertic) and heading up the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (Unidir) in Geneva. But probably Chatham House is the absolute highlight. It is the most iconic of research institutes and my lovely dad, Peter Lewis, was an active corporate member who worked with the energy and environment team, so it has an emotional connection for me.

What has been the most challenging moment of your career?

I have had the privilege of being part of teams who have helped create some of the world’s most important treaties on nuclear and conventional weapons. The most challenging thing has been seeing these being destroyed through non-compliance and political posturing. I am grateful for the UN’s new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) as it signifies hope even when the threat of nuclear weapons is again looming.

If you could give your younger self career advice, what would it be?

Don’t be afraid to tell the truth. Say when you don’t understand or if you think something is wrong. Speak out about sexual harassment and racial bullying and don’t be afraid to upset people even when you fear the consequences. Which political figure inspires you? Nelson Mandela – he stuck to his truth but was able to change his tactics and adapt to new realities, whether that be on Robben Island or as president of South Africa. He used his extraordinary gifts and intelligence to make the world better for millions of people.

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What UK policy or fund is the government getting right?

The UK is getting cybersecurity roughly right. It is a fast-moving field with many threats and opportunities. In the UK, the private sector works collaboratively with government. The way the internet is run – open and free, vs closed and controlled – really matters for the future, and the UK is an international leader.

What policy should the UK government scrap?

I would like to see the UK participate in international conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons and the TPNW as an observer, like other Nato countries. The UK has decided not to participate in either. I’m not saying that the UK should unilaterally give up nuclear weapons, but I would like to see an uptick in multilateral efforts.

What upcoming UK policy or law are you most looking forward to?

The Energy Security Bill that is currently progressing through parliament ought to provide the UK with the opportunity to fast-track renewable energy production – I fear that the Russia-induced energy crisis will mean good intentions will fall by the wayside but I’m hoping that Cop27 will promote the long-term side of the equation.

What piece of international government policy could the UK learn from?

I like the requirement that several countries have put into legislation that every citizen has to vote in elections. I don’t think that there should be severe sanctions for not voting and everyone would be entitled to leave their voting card blank or deface it, but I think it would help to create a sense of civic duty and being “all in it together” that democracy needs.

If you could pass one law this year, what would it be?

I would pass a law that required the government to provide detailed annual reports to parliament on national preparations for a range of crises such as pandemics, large cyberattacks and extreme weather events. The legislation would ring-fence budgets specifically for resilience measures and introduce drills into schools and workplaces – like fire drills but for a wider set of crises. I can highly recommend the National Preparedness Commission, chaired by Toby Harris, for practical ideas.

[See also: Lindy Cameron: Ukraine’s cyber-defences have been exemplary]

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