“Always say the truth, be fair and transparent to all”, – interview with H.E. Ambassador Gustavo Zlauvinen

November 7, 2022

PIR Center Deputy Director Elena Karnaukhova discussed with H.E. Ambassador Gustavo Zlauvinen, President of the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference 2022, the assessments of the X NPT RevCon, impressions and the difficulties he faced as President of the RevCon, how the preparation of the final document was going, prospects for the future review process, challenges to the NPT, the possibility of nuclear disarmament, the effectiveness of education in the fields of nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament, Ambassador Zlauvinen’s own path towards nuclear issues, and his life credo.

How do you access the entire review process within these 7 years and X NPT RevCon in particular? How was the preparation of the X NPT RevCon going? What difficulties did you encounter before the Conference started?

We were supposed to hold the Х NPT RevCon in April-May 2020, but due to the COVID-2019 pandemic we were forced to postpone it four times. Finally, we were able to hold it in August 2022, two years and 5 months after the original date. During that long hiatus, I asked UNODA to help organize a number of webinars on the different NPT-related matters in order to keep the momentum, so that the delegations and civil society could stay engaged in the process of discussing the most important issues that were going to be crucial at the Conference. In parallel, I held virtual consultations with all state-parties, every 2 months, in order to keep the official delegations informed of the situation and developments regarding the postponement, such as the restrictions imposed by the New York City due to the COVID-2019 pandemic. Such a virtual format for the informal consultations was really important for all delegations because it helped them raise different issues and questions, both on procedures as well as on substance.

We were also discussing the format of the Conference, as there was no clear indication when the UN would go back to an in-person format for the meetings at Headquarters. For example, there was a dilemma on whether to meet as soon as possible, in a virtual or hybrid format, or to keep waiting until we could meet in person. The hybrid format would have meant an in-person participation for those delegations based in NYC and that had access to the UN Headquarter, and an online participation for their colleagues from capitals or based in Geneva and Vienna. But this format was not widely supported by most delegations. In particular, Russia, Iran, Cuba and other states-parties were against the hybrid format, either because of possible connectivity problems, or because they were of the view that the complexity of the issues to be negotiated at the Conference required a full-fledged in-person format, or because they believed it was essential to have all experts and participants in one room. As we did not achieve consensus on a hybrid format, we decided to keep postponing the Conference.

When the circumstances finally permitted to hold the Conference in-person (August 1–26, 2022), other issues started to get actively discussed. For example, I got many requests from some delegations regarding their US visas. They needed to send large delegations to participate in the intense four-week, parallel meetings process of the Review Conference. In general, such issues are the responsibility of the UN Secretariat, as they are ruled by the host-country agreement between the UN and the US. But as the President-designate of the Conference, I had to actively interact with those governments to make sure that all visas for their delegations would be issued by the US authorities. And I am happy that my team and I managed to resolve this issue and that the American government approved the necessary visas for all participants. But I have to say that I did not know for sure that all visas would be issued until the start of the Conference. I was aware that some state-parties would raise procedural questions at the beginning of the Conference if some of their delegates would not have received their US visas. I really worried about that because it could block all substantive discussions at the Conference. My mind kept remembering what had happened at the 2005 NPT Review Conference, when it was not able to adopt its agenda during the first three weeks, and thus there was almost no substantive work at all. I was afraid that the same situation would happen to the Tenth NPT RevCon. Thus, it was important for me to resolve all the procedural issues before the Conference started.

I remember that on November 1, 2021, PIR also held your public lecture on the prospects of the X NPT RevCon for our students and wider audience. And, also, I remember that you said that the regime of nuclear nonproliferation was going through a challenging time, and that the Conference itself was going to be held in a very tense atmosphere. So, what are the main factors that prevented us from holding the Conference itself and the review process in general effectively with a positive outcome: structural changes in the sphere of international relations, lack of trust between countries, too many emotions in talks, the fall of diplomacy?

