The General Conference at its 53rd

On Monday 14 September, senior representatives from 150 Member States of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) converged on a new hall in the Vienna International Conference for the five-day annual IAEA General Conference (GC). The annual conference, typically convened in September, considers and approves the Agency´s work programme and budget and decides on other matters brought before it by the Board of Governors, the Director General, or Member States.

The GC involves a web of intricate, parallel and related meetings that can seem daunting at first glance. Indeed much time is lost in the corridors deciding which meetings to attend and which to sacrifice. The Conference, which hosts all IAEA membership, convenes in one of three different configurations. The plenary is the ultimate decision making body of the conference and the seat of all authority. All other activities during the conference have ultimately to funnel through the plenary. Out of the plenary two committees branch out: the General Committee and the Committee Of the Whole, embarrassingly known as COW.

The General Committee has fewer elected membership and is the forum where major procedural issues are discussed. The committee forwards its recommendations on procedural issues to the plenary. These include, among other things, recommendations pertaining to the conference agenda, allocation of agenda items to committees as well as examining delegate’s credentials. The General Committee does not engage with matters of substance. The COW is the main committee in the GC. It is composed of the IAEA full membership and gives recommendations to the plenary on the course of action to be adopted on agenda items under its consideration. Along with plenary and committee meetings, there are numerous closed meetings for regional groups to coordinate positions as well as closed drafting groups. Since 1998, a scientific Forum has been organized in parallel with the conference. This year the forum is organized under the title ‘Energy for Development’. Along the margins of the conference various lunch seminars are also organized trying to attract delegates between meetings.

The first day of the conference plenary is usually heavy on ceremonial and procedural issues. However, this year it has an interesting twist. The conference takes place at a time when change is underway at the Agency’s helm with election of a new Director General (DG). The day started with election of Ms Jennifer MacMillan, Governor and Resident Representative of New Zealand, as President of the Conference. The Conference also elected 8 delegates as vice presidents, elected other members for the General Committee and the British Ambassador Simon Smith to chair the all too important Committee Of the Whole. The conference also approved by consensus membership applications submitted by Cambodia and Rwanda; bringing the IAEA membership to152 states.

 Following the UN secretary General annual message of support to the conference, outgoing Director General Elbaradie was invited to the podium to give what is to be his last address to the GC before his term expires this November. In his speech, Elbaradie looked back on the achievements of his 12 year tenure with pride and a sense of accomplishment. He counted various examples of Agency projects that enhanced developing countries’ access to civilian applications of nuclear technology. He also proudly expanded on the Agency’s role in helping to enhance safety and security of nuclear material. Indeed, who can dispute that IAEA is now a household Acronym. He did not miss the reference to IAEA/UNSCOM verification effort in Iraq. It was with pride that he announced that, time has vindicated the Agency’s positions and findings on Iraq. He made a point in stressing the importance of the Agency’s independence and as a reliable source of impartial factual information.

 However, the picture Elbaradie painted of his agency was not all rosy. In making frequent and nostalgic references to his first speech as DG in 1998, he stressed that many of the issues he adamantly pushed forward are still animating the international agenda despite the 12 years. DPRK, lack of progress on disarmament and the ‘perennial problem’ of inadequate agency funding and legal authority are but some of what he mentioned. On safeguards and verification, his picture is more of persistent and enduring challenges than one of self-congratulation. He outlined ‘major shortcomings’ in the agency’s legal authority that hinders the agency from carrying out what it is expected to do. With its limited means, the Agency is battling against the odds to secure essential state-of the art technology. In particular he mentions the agency’s need to be able to independently validate environmental samples. Moreover, caught between a growing staff base as a response to expansion of the agency’s inspection burden, the agency seems to suffer from a perennial funding issues and reluctant yet demanding donors.

