On June 6th, we at Pressenza premiered our latest documentary film, “The Beginning of the End of Nuclear Weapons”. For this film, we interviewed 14 people, experts in their fields, who were able to provide insight into the history of the subject, the process which led to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, and current efforts to stigmatise them and turn the ban into elimination. As part of our commitment to make this information available to the whole world, we are publishing the full versions of those interviews, together with their transcripts, in the hope that this information will be useful for future documentary film makers, activists and historians who would like to hear the powerful testimonies recorded in our interviews.
This interview is with Elayne Whyte Gómez, the Costa Rican Ambassador to the UN in Geneva, who presided over the negotiating conference for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons from March to July 2017. The interview was carried out at the Costa Rican Mission in Geneva on the 12th of December 2018.
We asked Elayne about her work as the Ambassador for Costa Rica at the Mission in Geneva, the experience of chairing the conference negotiating the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, the role of women and civil society in that process, and the lessons learned from bringing the Ban Treaty into being.
The interview was recorded in Spanish, but the youtube video below has subtitles in English and the translated transcription can be found below.
Questions: Tony Robinson, Cameraman: Álvaro Orús.
Hi. I’m Elayne White Gomez. I am Costa Rican, first of all and this has a very important meaning because I have received from my country a background, a way of seeing the world and relationships in which we always seek peaceful coexistence.
At the moment I am the Ambassador of Costa Rica, permanent representative to the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, where a group of very important organizations that have to do with human rights, disarmament and also many other areas such as health, labour, environment, etc. have their headquarters.
The work that you do as Ambassador in the UN in Geneva
Well, first of all the work we do, what I do representing my country, first of all is to seek to contribute from the perspective of my country, of Costa Rica which is a country that decided 70 years ago to have a different approach to peace and security by abolishing its armed forces.
So that means for a country like us, that we have put all our trust in an international system, that through rules and institutions we can resolve the conflicts and problems of humanity.
So when we are immersed in a multilateral environment, we try to contribute obviously with our voice, with our vision on the different issues being worked on, but also underlying that we always try to build structure for that global governance.
In other words, we are always keen to see rules and agreements and treaties built. We have a very important attachment and conviction for the impact of law.
So we are always very involved in creating law, international law, in creating structures for cooperation and yes, we are also very interested in what we call the international rule of law as well.
This means that in all decision-making processes there must be respect for the rule of law, for the rules we have agreed upon, that the processes must be open, transparent, participatory, inclusive, and all voices of all human beings and all geographical areas of the world must be heard.
How were you elected as president of the negotiations? How did you feel?
Well, let’s see. I think my country submitted the application that should receive an endorsement from the regional group, in this case from the Latin American and Caribbean group.
This happened because of conversations we had had with different actors who were very involved in the process and who considered that Costa Rica could play an important role, given the history we had of working on disarmament in general, on nuclear disarmament and specifically on this process.
And from a personal perspective, since I had been involved in the last few years in which the process, led from Geneva had generated a series of resolutions and certainly working groups, two working groups here in Geneva, one, the first working group on nuclear disarmament, had also been chaired by a Costa Rican, my predecessor Ambassador Manuel Dengo.
Then came one of the first stages. Then when it was decided to work on the basis of seeking a legal prohibition, to fill that legal gap and this working group was established here in 2016, well, obviously I was very involved from a personal perspective and, well, we are certainly very active here in Geneva and then we could get colleagues and ambassadors to know a little bit about the work and also about the negotiating style and the work we have.
It’s an obvious combination of human emotions. I think obviously the most dominant is fear, yes, of course, and feeling a very big responsibility on your shoulders.
It’s that combination of emotions and it varies according to the moment. In the moment there was and there is much hope, anticipation. At some point we were confronted with great complexity. Then comes a little more the feeling of seeking peace and tranquillity in order to be able to think.
But yes, evidently there is a mixture of a great fear and a great interest and a strength to contribute.
In the past it has been my role in my professional life, it has been my job to be in advanced processes, generating changes, promoting legislation…
Always, practically everywhere I have been, it has been my job to look ahead and push processes that push back boundaries . So, that experience also generated a strength in me, and that strength also compensated the fear.
On the role of women
It is very clear that there are two approaches when one talks about women’s participation.
The first is that it has to do with rights and justice. That is to say, we are members of humanity, we have the right to participate.
So that’s basic, but in addition to contributing to that basic requirement of being inclusive and reflecting the composition of society, there is one aspect that is central and that is that all human beings are different.
We have a kind of specificity, and women also contribute from the perspective of our own experience. And certainly there has been a lot of research recently on the characteristics that women bring when we are in a negotiation process. And there is certainly a contribution from a different perspective that reinforces the negotiation processes.
