“So glad we finally got you here!”
I recall hearing numerous iterations of this statement on the first day of the Nuclear Ban Forum this June in Austria. As I acclimated my sleep deprived self with the Vienna heat, and wandered around the Aula der Wissenschaften, I felt relief knowing that I wasn’t going to miss the panel discussion I was slated to speak at the following day. Even though I had accepted the kind invitation to speak three months earlier, I couldn’t confirm with any degree of certainty that I would be able to physically take the main stage. At least not until I obtained a visa that authorised me to be in Austria – a visa I eventually received 5 days prior to the event.
To obtain the eight-day single-entry visa to Austria, I boarded four trains, spent the night in the city of Manchester, printed just under 40 pages of accompanying documents -including three months of bank statements and payslips, as well as all sorts of cover letters provided by my employer, and ICAN. I also paid £130 in application fees. In addition, I corresponded with everyone from those tasked with ban forum travel logistics at ICAN, to senior diplomats in Vienna. All to ensure that I could be granted an appointment, and that my visa application was not rejected. You see, regardless of the fact that I had provided all the information required for a successful visa application, there was no legal requirement for the Austrian embassy in London to guarantee the issuance of a visa to a Nigerian.
To obtain the eight-day single-entry visa to Austria, I boarded four trains, spent the night in the city of Manchester, printed just under 40 pages of accompanying documents -including three months of bank statements and payslips, as well as all sorts of cover letters provided by my employer, and ICAN. Olamide Samuel
In recounting the visa ordeal with ICAN members of staff, I quickly became aware of the number of participants and speakers who were not issued visas in time to attend the ban forum. I listened to stories of individuals for whom the Austrian Visa was simply out of reach, despite the tireless efforts of ICAN staffers to ensure their in-person participation. Of course, many (if not all) of these individuals were young people from the global south. I quickly became reminded of my privilege – I reside in a western country (the UK) and my journey to the visa application centre was comparatively hassle-free. I travelled to Manchester, whilst others residing in Africa had to travel to neighbouring countries to be able to receive consular services. And all of this happened against the backdrop of an Austria that was rapidly attempting to (albeit momentarily) dismantle systemic barriers they erected to keep people that look like me, out of their country. Afterall, it would have been embarrassing to host the very first meeting of state parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW 1MSP), without any global south civil society representatives present. For context, global south states currently account for at least 58 of the 66 TPNW state parties.
Yet, from the point of view of civil society participation and representation in nuclear conferences, the Nuclear Ban Forum and the TPNW 1MSP were unique. The sheer presence of young vibrant activists and academics furnished diplomatic deliberations with immersive testimonies, presentations, and statements. Their participation also noticeably interfered with the traditional diplomatic decorum in a positive way – 1MSP was the first time I ever witnessed rounds of applause after each and every statement given at a diplomatic conference. Diplomats from the global south were noticeably surprised and pleased to see young representatives from their respective countries at a nuclear conference. And many of these young representatives benefited from the generous sponsorship provided by ICAN, which included flights, hotels, and logistical support. Without this, we would have witnessed a similar lack of diversity that has accompanied other nuclear conferences this summer.
As soon as I returned to the UK on the 25th of June, it was time for me to repeat the entire visa process again. I needed a US visa to be able to attend the August NPT Review Conference (RevCon) and the October Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference. My trip to 1MSP meant that my passport was only available for submission, with less than 7 weeks left to obtain a US visa. It should have been sufficient time, I thought, relying on my experience with European visas. I had never applied for a US visa before, but I’ve heard stories from other Nigerians about how daunting and invasive the process is. After booking the flights, hotels, travel insurance (as required), I was finally ready to schedule an appointment with the US embassy in London. To book such an appointment, I had to fill in around 12 pages of forms, which included invasive requirements to declare every single social media account, phone number and email address I have ever owned for the past 5 years – amongst other things. Only after all this information was submitted, would I be able to even see the next available appointment date.