As with most of Elbaradie’s speeches, the nexus between development and security, disarmament and the non-proliferation regime were all too present. Elbaradie envisions a possible verification role for the Agency in nuclear disarmament. That role, he suggests, can be a ‘natural extension’ to the agency’s role. Elbaradie also outlined his vision for a role for the Security Council in a comprehensive rule-based compliance mechanism. He also emphasized the Council’s responsibility in addressing the ‘demand side’ of the proliferation dynamic. Addressing various insecurities and prioritizing a preventive agenda to consolidate peace in the most vulnerable of places should be amongst the Council’s non-proliferation tool box. The long-time Agency civil servant and outgoing DG farewell speech was met with a long round of applause from delegates many of whom had not experienced the agency under another DG. Various statements from regional groups commended Elbaradie’s efforts. And, following on a Board of Governors recommendation, Elbaradie was given the title ‘DG Emeritus’ in appreciation of his 12 years at the top post in the IAEA. Although the title is honorary and does not have formal implications, many sounded the view that Elbaradie should continue to pledge his knowledge and dedication to the Agency.

Procedures to approve the appointment of the next DG followed. Yukiya Amano, the career diplomat and Japan’s Permanent Representative to the Agency till August this year, was elected July this year by the Board of Governors. His election has to be approved by the GC and the plenary approved his appointment by consensus. Following standard procedures, Amano took a formal oath pledging to discharge the functions of the DG with only the interest of the agency in view. He pledged ‘not to seek or accept instructions in regard to the performance of [his] duties from any Government or other authority external to the Agency’.

In addressing the conference as DG-elect, Amano stressed the ever-changing circumstances surrounding the Agency’s mission. From increased risk of nuclear proliferation to the increased demand on peaceful nuclear applications, these changes are primarily global in nature; and because of that, the agency is well suited to tackle them. He further emphasized the importance of drawing on the Agency’s comparative advantages as an inclusive stakeholder’s forum. In stressing his inclusive approach, Amano also acknowledged the role of civil society and pledged to extend partnerships with the third sector.

 A consistent message in Amano’s address was that the agency should not be confined to any particular one of its mandates. Due emphasis should be placed on the Agency’s ‘dual-objective’: ensuring non-proliferation and promoting peaceful uses and technical cooperation. The Agency should not be geared towards pursuing one of those objectives at the exclusion of others but has to address them both in a balanced manner. Amano also pledged to maximise the use of the Agency’s limited budget. On internal Agency issues, he undertook to swiftly address duplication and to enhance efficiency within the Agency’s ranks. He also expressed his intentions to improve communications between the Agency and member states; however, the details of such plans were not disclosed.

It is noteworthy that Amano has, more than once in his statement, referred to his DG duties as ‘Chief Administrative Officer’. One would wonder whether that was intentionally flagged to signal how Amano intends to run the Agency. Amano’s predecessor was frequently perceived as challenging the boundaries of his mandate. Amano, in framing his role in those terms, signals what many predict to be a stark difference of approaches between him and his predecessor on how to manage the organization and its political capital. Only time would tell.

Following the statements, the floor was opened to the conference’s ‘General Debate’. Each delegation is allowed a max of 15 mins to address its positions and activities on issues relevant to the Agency’s mandate and the result is usually a very long speakers list. While the general debate was underway in the plenary, the General Committee was considering the provisional agenda. This year provisional agenda included two supplemental items. One was an item on the ‘Threat of Israel’s Nuclear Capabilities’ proposed by the Arab group while the other on the ‘Prohibition of armed attack or threat of attack against nuclear installations, during operation or under construction’ proposed by Iran. The provisional agenda with the two supplemental items were adopted as the Conference Agenda.

The General Committee also referred annual recurring agenda itemsto the Committee of the Whole for delegates’ deliberations. Significant among those are items on strengthening the safeguards and application of the model additional protocol, nuclear safety and nuclear security . Debates and positions on those resolutions have been increasingly heated as of late. Last year, the Committee of the Whole did not reach consensus on the annual draft resolution on the strengthening safeguards and adoption of Additional Protocol nor on the draft resolution on nuclear security. Resolutions under those items had to be presented to the plenary where they were subjected to a vote and were passed with a majority despite various efforts to reach consensus text. More will be clear as the conference unfolds and delegates go into drafting mode.