We knew beforehand that the Conference would be extremely complex and that it would be difficult to achieve consensus on an outcome document. Basically, the main problem that we faced, and that we are still facing now, was the growing frustration by the large majority of state-parties, those that do not possess nuclear weapons, due to the lack of real progress in the nuclear disarmament front, as they see that the nuclear-weapon states are not fulfilling their obligations under Article VI of the NPT. There was also the tension related to the different positions regarding the nonproliferation issues, such as the implementation of the 1995 Resolution on the establishment of a nuclear-weapons free zone in the Middle East, the difficult question of North Korea´s withdrawal, the Iranian nuclear program, etc. All these issues were very complex and difficult in themselves, but the conflict in Ukraine just increased the tensions in the context of the NPT. One important aspect was that, after February 24, 2022, the dynamic of the interaction among the five nuclear-weapon states changed. In all previous review conferences, the nuclear-weapons states coordinated their positions, even if they had different positions and national interests, in the context of the NPT they shared some basic positions regarding their status. But after February 24, 2022, so called P5 coordination process under the NPT stopped to work. The Tenth NPT RevCon was the first one where the nuclear five did not coordinate on the NPT-related issues, on how to react to the demands of the great majority of nonnuclear-weapons states.

But what can you say about the interaction between groups of states inside nuclear five? I mean interaction between Russia and China at one side and coordination between US, France, and the UK at another side.

I understand that right before and during the Conference, the US, France and Great Britain, the so-called P3 group, coordinated their positions. They did not include Russia because of the conflict in Ukraine, and China decided not to take part as long as Russia was not invited. I understand that the Russian and Chinese delegations held meetings during the Conference, but I am not aware if they coordinated their positions as well.

Share your impressions after first days of the Conference. What it was like? How did you consider your own mission?

I was very pleased that we had managed to get to a very good start of the Conference, as I understood that the conflict in Ukraine was going to cast a shadow to the whole Tenth NPT RevCon. I expected many delegations to raise harsh political declarations against Russia, but my position was that all those political issues should be discussed within the first week of the Conference, when the plenary sessions and the general debates were going to take place. In fact, many delegations raised the conflict in Ukraine in their statements within the first week, in particular the Europeans and American delegations. And Russia, of course, replied to state its position regarding the conflict in Ukraine.

State-parties were discussing the war in Ukraine very actively, as it was a very serious and grave issue. But there were other problems to be raised as well. For example, delegations wanted to discuss nuclear propulsion in nuclear submarines, different proliferation concerns, humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons, the reasons why we still had not had progress in nuclear disarmament, etc. So, I tried to encapsulate all discussions regarding the situation in Ukraine to those issues directly affecting the NPT, namely the threat of use of nuclear weapons, and the attacks on civilian nuclear power plants in Ukraine. But many delegations kept raising the issue on almost all aspects of the Conference.

What countries were the most active within the X NPT RevCon? Did their activeness have positive or negative influence on the Conference?

I would say that there were many, many delegations that were extremely active during the preparation process, and during the Conference itself. There were about 30 to 40 delegations that were active on most of the issues, and many others that were active of some particular issues. The core group took the floor very often, making proposals, conducting negotiations, organizing side-events, or even discussing in the corridors. I don’t want to leave any one aside, but I will mention just a few examples of active delegations, such as Indonesia, Brazil, Mexico, Malaysia, Egypt, Algeria, the Philippines, Iran, Costa-Rica, Colombia, Cuba, Argentina, Canada, Australia, Austria, Switzerland, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden, US, UK, France, Russia, China, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Germany, Finland and Norway, among others. In my view, all delegations, with few exceptions, contributed in a positive way during the discussions and negotiations at the Conference.

If possible, I would like to touch the two following cases. The first one is the Republic of Kiribati. As you remember, the representative of this state said from the tribune that he would advise his government to withdraw from the NPT. The second case is France. France initiated a joint statement, which just blamed Russia for conducting Special Military Operation. It is quite interesting to discuss the statement itself, as it poses many questions to me regarding the authors, the signers, the format and etc. But I will only ask you to comment whether such actions of nuclear weapon state against another nuclear weapon state can hurt nuclear nonproliferation regime and prevent further review process from getting progress or not.

From my point of view, the case of Kiribati proves the point I have mentioned regarding the growing frustration by the large majority of nonnuclear-weapon states as they do not see that the nuclear five are really making progress toward nuclear disarmament and thus, not implementing their obligations under the NPT. The nuclear-weapon states´ response is that the international security environment is not conducive to such progress. But history has shown that arms control and nuclear disarmament can be achieved even during moments of crisis or tension. For example, at the highest tension between the USSR and the US, they managed to forge important treaties on the limitation and the reduction of nuclear weapons, i.e. SALT, START and New START. But after that process there was no new progress towards nuclear disarmament. And that is why we are observing a growing number of nonnuclear-weapon states becoming very frustrated and making strong-worded statements regarding the NPT. I want to believe that the representative of Kiribati just wanted to air his country´s frustration and show it to the nuclear-weapon states. I believe it is very important to call on the five nuclear-weapon states to do much more on the implementation of Article VI, because the situation could erode the credibility of the NPT regime.