I think it’s fundamental, it seems to me, a kind of, I would say more than courage, a willingness to take risks in favour of something in which one believes deeply. And also a willingness to explore new things, which was very important in this conference process.
But also the search for a positive, constructive atmosphere, with team spirit.
I feel that this was also very important in the process. Obviously all the women who were in these leadership roles had a capacity and an impressive training and knowledge of the subject. That’s evident, and that’s the foundation, isn’t it?
But I had great strength and I think I also received very important support, obviously from the women delegates. I think I received very important support from all the delegations. But it seems to me that it was a distinctive element, the ability to receive new ideas, refreshing approaches, and to seek a working and negotiating environment that tends to build bridges and to have an atmosphere of trust and hope.
About the role of civil society
Well, first of all I think it is the new expression of multilateralism and the new expression of what we have today in the international community.
In other words, governments are one actor, we have a way of doing our work but we can no longer work without the people.
The fact is that the people who are so empowered today, interconnected, are an impressive force to give direction to the international society we are building today. Therefore, it is practically impossible to think that governments can be alone: us trying to solve the problems of humanity.
We need civil society in all its expressions and perhaps this is something I would like to highlight. Because when we speak of civil society, we are speaking about committed activists for nuclear disarmament, we are speaking about victims.
We are talking about human beings in their human experience, in this life, who have known the horrors of what we are trying to solve. That gave the conference a spirit, a sense of ethics and justice, that wouldn’t have been possible if they weren’t there.
In other words, for example, listening in the room at the start of negotiations, to the testimony of Setsuko Thurlow, for example, and of many victims who were there, not only of the explosions in Japan, but also of the subsequent nuclear tests.
I mean, they are people who bring the human experience, i.e. the impact on human experience. Then we also have, in this concept of civil society, academia. And there we have specialists, doctors and great scholars who provided us with very important knowledge.
I even told them, in a meeting I had with civil society, that I had seen in that process a very interesting mixture of reason and conviction.
That is to say, obviously we had all the rational and scientific knowledge, if you will, intellectual, but there was also a force of conviction there. So that combination of civil society, states, even carrying the rational part and specialized knowledge, to me personally, seems to me to be the most extraordinary thing that needs to be analysed in this space and that can of course contribute going forward.
Regarding the absence of countries with nuclear weapons
Well, let’s see, I think there is a very clear analysis that is when there is a negotiation process in a room and there are very divergent opinions, it is much more difficult to bring the positions closer together. So, the fact that they weren’t there, that they weren’t participating, evidently created a dynamic in which the extreme positions were not there, they were absent, so there were differences of approach, but not in terms of the purpose of the exercise. So, evidently, this allowed the work to be carried out in the limited time we had.
When was the moment when you thought, yes, we’re going to do it?
Well, I’d say there were two or three key moments. When a conference kicks off, in this case, this negotiation conference, we would have to say that we had already received, we had already been advancing what we can call the theory of change, which was what we were looking to achieve.
Because work had been done here in Geneva and obviously at the conferences on the humanitarian impact. So, at that time there was already a wealth of knowledge, objective and perspective.
But all this great wealth had to be sifted through the sieve of negotiations and the different interests of all the countries, and one of the first challenges was for the conference to get off to a good start. And this means that everything starts positively, including resolving an issue in which many processes get stuck or stop or too much time and energy has to be invested, which is in defining the rules of procedure.
This, from the point of view of a presidency, perhaps those who are negotiating there, do not see it from that perspective, but from the point of view of a presidency, in order to get off to a good start it is necessary that this group does not get caught up in discussions that are not substantive with the objective we seek.
And that is why it was absolutely essential for me that we were able to agree on the operational and procedural issues and the rules of procedure of the conference.
It was also very important because those rules of procedure provided for the possibility of taking decisions even by vote if consensus could not be reached.
So, it was fundamental to the process as such, it was fundamental to the decision-making framework, and it was fundamental to what we call in these processes, “short gains”.
When you are in a long-term process, you need to generate quick wins that build confidence in the process and the ability to succeed. So the first time I felt that we were on the right track and that gave me great hope was when we were able to approve all the administrative issues of the conference, on the first day, in one hour, and avoiding at all costs engaging or allowing the conference to engage in non-substantive discussions. Then, once we got through that, that was the first ray of hope for me.
There was a second ray of hope at the end of the first week of negotiations. Because, besides the fact that we managed to get off the ground without the trauma of negative discussions, we then generated these discussions, these exchanges between civil society and academics, the delegations, and there was such a positive and enthusiastic atmosphere that it allowed us to close the conference with an atmosphere of hope and conviction on the part of all the delegations, which even allowed me to say to all the delegations: “We are going to adopt this treaty on July 7”.
