| by Mark C. Anderson

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Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova testifies before the UN Security Council

As Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova MAIPS ’07 addressed the United Nations Security Council, she chose words that might sound like an overstatement: “It is a great honor to address [you]… on one of the most important and gravest issues facing humanity.”

In reality, “important and gravest” could be an understatement when the issue at hand is nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation.

“Today, the risk of nuclear weapon use is higher than it has been in decades, as the norm against the use—the nuclear taboo—is undermined by reckless rhetoric and threats, especially those issued in the context of an active military conflict,” said Mukhatzhanova, director of International Organizations and the Non-Proliferation Program at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation.

While any presentation to the Security Council represents a historic moment, her appearance was particularly noteworthy. Nongovernmental experts rarely, if ever, are invited to brief the UN Security Council on issues such as nuclear weapons, and it was further noteworthy to have a woman speaker from a field traditionally dominated by men.

Mukhatzhanova credits the Institute for preparing her for her career in general, and that singular moment in particular. “The master’s program was absolutely essential to the work I do,” she says. “I don’t think there’s any program that prepares people better to work in this sphere.”

The native of Almaty, Kazakhstan, came to Monterey after earning her bachelor’s in journalism and mass communication from the American University in Bulgaria and then working on international development as an outreach specialist with the UN. Along with earning an MA in international policy studies at the Institute, she also completed a certificate in nonproliferation studies.

Recently she was appointed Japan Chair for a World without Nuclear Weapons. She will lead a multiyear research and dialogue program on nuclear disarmament, multilateral diplomacy, and institutions, funded through an endowment from the government of Japan

We caught up with Mukhatzhanova soon after the UN briefing, touching on everything from the importance of fresh viewpoints in a fraught geopolitical climate to the surprises that come with parenting three young children. Read her full remarks to the UN Security Council.


When do you feel most alive in your job? 

Apart from attending negotiations and writing, I also do training for diplomats. That involves designing courses, and lecturing and fielding questions, which is all very engaging, and the best part is really rewarding: encountering the same diplomats in conference settings helping influence good policy and getting more active and engaged. That’s incredibly rewarding.

We need not just women, but different voices on what these weapons represent, what structures are built around them, and how change in perspective can change the system.

— Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova

What are some of your favorite pursuits away from work? 

Here’s the thing: I have three kids. They are very interesting individuals, all in their own right. The two older kids are at an age where they read, six and eight years old. The things they notice and ask about are really interesting, and I like giving them the books they’re into. That’s really fun. That and ice cream are their favorite things. (They’re all about chocolate ice cream.) My younger son just asked me to buy him a Dale Carnegie book. There are things you don’t expect to hear from a six-year-old. 

What was appearing before the UN Security Council like in the moment?

As I was waiting—seeing people file in, foreign minister [Kamikawa Yoko] sweeping by, surrounded by her entourage, then Secretary General [António Guterres]—I was thinking, “Wow—this is really happening.” Then, as a public speaker, once I start, I go to a special zone.

The need to improve gender diversity in many fields is important overall. Why is that so critical to world security? 

One of the aspects in which the field has been changing, even in my time, is a greater attention to youth, gender, and other different perspectives. It started with “Let’s increase women’s participation,” because looking at numbers, it was quite dire how male-dominated it was. Digging deeper beyond numbers, it’s helpful to start thinking about how weapons and security are tied up in conceptions of power that are masculine, down to the language we use and how it emphasizes concepts of power as aggressive and dominating. We need not just women, but different voices on what these weapons represent, what structures are built around them, and how change in perspective can change the system. 

Do you feel the members heard your message, including your call at the end echoing Oppenheimer star Cillian Murphy’s call at the Oscars to “Be the peacemakers”?

Sometimes when you speak, you can tell people are listening. I felt I caught their attention—perhaps not everybody, but I think I connected—and some ambassadors said thank you in their remarks, some said they found proposals useful, and I got a number of messages from diplomats. People listened, and not necessarily only those currently on the Security Council, but those who care about our world. 

When you talk about “one of the most important and gravest issues facing humanity,” does everybody get that? If not, how do you help frame it?

There certainly was a period when humanity writ large, even at higher levels, weren’t devoting much thinking to it. People are much more alert than 10 years ago, and not for good reasons, unfortunately, but because of worsening relations between Russia and the West, the invasion of Ukraine, and North Korea testing weapons. All of this has heightened threat perception, and people are realizing we are in a crisis again. 

If you could speak directly to incoming Middlebury students, what message would you have for them? 

First, I still refer to it as Monterey. (Laughs.) My program has changed since I was there, and there are even more opportunities, especially for practical training, so my message would be they should absolutely use every opportunity, in terms of coursework, but also as graduate research assistants and getting involved in current projects, working closely with professors, which is how I ended up getting hired. Students should be on the lookout for those opportunities. One thing that makes nonproliferation and disarmament an interesting field is that it’s so small. You read what the advanced experts in the field are doing and then in not much time you are going to work with those people. 

Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova Addresses the UN Security Council

On March 18, 2024, the program director of our Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation delivered a briefing at the United Nations Security Council, calling on the five nuclear-weapon states and permanent members of the council to live up to their responsibility to reduce the risk of nuclear weapons use.