Middlebury Institute alumna Elayne Whyte Gomez MAIPS ’93, ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary and permanent representative of Costa Rica to the UN in Geneva, recently made history. After months of consultations and two rounds of intense negotiations, she presided over the successful negotiation at the United Nations of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Facing extraordinary time pressure and, at times, contentious debate, Amb. Whyte facilitated the adoption of this landmark agreement by a vote of 122 nations in favor, one against, and one abstention.
Efforts to ban nuclear weapons date back to their first use in 1945, when the United States dropped two atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As more countries built up nuclear arsenals and interest in civil applications of nuclear energy grew, however, the international community shifted its focus from prohibiting these weapons to limiting their spread. To this end, the United Nations concluded the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in 1968. As part of a grand bargain, the NPT commits all participating states to pursue good-faith negotiations leading toward nuclear disarmament, while those parties to the treaty that do not have nuclear weapons agree not to acquire them, in exchange for access to safeguarded nuclear energy.
The NPT entered into force in 1970 and was extended indefinitely in 1995. Although nearly universal in adherence, the treaty has faced enduring criticism from states as well as civil society. Critics have railed against the nuclear-weapon states for not adequately fulfilling their NPT disarmament obligations, leaving in place a de facto system wherein the weapons are permitted for some, but not for others. Calls to address this perceived shortcoming grew louder following the 2010 NPT Review Conference, which refocused attention on the humanitarian impact of the use of nuclear weapons. In response, the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 70/33 in December 2015 and established an Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) to take forward multilateral nuclear-disarmament negotiations. Subsequently, based on the recommendations of the OEWG, the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 71/258, which mandated negotiations on a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons. Against this backdrop, Amb. Whyte assumed her position as president of the Prohibition Treaty negotiations in February 2017.
Amb. Whyte’s extensive experience in international diplomacy contributed significantly to her success in this position. Her engagement with issues relating to this topic dates back at least to 1991, when she began her master’s degree in International Policy Studies at the Institute. Professor Jan Black, who was also new to the Institute at the time, realized as soon as they met that Whyte was going to be a “world changer.” “I hadn’t been in Monterey more than a year or so when Elayne came to the classroom,” she recalled, and it was their interactions that made her certain she had come to the right place. Black’s initial impressions were confirmed when she chaired Amb. Whyte’s master’s thesis, research she calls “brilliant, professional, and insightful.” Although the thesis itself focused on economic development, Black recalls that her former student was “always interested in diplomacy.”
Amb. Whyte began to pursue this passion professionally after receiving her MA in 1993, joining the Costa Rican Foreign Service as a career diplomat in 1998, and rising to the position of vice minister at the Costa Rican Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Worship two years later. Black notes with pride that Amb. Whyte was the first woman and the youngest person ever to serve in this role, which she held through two successive administrations from different parties. She was, in Black’s words, “a celebrity right away.” The two have stayed in touch and Black was thrilled, but not at all surprised, by Whyte’s accomplishments in leading the ban treaty negotiations.
The 10-page treaty, which proponents say reflects a paradigm shift in how states perceive the role of nuclear weapons in international security, will open for signature in September 2017 and will enter into force 90 days after its ratification by 50 states. While it will almost certainly reach this threshold in a short period of time, the document’s long-term impact on the international nonproliferation regime is far from clear, as none of the states that already possess nuclear weapons participated in its negotiation, and the United States, the United Kingdom, and France have already stated that they do not intend to join it.