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BIPR | Nuclear Disarmament, Non-Proliferation, and Global Risks
Nuclear Disarmament, Non-Proliferation, and Global Risks

September 22, 2022 - 11:30

Elayne Whyte, Former Ambassador to the United Nations and Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, Costa Rica

Event Recap

After a brief introduction by Director Michael Plummer, Ambassador Elayne Whyte outlined her position, from the point of view of a practitioner, on the process of finding solutions to global challenges like containing the spread of nuclear weapons.

She began by mentioning several events in recent days that underscored these challenges. The first was the recent summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, where dialogue between Member States addressed issues such as war in Ukraine, climate change, and, of course, nuclear weapons; there affirmations that this is not a time for war but a time for dialogue and cooperation. Another recent pivotal event was the speech given by the Secretary-General of the United Nations General Assembly at the opening of debate of the body's 77th session last week, wherein he said that the international community is gridlocked in colossal global dysfunction that is failing to deliver the solutions that this world needs.

She agreed in particular with the remarks of the Secretary General that we face three primary challenges ahead of us with regard to moving out of global gridlock. The first is the time frame: the international community is too slow in moving to address the world's most pressing issues, taking on average three to ten years to pass vital treaties. Second, she recognized that we are working with the same instruments that have been in place for over 75 years, namely state legal obligations. But the world has changed significantly over time. The third challenge was the approach to dealing with increasingly complex issues with the same approach as in the past: a tendency to desegregate topics to better analyze them and then by creating individual institutions with focused mandates to solve complex issues, leading to overlapping mandates and administration and systematically failing to deliver at the necessary levels. She noted that she sees an advantage in coming from a small nation, whose diplomats have to cover a wide array of topics which allows them to interconnect topics and develop more comprehensive views.

Ambassador Whyte proceeded to offer a brief view of the historical context of nuclear weapons, beginning with the first UN GA resolution on nuclear disarmament through the recent Treaty on the Prohibition of nuclear weapons (TPNW), the first legally binding agreement to comprehensively prohibit nuclear weapons. The TPNW was the first process of norm creation to be passed with opposition of the so-called "P5" (5 permanent members of the UN Security Council) and other nuclear states. She outlined its innovative nature in bringing together scientists, activists, diplomatic leaders, and, most importantly, the voices of victims of nuclear weapons. Its main provisions aim to create a humanitarian impact paradigm, a strong comprehensive prohibition of nuclear weapons, pathways for total elimination, victim assistance and environmental remediation, and meetings of State Parties with power to continue developing the pieces of the regime by, among others, adopting additional protocols to the Treaty.

This Treaty, achieved through an innovative process, aimed to put people, namely victims, at the forefront of such discussions. Ambassador Whyte emphasized the need for such a perspective, as well as continued innovation in resolution making, in solving the world's most pressing issues. She concluded by drawing attention to the upcoming 100th anniversary of the nuclear age in 2045 as a call to awareness and action. As such, the TPNW ought to serve as a successful example of diplomatic innovation and awareness of the impact of individuals in the negotiation process, a view which we must carry forward, in not just nuclear weapons negotiations, but all of the world's most vital topics.

Full Audio:

Nuclear Disarmament, Non-Proliferation, and Global Risks

hosted by Professor Michael G. Plummer

Elayne Whyte
Former Ambassador to the United Nations and Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, Costa Rica

SAIS Europe students, faculty, staff, and guests are allowed to attend in person at SAIS Europe, via B. Andreatta 3, Bologna. To participate online, please register for the webinar.

Elayne Whyte is a Costa Rican diplomat and academic. In 2017 she served as President of the United Nations Conference that negotiated and adopted the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

Whyte has served as Vice Foreign Minister of Costa Rica, and Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Costa Rica to the United Nations in Geneva (2014-2020). She has held leadership positions in disarmament treaty-regimes including the Arms Trade Treaty, the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention, and the Convention on Cluster Munitions. Whyte has led negotiations in the creation of a global cooperation framework at the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2018, tackling the neglected problem of snakebite envenoming; co-chaired a multi-year process to improve the functioning of the Human Rights Treaty system, and in 2019 contributed as Co-Convener of the Global Refugee Forum mandated by the Global Compact on Refugees.

She has been Professor and Researcher at the School of International Affairs at the National University of Costa Rica and at the Law Department of the United Nations-mandated University for Peace. She has worked for over 20 years on issues regarding regional integration and development in Central America, and is the author of a series of publications on regional integration, security, foreign policy and human rights issues.

Whyte is currently a 2022 Fellow in the Advanced Leadership Initiative at Harvard University where she is deepening her work on negotiations of global public goods.

She holds a Master's Degree in International Policy Studies from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, California. She received a PhD in Humane Letters Honoris Causa, 2018, and serves at the International Board of Advisors of the Middlebury Institute and of the James Martin Center for Non Proliferation (CNS). Whyte has received several awards for her work in the field of disarmament, including: Person of the Year Award by the Arms Control Association, Washington, D.C. 2017; Visionary Leaders Award by Physicians for Social Responsibility, Washington, D.C., 2018; and the 2019 Sean McBride Peace Prize by the International Peace Bureau, at the United Nations Headquarters, New York 2022.
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