An educated, cautious optimism

March 15, 2022

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 43 Issue 1 Spring 2022

Wendy Stocker interviews Executive Director Cesar Jaramillo

Wendy Stocker: Please give our readers a brief chronology of your career at Ploughshares. When did you start, what roles have you filled over the years?

Cesar Jaramillo: I started at Project Ploughshares on September 1, 2009. My first role was as Program Associate – a position we now call Researcher – working on the Ploughshares outer space security program.

I hit the ground running. Back then, Ploughshares served as the secretariat for an international collaborative research project with academic and nongovernmental partners called the Space Security Index (SSI), which monitored developments related to the security of outer space and produced an annual publication. The 2009 publication had just been released and a series of outreach events in Canada and abroad was planned for the SSI launch soon after my arrival. In early October, I spoke for the first time at the United Nations on behalf of Project Ploughshares, presenting key SSI findings at an event during sessions of the UN General Assembly First Committee, which deals with matters related to peace and international security. I ended up leading the publication of the next six annual editions of the SSI, with a great team of collaborators.

My coming to Canada as a refugee was one of the defining events of my life. The journey from a refugee shelter in Toronto – my first place of residence in the country – to Project Ploughshares has been intense and fast-paced.

Early on, I also began to take responsibility for nuclear disarmament, working with and then taking over from Ploughshares co-founder Ernie Regehr. I have learned a lot from Ernie and am fortunate to still have the benefit of his sage advice.

With the retirement of Ken Epps after a distinguished career managing the Ploughshares program on the arms trade, I started working on conventional weapons controls, including multilateral efforts to better regulate the global arms trade and Canadian military exports. It was an exciting time for this program as the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) had just been adopted by the international community. There was ample opportunity for work, both monitoring compliance by states parties and urging Canada – then an outlier – to join the treaty, which it eventually did in 2019.

In early 2015, following the announced departure of John Siebert as Executive Director, I made the decision to apply for the position. A Selection Committee established an open call for applications and I was the only internal candidate. After going through the recruitment process, I was appointed Executive Director, with a start date of July 2, 2015.

As Executive Director, I combine administrative and managerial tasks with program work, which continues to interest me greatly. I have done some work on new areas, such as emerging military technologies and the protection of civilians in armed conflict.

WS: You have really covered the waterfront, being directly involved in just about every Ploughshares program area. I know that you have worked directly on any number of policy initiatives. Which are you most proud of?

CJ: I would highlight two, the first international, the second domestic.

I am very glad to have been involved with the multilateral process that eventually led to the adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). I had the opportunity to attend the series of conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons that preceded negotiations on the TPNW, which took place in 2013 and 2014 in Norway, Mexico, and Austria. I was also part of various other initiatives, in Canada and abroad, to promote and build support for the TPNW, attending both sessions of treaty negotiations at UN headquarters in New York. I was fortunate to be there on July 7, 2017, the day when this historic treaty was adopted.

Project Ploughshares is a proud member of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), a civil-society champion of the TPNW and the recipient of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize for these efforts. I am in awe of the many committed activists from Canada and around the world who worked collaboratively to bring this treaty to fruition. A central element of the TPNW effort was the attention drawn to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, which reframed the traditional approach to the nuclear disarmament debate, making human security the main driver for abolition.

And our work has not ended with the creation of the treaty. To meet the TPNW’s stated objective of the complete elimination of nuclear weapons, I, with so many others, continue to engage in efforts aimed at treaty universalization and effective implementation.
At home, I was very pleased to be involved in an effort to strengthen Canadian arms control legislation, a requirement for Canada to join the Arms Trade Treaty. Project Ploughshares had been calling on Canada to join the ATT since December 2014, but the Conservative government at the time was reluctant to do so. When a new Liberal government came into power, it started the necessary work to join the ATT.

A critical part of this effort related to Bill C-47, which considered amendments to Canada’s arms control legislation that would enable the accession to the ATT by aligning domestic obligations with those of the treaty. As part of this process, and alongside civil society colleagues, I had the opportunity to engage government officials and Parliamentarians in an effort to strengthen domestic legislation around arms exports.

Prior to the enactment of Bill C-47, the Minister of Foreign Affairs had the obligation to consider the risk of human rights violations when authorizing an arms export. However, after such consideration, the minister still had wide discretion to authorize the export in question. As a result of the Bill C-47 process, which included strong civil society advocacy on this precise point, the minister now has the obligation to deny export permits if a substantial risk of human rights violations is identified.

WS: Ridding the world of nuclear weapons and controlling the exports of Canadian weapons have been staple pursuits at Ploughshares since the beginning. You are walking the Ploughshares path!

Can you trace your own personal path to becoming an advocate for peace? What in your earlier education and career and life prepared you for such a calling?

CJ: I have been interested in current and international affairs for as long as I can remember. Parallel to this interest, no doubt influenced by the backdrop of a protracted armed conflict while growing up in Colombia, there has always been a certain sensitivity to matters related to war and peace. And I was fortunate to be raised in a household with strong values concerning justice, honesty, and basic human dignity.

I learned English at a young age at an international school in Colombia. While there, I was at various times part of the debate club, president of the student council, and a member of the school’s Model United Nations program. After graduating high school, I was conscripted into the Colombian army. I served for one year before going to university, where I obtained a degree in journalism and communications.

My coming to Canada as a refugee was one of the defining events of my life. The journey from a refugee shelter in Toronto – my first place of residence in the country – to Project Ploughshares has been intense and fast-paced. After settling in Waterloo, I decided to go back to university. During my studies at the University of Waterloo (political science) and the Balsillie School of International Affairs (global governance) I honed my interest in peace and security studies, which in turn helped pave the way for the work I am doing now.

But my time at Project Ploughshares has undoubtedly had the most profound effect on my attitude toward matters of war and peace today. The work itself has been continuously reinforcing and encouraging. The more I learn about the causes and implications of some of the world’s thorniest security problems, the more I feel compelled to try to craft solutions. The more I get to know my friends and colleagues from civil society, starting with the exceptionally capable and committed Ploughshares team, the more convinced I am about the transformative potential of organized groups of individuals determined to effect positive change.

WS: A strong expression of hope. How do you remain optimistic, when many arms control efforts seem stalled right now?

CJ: In my case, I would say that what I feel is educated, if cautious, optimism. This is different from wishful thinking and is based on an assessment of areas where progress has been made or is possible.

From working at and leading Ploughshares, I have learned that change for the better is possible. Sometimes progress happens in small, almost imperceptible increments. Other times in greater leaps. It can also stall or recede. But possible it is.

While I recognize that there are worrying trajectories on many of the issues we address at Project Ploughshares, I strongly reject any notion of inevitability about the materialization of worst-case scenarios. The future is still being written and, at Project Ploughshares, we want to be among those holding the pen.

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