20 October 2020

Building the Culture of Peace | Interview with Izumi Nakamitsu

UN Under-Secretary-General Izumi Nakamitsu, High Representative for Disarmament Affairs was interviewed by the Seikyo Shimbun as part of its monthly Culture of Peace series. Ms. Nakamitsu covered topics such as the United Nation’s 75th anniversary, the 25th anniversary of UN Security Council Resolution 1325, the role of civil society in supporting the UN, how to accelerate actions for nuclear disarmament and what beliefs have guided her work.

  • Peace
  • Disarmament
  • Nuclear Abolition

Seikyo Shimbun: What are your thoughts on the present state of our world, from the global COVID-19 pandemic to recent extreme weather events and environmental disasters?

Dr. Mamphela Ramphele: The human race is facing a planetary emergency. But I also believe that moments of crises such as these present a rare opportunity for making fundamental changes in human behavior.

We can no longer ignore the reality that continuing to live as we do today exceeds the capacity of our Mother Earth to sustain us. People are finally coming to realize that our excessive extraction of natural resources, our consumption-driven lifestyles, and our culture of material consumption has also damaged us inside, harming us spiritually.

Now is the time to look inside ourselves and reflect on our behavior and our consumption patterns that surpass the regenerative powers of nature, and to correct our failure to learn from nature. Changing our behavior is something all of us can and must do. Change starts from the individual, from each of us.

We also need to awaken to the fact that we are all connected. In Africa we have the concept of ubuntu, the conviction that you are only human in relation to other human beings. That it is our essence as human beings to be good, to take care of ourselves, to take care of others, and to have a sense of empathy.

People are interconnected and interdependent. You cannot be happy when other people around you are suffering. You can’t enjoy wealth when others are poor. What has gone wrong with our planet is the extraction of wealth by a few at the expense of the many, and the extraction of wealth at the expense of nature, which is a life-giving force. COVID-19 has taught us that you can’t be healthy unless other people around you are healthy. COVID has shown that inequality is dangerous, it’s life threatening to both the rich and the poor.

The important thing in life is not how many cars you own or how many trips on an airplane you have taken. The important thing is this precious life we all possess. We need to treasure life, to treasure well-being, to treasure our human relationships, and to treasure our Mother Earth. That’s the consciousness we all need to have.

Peace is not simply the absence of war, but is only truly realized when the conditions for peace in all its aspects are attained. In that sense, I believe that a world without nuclear weapons is not only a common goal for all the world, but striving to attain that goal is an extremely important process: it is the means to create the all-embracing peace that is entailed in building a culture of peace.

Izumi Nakamitsu

SS: The Soka Gakkai International, as an NGO having consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council since 1983, has taken action to address many global issues. What expectations do you have for such civil society support for the UN?

IN: The role of civil society is extremely important. The activities of NGOs have played a major role in creating the groundswell of international public opinion that contributed significantly to the adoption of the Anti-Personnel Landmines Convention (APLC), the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM), and more recently, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). They also play an important role with regards to the Treaty on the Non Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). In a way, it can be said that they created the momentum that brought the leaders of the world to the negotiating table. That’s the degree of influence they exert.

The UN has especially high hopes for the role of young people in this regard. The activism of Greta Thunberg in the area of climate change is well known, but young people have also played a creative role in the area of disarmament. For example, a group of young people has been working on a digital platform for sharing the experiences of hibakusha, including developing an app for a virtual tour of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is really encouraging to see young people taking the initiative in this manner, and supporting these cross-national networks being created by young
people is a top priority for us.

SS: Considering the pace of progress in nuclear disarmament today, what efforts do you regard as necessary to accelerate it?

IN: We are presently facing very serious security issues concerning nuclear disarmament. In addition to the tensions between the United States and Russia, the relationship between the US and China is also
deteriorating. In addition, all the nuclear-weapon states are modernizing their arsenals, and we are seeing the beginning of an arms race based on the quality rather than the quantity of nuclear weapons.

In addition, the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty between the US and Russia, the two nations that hold some 90 percent of the global nuclear arsenal, is no longer in effect, and the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) is set to lapse in February of next year. Meanwhile tensions remain high in the Middle East and South Asia, and there is a growing risk of nuclear proliferation in Northeast Asia as well.

I believe the situation today represents the greatest threat for the use of nuclear weapons since the end of the Cold War. We cannot ignore the possibility that some misstep could lead to the pressing of the nuclear button.

If we wish to put an end to this situation, the nuclear-weapon states will need to engage in dialogue-based security measures. The UN’s consistent message is that disarmament is an important tool for securing the safety of all nations. Through dialogue, through negotiations, we can attain the security we all desire, without depending upon proliferation.