Regarding the statement made by France, let´s clarify that its representative took the floor at the end of the Conference, on August 26, to deliver a joint statement signed by many other delegations, which criticized Russia for invading Ukraine*, and also raising the concern regarding the safety and security of nuclear facilities in Ukraine under military attack. France, as any state-party, had the right to deliver such statement. Still, I believe that nuclear-weapon states have to talk to each other on matters of such importance as nuclear disarmament, arms control and security of nuclear facilities, even in the current circumstances. It is important for all humanity.

Tell us more about the preparation of the final document of this year. Is it a real tragedy that we do not have a final document of the Conference? Do we need to estimate the success of the review process through the fact of the final document achievement? It’s just a paper or something more…

As I said before, it was expected that it would be very difficult to get a final document by consensus because there were many conflicting views on many relevant issues such as the WMD-Zone in the Middle East, the Iranian nuclear program, the DPRK nuclear arsenal, lack of progress in nuclear disarmament, etc. Previous review conferences had failed to reach consensus on a final document due to one specific issue. For example, the 2015 RevCon failed to reach consensus on its final outcome document due to the diverging positions of some state-parties regarding language in the Middle East. But ahead of the Tenth NPT RevCon we were facing several complex and difficult issues, not just one. So, I was trying to push delegations to come to a common understanding of the majority of these issues just to prove that we could continue to work together.

During the third week of the Conference we managed, somehow, to begin to find a common understanding of the main NPT-related problems and on how we should reflect them in the final document. At the beginning of the last week of the Conference, when the work of the Main Committees and Subsidiary Bodies were over, I put together all the proposals in a draft final document, and then I started to push delegations to get to a minimum compromise on all the issues we had had discussed. On Friday, August 26, many delegations informed me that their capitals could accept the final document, despite the fact that the document was not perfect. But the situation changed when the Russian delegation informed me that Moscow still had strong reservations regarding the language related to the situation in Ukraine. As it was too late for further negotiations, I kept the text unchanged, and the Russian delegation blocked consensus on the final document of the Tenth NPT RevCon*.

What prospects for the future review process do we have? Do we need to and how can we reform NPT review process and review conferences (their agenda, format, goals, etc.)?

Event if we did not manage to get a final document by consensus, I believe that the Tenth NPT RevCon proved that states-parties were still able to discuss all NPT-related issues, to engage and negotiate with each other, and even to agree on some critical issues under the Treaty. I do not think that the success of an NPT review conference should be measured only by the fact that a final document is agreed or not. In our case, and for four weeks, delegations from 161 state-parties managed to discuss and negotiate nuclear related issues, agreeing on some of them and disagreeing on others. That´s the way the process work. And it is alright. Last but not least, many delegations which took the floor during the Tenth NPT RevCon stressed on the need for their countries to get a better access to peaceful nuclear applications, for example to fight cancer, water management, crop improvement, etc. I am very pleased that, at the Conference, pillar III was discussed at the same level as pillars I and II. I strongly believe that we have to continue with our common work.

Is it possible to make amendments to the NPT? We still have some unofficial nuclear weapons states, and they are involved in too many conflicts. Is it right that we do concentrate too much on relations between US and Russia ignoring nuclear arsenals of other states?

A world free of nuclear weapons will require that all nuclear-weapons states, both those five recognized by the NPT, as well as those outside the regime, to get rid of their nuclear arsenals. The NPT calls on those nuclear-weapons states to join the Treaty as nonnuclear-weapons states. Unfortunately, reality indicates that they don´t have the intention to do so. I do not see any ways to reform the NPT and to even raise such initiative. If we reopen the negotiation of the NPT now, it would be impossible to reach any consensus on how to reinforce it. And it might as well break the entire nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament regime up. The regime is not perfect, but it is the best one we can have. I am sure that, if back in 1995 we had extended the NPT just for another 25 years, and not indefinitely, now it would be near impossible to reach consensus to extend it for another 25-years.

Is it possible that in the future we will see more nuclear states? What can lead to the collapse of the NPT regime?