“First available appointments: 5 January 2023”
I stared at my computer screen in disbelief. I had not realised that I would need at least 7 months, not weeks, to be able to attend a visa interview. It quickly dawned on me that I never had a realistic shot at attending the repeatedly postponed NPT RevCon. Even if I had applied for a US visa on the same day as RevCon president-designate Zlauvinen’s announcement of the confirmed dates (which he made on March 11, 2022), I still would have been unable to make it. I guess 1MSP in Austria wasn’t that bad afterall?
I never had a realistic shot at attending the repeatedly postponed NPT RevCon. Even if I had applied for a US visa on the same day as RevCon president-designate Zlauvinen’s announcement of the confirmed dates, I still would have been unable to make it. Olamide Samuel
I cut my losses, vented on twitter, and decided to move on. Afterall, I still needed to apply for a Swedish visa, as I was invited to speak at the inaugural conference of the Alva Myrdal Centre for Disarmament a few months down the line. I promptly snapped up a visa interview a day later, due to a prior cancellation. A stroke of good luck, given that one usually has to wait weeks to secure an appointment. However, this meant that I had to withdraw from another speaking engagement at a York University conference on the same day, an opportunity-cost most academics in nuclear policy never have to calculate.
The reality is that nuclear politics affect all people, yet not all voices are given equitable access to the spaces where crucial deliberations and decisions are made. Despite the fact that much of the negative human and environmental impacts are borne by people of colour across the global south, the spaces where decisions are made remain exclusively in western capitals – and the conversations remain limited to a select few. The structural barriers erected to limit participation (such as visas, accreditation, the costs of registering, accommodation in Western capitals and flights), remain more diverse than the individuals who are ‘authorised’ to exist in these limited and shrinking spaces. My reflection on the restrictive visa system merely highlights one of many such barriers. Annual statements of sympathy and solidarity with black and brown people will not change the fact that most conference planning committees fail to account for the logistical barriers to entry, faced by people from the global south who are primarily people of colour.
Despite the fact that much of the negative human and environmental impacts are borne by people of colour across the global south, the spaces where decisions are made remain exclusively in western capitals - and the conversations remain limited to a select few. Olamide Samuel
Given that neither the US, Austria, nor any other western countries appear to be revising their visa regimes any time soon, here are a few recommendations for nuclear conference organisers, all centred around paying attention to the visa regimes governing proposed conferences:
First, the prevailing assumption that invitees enjoy equal mobility privileges, perpetuates this very inequality. In simply inquiring about invitees’ visa challenges, conference planners will become aware of the kind of assistance which might be required by the invitee. It could be as simple as drafting invitation letters, or providing a dedicated point of contact for consular purposes. Inquiring about invitees’ visa challenges should not be any less common than inquiring about dietary restrictions – yet this is not currently the case.
Inquiring about invitees’ visa challenges should not be any less common than inquiring about dietary restrictions. Olamide Samuel
Second, conferences need to be planned well enough in advance, accounting for the time required to obtain entry permits. Three months might seem like a long time to begin logistical preparations for conferences but the reality is that the estimated average waiting time for a US visa appointment, for example, is 244 days. For many other western countries, waiting times are around two to three months. I’ll take this opportunity to point out that even the UN’s accreditation procedures for civil society representatives neither considers extended visa waiting times as relevant, nor does it offer invitation letters – a visa requirement for every western country within which UN conference centres are situated.
Many of these barriers to entry are not as invisible as many would have you believe but by characterising them as invisible it excuses the privileged (and those capable of lowering them) from having not noticed them in the first place.
As I write this, having received reports of “the striking lack of [diversity]” at the 2022 NPT RevCon, I can only imagine the accessibility implications of hosting TPNW 2MSP in New York in 2023 and I already dread the thought of having to go through the US visa hurdle, just so I can stay connected to the TPNW review cycle. For some of us, the Atlantic is not just a pond that can be skipped, it’s a bloody vast ocean.
The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or all of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security policy challenges of our time.