The General Debate

The General Debate, following the D-G speeches, in the Conference Plenary had its greatest audience on Monday, as delegates were keen to listen to the most politically-salient addresses of the week, mostly scheduled for the first two sessions. It is typical for the Plenary to have a full house at the beginning of the week for the formal opening of the Conference, and at the end of the week, when the fates of the draft resolutions carved out throughout the week are decided by vote amongst the Member States. It is also typical for the Plenary to experience a midweek lull as the General Debate continues, often into night sessions, with heads of national delegations reading prepared statements. During these times, the auditorium is at peak half-full while the real work of the Conference is hammered out elsewhere.

While the General Debate naturally renders few surprises (an address among a schedule of many in an auditorium half full with junior officials is no place to deliver big news), it gives states an opportunity to report on their activities with the Agency over the past year, and to restate their positions, in digestible summary, as to how they see themselves, their place in the landscape of nonproliferation, and their relationship with the IAEA. By way of example, the Russian address given by Sergey Kirienko, the head of Rosatom, made little mention of safeguards, but restated Russia’s commitment to bilateral technical cooperation with states, expressly mentioning Iran, retrenching Russia’s staunchly independent policy when it comes to states with outstanding safeguards issues.

It is also a chance for States to state their formal position on items on the Conference agenda. An item may be formalised into a draft resolution by its sponsors, and then circulated for negotiation and alteration in working groups and the CoW before it enters the Plenary to be voted on. During the General Debate, States sometimes use their address to justify items they have sponsored or air their grievances about items they feel strongly about and this can lead to what essentially amounts to a rather stiff pre-drafted spat in the Plenary. On Monday, Hassan Younis, Egyptian Minister for Electricity and Energy, used his address to defend Egypt’s sponsorship of its draft resolution, “Application of IAEA safeguards in the Middle East”, arguing that non-implementation of Comprehensive Safeguards Agreements, presumably in reference to Israel, constitutes a “dysfunction in implementation of safeguards”, and criticised IAEA members for failing to pass the resolution in previous years, citing “non-substantive and non-objective objections”. On Tuesday, Shaul Chorev, Director General of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, took the opportunity to respond to Egypt’s draft resolution, countering that such a proposal could only come about through arrangements made within the Middle East region. In addition to this, Chorev also rebutted two supplementary items entitled “Israeli nuclear capabilities”, submitted by the Arab states, which is doing the rounds as a draft resolution, and “Prohibition of armed attack or threat of attack against nuclear installations, during operation or under construction”, submitted by Iran, a draft resolution for which has not seen the light of day, dismissing the Iranian proposal as a case of “wishful thinking”. This, in turn, prompted a use of the right of reply from Iran, who pointed out that Israel is not a signatory to the NPT. For the most part, the General Debate has been relatively spat-free, as other States shy away from debate and choose to use the podium to summarise their activities in technical cooperation and civilian nuclear safety.