There are too many challenges to the NPT that can diminish its credibility, or even threaten its survival, and I do not want it to happen. Obviously, the frustration continues to increase and if some nonnuclear-weapon states were to withdraw from the NPT, it would be the beginning of the end. And it would be a major blow if one of them were to develop a nuclear weapons program. When North Korea declared its withdrawal from the NPT and conducted its first nuclear explosion, it put the Treaty in a crisis, but it was handled adequately. But if another or several cases were to happen again, I am afraid it would be impossible to maintain the regime without major consequences.  

Is nuclear disarmament still possible or is it becoming just a dream?

I think that nuclear disarmament is still possible. I understand and accept that it is a very complex and politically difficult process. But if there is a political will to renew talks on nuclear disarmament, it would be possible to move towards in a tangible manner. The nonnuclear-weapons states need to see that there is still “hope” for the full implementation of Article VI and achieving a world free of nuclear weapons. And only the nuclear-weapons states can provide for such a hope.

Do you believe that education in the field of nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament can be an effective tool to reduce nuclear risks and to promote the elimination of nuclear weapons? The situation is getting worse and worse; however, the ideas of nuclear proliferation and disarmament education have been developing and spreading since the beginning of the 2000s.

I believe that the more people are aware of that danger that nuclear weapons cause, the more people express their fears about this danger, the more chance we would have that the governments of the nuclear-weapon states would start to reconsider their policies towards nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence. I am sure that civil society does really play a role in pushing authorities to deal with the risks associated to nuclear weapons. Education is the one instrument that helps raise awareness on nuclear weapons issues and to call for their abolishment. Granted, nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament education is not enough to resolve all our problems, but it is an important factor among other actions.

But how can we enhance the effectiveness of the education in the field of nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament?

We have to get out of our comfort zone. Normally nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament education is being conducted among professionals who are experts on these matters or on international relations, or among people who want to become experts, to study the nuclear issues and to deal with them in the future. I am sure that we should get out of that logic and reach out to a wider public audience. For example, we can promote education in the field of nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament in primary and high schools which do not relate to nuclear and disarmament issues and international relations. Everyone should understand the threat posed by nuclear weapons. So, my advice is the following: “Get out from your comfort zone and go to more challenging audiences”.

Tell us about your own path towards nuclear issues. Have you always thought that nuclear weapon is an evil of humanity?

When I was five years old my aunt Betty told me about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I remember it very clearly. It was August 1965, the twentieth anniversary of the nuclear bombings. I would never forget the pictures of the bombings she showed me in a Life magazine. I got deeply shocked by the sheer destruction of the bombings and by the suffering of those was survived. Since than I have consistently thought that nuclear weapons are awful, immoral, and go against humanity, as Pope Francis says. From that day I have wanted to contribute in the pursuing a world free of nuclear weapons. When later on, I decided to become a diplomat, I hoped to be assigned to deal with these issues. After graduation from the Argentine Diplomatic Academy, I applied to the Nuclear Disarmament and Nonproliferation Division. I was sent to training missions in Geneva, Vienna and New York. My first foreign post was at the Argentine Mission to the IAEA in Vienna. Most of my career path was related to nuclear and disarmament issues, interjected with periods where I was assigned to bilateral relations, from economic to legal to cultural to political affairs. But later in my career I returned to deal with the issues that are closer to my heart, nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament. 

Do you have any life credo? Which philosophy do you follow?

My life credo is “Always say the truth, be fair and transparent to all”. I have always been keen to practice this credo in all spheres of my life, and of course in my work as well. I used it when I became the President-designate of the Tenth NPT RevCon. And I stated it very clearly to all delegations, throughout my presidency: I would tell other delegations what you tell me, and I would tell you what other delegations tell me. I don’t hide or twist information, and I expect delegations not to hide or twist information from me.

Is there life after being the President-designate of the Tenth NPT RevCon? What are you going to do? Will your future work relate to nuclear domain?

I hope there is life after the Tenth NPT RevCon! Now, seriously, in December 2021 I run for election as President of the Argentine Foreign Service Association. The decision was taken when the Tenth NPT RevCon was supposed to take place in January 2022. I got elected and then the Conference got postponed until August. Thus, I had to postpone my work in the Association until after the Conference. I am now holding my new position as President of Argentine Foreign Service Association. I have new challenges and responsibilities. But I know that, one way or another, I will continue working on nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation matters all my life.

* The Editorial Board’s opinion may not coincide with the interviewee’s.