And so, to define that goal and reaffirm that goal for all on behalf of the presidency as well, that was the second moment.
And then in the negotiations there was a particular moment where, at least one of the most complex issues in the negotiation, which was how to address the issue of the possibility that nuclear states become part of the treaty to undertake their disarmament process within the framework of this regime. That was very complex because it was totally new.
So, once I began to see that we were making progress in that negotiation and I received the latest inputs and reports from one of the facilitators, who was helping me with certain central points, there came a time when I was able to consolidate a text that I saw, which I said: “This is already a treaty and we are going for this.”
Then there were two or three complex points to negotiate for practically the last day, which was two days before the treaty would be adopted. Then, that session on Wednesday 5 July at 6 p.m., when I suspended the session because it was already clear that we had the treaty ready, but that session on Wednesday was an essential session in order that the text, that had been built with the participation and contribution of so many people, would not be opened. Instead, we would head towards the finish with that block of consensus.
What have we learned that will be useful in the future?
To answer this question, I think we need to be clear about what role international law and norms play in building the international society we seek.
And we cannot fail to see this process with a long-term historical perspective, because there are changes, there is nothing perennial in human history. In human history we are in permanent evolution and important changes do not happen overnight.
So, let’s take an example. Today it seems very clear to us that slavery was abolished. But there was a long time, in the history of humanity, in which slavery was the norm and colonialism and many other calamities of human interaction that we had to fix.
So, without the people who were fighting for the end of slavery at the precise moment when it was happening, if they would have thought that passing a law or a treaty in a very specific place wouldn’t be achieved, we wouldn’t have what we have.
My first answer, then, is that we have to look at it from a historical perspective, in the long term. So the first impact of the treaty is to change the way that the international community deals with nuclear weapons.
So, moving from a narrative that considers nuclear weapons as a necessary evil, to a moment when the international community says that nuclear weapons, on the contrary, are a risk to the existence of humanity, must be eliminated and are against human consciousness, basically and fundamentally. To change the narrative and to change the perspective also implies changing the way we negotiate with respect to nuclear weapons.
It changes the policy of nuclear disarmament completely, this treaty, and there is also an understanding that we are obviously moving through historical stages and after the advent of the nuclear age, evidently a great call for the prohibition of nuclear weapons.
But the big concern was to prevent proliferation and that’s why we were building a non-proliferation regime. And this non-proliferation regime also included an obligation for us to go ahead and destroy weapons in stockpiles and then get back to having a world without nuclear weapons.
So, in this historical process, where we see ourselves in stages, I believe that we are also beginning a new stage where we put the emphasis on to abolition, elimination and disarmament.
It is evident that there is an impact in terms also of the formation and perception of public opinion, which is fundamental in the world of hyper-connected and empowered human beings that we have today.
And we also have an impact on certain structures, because since there is international law, this also has an impact even on financial systems. For example, we have been seeing in the financial sector, the ability to finance companies that are linked to the generation of nuclear weapons is already receding, because of the ban, which is included in article 1, which is a very broad provision that has to do with a very wide range of activities linked to nuclear weapons.
So impacts are going to be generated, I think perhaps in blocks and certainly, we are in a very complex moment, very difficult world politics.
We are in a process of transition and structural change and the international community has gone through those stages before, that is what we have to remember.
Let us think, for example, if we take the norm against colonialism, which also took a long time to forge, it is also true that this process of constructing that norm on the self-determination of peoples took place at a time when colonialism was at its peak.
So, this also went through a process of structural change in the international community which is why there are rules, which were built to reach a moment in which, from the 1960s onwards, the whole process was generated that we are seeing today as a result, in which the United Nations, for example, which started out with 53 states, now has 193-4.
So I think that the first thing to consider is human beings and the international society of all societies moves on the basis of the ideas and conceptions we have about problems.
Once we change the ideas and the way we see problems, the way we act begins to change and that’s how change is generated.
Regarding your motivation?
There’s an inner strength that says we can’t fail. We don’t have the luxury to fail, even if things get difficult, we have to keep trying.
And that is true, not only at the international level, but also at the national level. And in every moment of my personal life, but also of my working life, I have been confronted with many ideas, dreams and aspirations that, in order to achieve them, you have to go through a very complex process. And in those tough times what you have to do is, as a baseball coach would say, “Keep your eyeson the ball.” You have to keep your eye on the goal you’re trying to achieve, and it’s a conviction that we can’t fail.