Following the nuclear showdown between the US and the Soviet Union over Cuba in 1962, both nations awakened to the need for direct talks and created a communications hotline to prevent catastrophe. I would like to see both nations return to that way of thinking and advance along the path of nuclear disarmament through dialogue. I hope they will strive to make the upcoming NPT Review Conference scheduled for January 2021 an opportunity to do so.

Some good news in all this is that the TPNW will soon be entering into force. UN Secretary-General António Guterres said at the High-level Meeting on Nuclear Disarmament of October 2, “I look forward to the entry-into-force of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which reflects the desire of a large number of States to free the world of the threat.” The treaty takes effect ninety days after the required ratification by fifty states, and we are engaged in preparations for that.

SS: How important is a world without nuclear weapons from the perspective of a Culture of Peace?

IN: Peace is not simply the absence of war, but is only truly realized when the conditions for peace in all its aspects are attained. In that sense, I believe that a world without nuclear weapons is not only a common goal for all the world, but striving to attain that goal is an extremely important process: it is the means to create the all-embracing peace that is entailed in building a culture of peace.

In the twenty-first century, nuclear disarmament will involve many new issues, including the deployment of such emerging technologies as cybernetics and AI in warfare and the proliferation of weapons in space. Only when human beings are protected from all such threats can true peace be assured in terms of human rights and human security.

The UN has departments working not only on disarmament but the issues of development, climate change, human rights, and many others as well. None of these problems can be resolved over night, but I believe it is important to advance one step at a time in all of these areas in order to create peace in the fullest sense.

SS: This month marks the twentieth anniversary of the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security, which endorses the role of women in building peace.

IN: UNSCR 1325 is extremely important. Discussions on it began at the Fourth World Conference on Women held in 1995 in Beijing. In that it is an affirmation by the UN Security Council that women must be regarded as central with regard to the issues of peace and security, it is indeed a historic step.

Data verifies the truth underlying this resolution, showing that peace agreements arrived at with the participation of women are the most enduring. This demonstrates just how crucial it is for women to play a central role in peace issues. It is not only important from the perspective of women’s rights and human rights, but, as Secretary-General Guterres has often said, the participation of women is an “operational necessity” for achieving every goal.

For example, earlier I mentioned the importance of the role of NGOs, and it has been women’s groups that have given the biggest push for the adoption of disarmament treaties. This was true of the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (PTBT), the Mine Ban Treaty (MBT), the CCM, and the NPT. Setsuko Thurlow, a survivor of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, was an important spokesperson leading up to the adoption of the TPNW, and Beatrice Fihn, the Executive Director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), played a major role in moving the ball forward. Women speaking out and taking action was directly linked to the final result. There are many examples confirming the truth of UNSCR 1325.

Nakamitsu in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

SS: You have been directly involved in tough negotiations regarding conflicts and refugee assistance. What beliefs have guided you in those situations?

IN: My mentor, Sadako Ogata, taught me the importance of being on the ground. If you truly care about helping those who are in trouble, you need to be where they are and experience what they are experiencing. She also taught me to always act in a way that would stand up to the judgment of history and never to allow bureaucracy or precedent to stand in the way of doing what is right.

In difficult negotiations, I believe it is important to genuinely understand the other party and really listen to what they are saying. It is often said that the Japanese tendency toward self- effacement doesn’t serve us well in international society, but communication is always a two-way street. During this COVID-19 pandemic in particular, nations have been cut off from one another, and divisions within nations and among communities have also emerged. Precisely because of this situation, I believe we need to humbly listen to one another.

Another important factor in negotiations is sincerity. In conflict zones, we often find ourselves dealing with parties who are dishonest and untrustworthy. Nevertheless, I have always adopted the attitude that “I am listening to you and I will respond sincerely.” To forge a trusting relationship, one has to keep this up until the other party decides, “She always listens to us, so I suppose we can listen to what she has to say, too.”

Sincerity is especially important in disarmament negotiations, which are particularly challenging. We need to listen to the victims, not only of nuclear weapons but also of small arms, landmines, and so forth. Only when we have truly grasped and shared their pain are we motivated to take action to change the harsh reality confronting us. The same principle applies to refugee assistance and conflict resolution, I believe.

In conflict zones, one finds many wonderful individuals who, in spite of their painful circumstances, have not abandoned their human dignity and are living with courage and moral conscience. Encounters with such individuals are the treasures of a lifetime. They are the motivation that enables me to continue to do what I do.

This interview was published in Japanese in the Seikyo Shimbun, a daily newspaper of the Soka Gakkai in Japan, on 20 October 2020.