The return of the safeguards resolution

Posted by Andreas Persbo (andreas.persbo) on Sep 27 2012
VERTIC Blog >> Arms Control and Disarmament

The safeguards resolution of the IAEA General Conference has, for many years, been one of the highlights and great dreads of the conference. Member states anxieties and excessive wrangling over its text tends to ensure that the final day of the conference ends around midnight. While this adds to the excitement of the conference, it is also a very costly undertaking. Sitting in the conference hall in the middle of the night surely raises questions as to whether it is all worth it.

For sure, the resolution is the one that receives a lot of attention from the media, and that may be one of the reasons that member states invest so heavily in it. But all this effort can also be explained by simple economics. The resolution addresses one of the central work areas of the organization, an area worth some 37 per cent of the regular budget. From that perspective, it is natural that member states are keen to have a say in how that money is spent.

Background to the resolution
The safeguards resolution was introduced in 1991. At the time, it represented an important shift in the internal debate on safeguards. Prior to its introduction, resolutions on safeguards tended to focus on the financing of the safeguards system, and not its operation. Since then, however, the IAEA membership has focused not so much on how the system should be financed, but on how it can be improved.

Last year, the conference could not unite on language, breaking a two-decade long string of formulated, reformulated and restated understandings on the safeguards system. But divisions on the resolution started well before that, with the introduction in 2001 of language recognizing the importance of achieving universal application of the safeguards system, and urging states to bring into force comprehensive safeguards agreements. This forced the conference, for many years, to have a separate vote on this paragraph, after which members voted on the resolution as a whole. At first, this was done by hand (hence making it impossible for those scrutinizing the record to see who voted for what).

Since 2007, however, a roll call has been requested on both amendments and the resolution as a whole, making divisions clear to see. Those who have wanted to see the additional paragraph have abstained from the resolution as a whole. The core group of persistent abstainers is rather small: Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia and Syria. It is likely supported by Iraq, Qatar, Sudan, Tunisia and Yemen, who have abstained on those occasions that they’ve been present in the conference hall. In addition, a group of nations comprising Algeria, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco and Pakistan have abstained most of the time, but voted in favour at one occasion. Interestingly, where Iran and India goes on the vote is difficult to predict. Both have voted for the resolution twice, but abstained three times since 2007.

The list of those consistently voting for the resolution is rather long, but includes the vast majority of industrialized nations with significant nuclear activities. For many states, the resolution serves the purpose of providing at least some guidance on the future direction of safeguards. They do not want to jeopardize this, and this becomes important when analyzing the support for the introduction of new language.

Disarmament language on the roll
The press seem to have focused on the roll-call vote on disarmament language inserted by Iran in the preambular part of the resolution, a relatively harmless addition that safeguards is a fundamental component of nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament. Similar language was proposed in 2010. Egypt had proposed changing the title to refer to ‘nuclear verification’ and argued, in support of its position, that ‘the Agency had an important role to play in verifying nuclear disarmament as well as nuclear non-proliferation, and there were precedents for discussing the Agency’s role in verifying nuclear disarmament—for example, within the framework of the Trilateral Initiative’.

The Egyptians continued to explain that ‘the proposal had been opposed in the working group by a few Member State representatives who clearly feared that discussing nuclear verification would mean dealing with country-specific issues’. No state raised an objection to this characterization. Egypt clarified that ‘it would be possible…to discuss nuclear verification at a thematic...level and so cover the entire range of activities which the Agency was carrying out, had carried out and might be invited to carry out in the near future’ (italics here).

The fact that the language had not been inserted did not significantly alter the 2010 vote on the resolution. Myanmar changed its 2009 yes vote to an abstention. Iraq recorded an abstention as well, but then it had not voted in the previous year. It would have abstained no matter what. The rest of the floor voted in a rather predictable way.

In 2011, Brazil wanted to insert language that ‘notes that, in furthering the establishment of safeguarded worldwide disarmament, non-proliferation and disarmament efforts, including nuclear verification, are mutually reinforcing’. This suggestion got public support by an interesting range of countries: Cuba, Algeria, Venezuela, Ireland, Iran, New Zealand, South Africa, Egypt, Germany, Syria, Singapore, Sweden and Australia. The interesting thing with this line-up is that it includes governments aligned with the Western group, not just the usual suspects.

The nuclear-weapon states did not take a stand on the subject matter as such, instead reverting to procedural arguments. Russia and the United States were in agreement that the conference was ‘running behind schedule’ and that there ‘was no time for debate’ on the amendment. France simply said that the original draft was ‘excellent’ and that it therefore should ‘not be opened up to amendment proposals’. The Russians added that had the ‘wording been available for consideration three months earlier, it could have been considered, but there was now no time for the necessary negotiations’. The United Kingdom said that it ‘would have been willing to consider in isolation’ the Brazilian proposal, but that there was many other concerns - not relating to disarmament - that had been raised. This is a key point. Even if agreement could have been reached on the disarmament language in 2011, its not clear that consensus could have been reached.

This point is emphasized by the outcome this year. Again, disarmament language was introduced. It went to a vote, which has been reported in the media, but the outcome of that vote was never in doubt. Many delegations took the floor expressing the view that they were still firmly supportive of the disarmament agenda, but that the other parts of the resolution were important too. In other words, many would have welcomed the inclusion of disarmament language, but not in this resolution, and not at this time. To say that the vast majority of member states feel as though the Agency should have no part in disarmament verification is therefore either uninformed or, frankly, disingenuous. Especially so as the resolution, as a careful observer will see, actually supports an Agency role in disarmament verification already. The only change on the floor itself was that Cuba, Iran and Venezuela changed their yes votes to abstentions, possibly out of disappointment that the addition did not carry.

Other changes in the voting pattern were more interesting. India changed its long-running abstention into a yes vote. So did Jordan and Kuwait (and even Myanmar bounced back into the yes camp). On the whole, the resolution enjoyed the greatest level of support since 2008, with yes votes outnumbering abstainers by almost five to one.

So what has changed?
This is a difficult question to answer, particularly as the resolution seems to water down important language on safeguards. In particular, references to the IAEA’s state level concept (a technique which, in a nutshell, evaluates the material balance declarations of a state as a whole) had been battered or deleted.

For instance, in 2010 the General Conference welcomed ‘the important work being undertaken by the Agency in the conceptualization and and development of state-level safeguards approaches to safeguards implementation’ and also ‘in the implementation of state-level integrated safeguards approaches which support more effective and efficient safeguards’. This language was weakened this year, with the conference simply ‘taking note’ of this work, with the reference to ‘state-level integrated safeguards approaches’ deleted.

In 2010, the General Conference also urged the Secretariat of the Agency to ensure that the transition to integrated safeguards are given high priority. This reference is gone and so, presumably, the will of the conference to emphasise the need for safeguards reform. A new operative paragraph, later in the resolution, simply ‘encourages the Agency to continue to pursue the implementation of integrated safeguards in those states where both a comprehensive safeguards agreement and additional protocol are in force’.

Before the General Conference, there was talk that Russia had queried the state-level concept both privately and in the Board of Governors. The conference now requests ‘the Secretariat to report to the Board of Governors on the conceptualization and development of the State-level concept for safeguards’. This is significant, as it will force the Secretariat to clearly communicate what the state-level concept means, and how it will impact on safeguards implementation. Some are worried that the concept introduces a level of discrimination in the system. The state-level concept has always been designed with non-discrimination in mind, however, and the Secretariat now has the opportunity to explain this in more detail.

Other changes are more surprising. No longer is the General Conference urging the expansion of analytical capabilities in other countries, a main feature in the 2010 safeguards resolution. Rather, it is content with welcoming Agency efforts to strengthen the capabilities of its Seibersdorf laboratory as well as the Network of Analytical Laboratories. The Agency is encouraged to ‘enhance its technical capabilities and keep abreast of scientific and technological innovations that hold promising potential for safeguards purposes, and to continue building effective partnerships with Member States in this regard’. This language, which replaces older language on cooperation, ought to open up exciting new opportunities for collaboration with the IAEA in developing future generations of safeguards technologies.

Rather interestingly, the General Conference no longer acknowledges the the importance of giving members the opportunity to comment on the Safeguards Implementation Report.

There have also been a few additions. In the preamble, rather weak language has been added to note the conference’s recognition that ‘safeguards must be effective and implemented in an efficient manner, in accordance with relevant safeguards agreements,’ as well as a recognition that ‘the Agency's safeguards implementation is continually reviewed and evaluated by the Agency’. This language will hardly change the way the Agency is implementing safeguards.

More importantly, the resolution now emphasises ‘the obligation of states to cooperate with the Agency in order to facilitate the implementation of safeguards agreements’. The conference also ‘calls on the Agency to continue to exercise fully its authority in accordance with the Statute in the implementation of safeguards agreements’.

What’s in store for 2013?
Last year I argued that ‘it would be wise for those who care deeply about the Agency to use the coming year to rework the resolution into a text that is cleaner and more reflective of state views’. I also said that ‘it would also be sensible by those same delegates to think of ways in which the debate on the Agency’s role in broader verification is allowed to flow freely throughout the corridors of its General Conference’. (See ‘The (temporary) fall of the safeguards resolution’, 28 September 2011).

The resolution still has 30 operative paragraphs and a lot of preambular language. By way of comparison, the first ever safeguards resolution had three preambular and four operative paragraphs. The 2012 text is hardly cleaner, but given increasing support for it, perhaps more reflective of member state views.

Sadly, though, member states did not grasp the opportunity to allow the disarmament verification debate to enter into the conference. It is clear that the safeguards resolution is not the right place for this. It does have a place, however, given that many nuclear-weapon states seemed interested in at least debating the issue in 2011. The coming year should be spent thinking about how, not if, this debate should take place.

Last changed: Sep 27 2012 at 10:26 PM