Andreas PersboThe (Temporary) Fall of the Safeguards Resolution

It’s been a long time since I last guest blogged on ACW, and it feels good to be back. I’m glad to see that my avatar still looks stern and angry.

As some may have noticed, last week’s IAEA General Conference ended without member states being able to agree on a safeguards resolution. Reuters put the blame on some member states, quoting two Western envoys. This story was picked up by Global Security Newswire on 27 September. While there is some truth to the story, it doesn’t pick up on all the complexities of the debate.

I followed the safeguards discussion for at least three years, during a time when there was no problem for non-governmental delegates to attend. In fact, I remember being pulled into the room by a colleague from an important Western state who said, “all the action is in this room, and the rest of the conference is boring”.

It was a quiet time, not many non-governmental organizations were roaming the hallways, and the only non-IAEA colleague I can remember was Mark Hibbs, who then worked at Platts Nuclear Fuels. For the last two years, however, I have been too busy with bilateral meetings and those other matters that take up a director’s time. Since then, I have lost touch with the people in that room (for they were always the same crowd) and their mission to come up with the perfect formula.

Now, I understand the Secretariat, pushed by a few member states, has become much stricter in controlling access to this room. This is unfortunate, since it allows for subjectively biased information to appear unchallenged in the open domain. In addition, some of our younger colleagues have also been ejected rudely from the rooms in a way that, if these young friends have recollected correctly, has reflected badly on the Secretariat. Indeed, less discontent – not more – is needed in the hallways of the M-building. And while I hope that this is not a continuing trend, my intuition tells me attitudes will become worse before they become better.

But let’s go back to the safeguards resolution. Over the years, the main struggle has principally been between states who wish to reflect and promote the development of a stronger safeguards standard, and those who want to block collective support of this. Indeed, earlier in the week, there was even a tendency by a minority to resist the idea of “information driven safeguards”. There is also resistance against any language that hints that the Additional Protocol may become the new safeguards standard. That intrusiveness is not welcomed, nor thought needed, by all states. This division was reflected in the safeguards resolution.

Indeed, the debate may be at its fiercest in this little room at the General Conference, but the shockwaves can be felt beyond its walls, for instance throughout the NPT Review Conference cycle. Anyone examining the final document of last year’s conference will find scars of this disagreement running throughout. The discussions in Austria are not new, and the outcome, frankly, not that surprising.

So, disarmament language may have been one source of discontent this year, but it is not the main battle ground, and I dare say that it will not be for the foreseeable future. Indeed, the objection to including disarmament language, and I remember such language being suggested more than two years ago, is mostly procedural. The safeguards resolution ought to deal with safeguards matters, the argument goes. Other roles of the IAEA should be dealt with through other means. True, there is a minority of nuclear weapon states that may resist the inclusion on substantial grounds (and I think we know who they are), but their views have never been fully articulated. There are also those that believe that nuclear disarmament indeed falls under the Agency’s safeguards mandate. After all, the IAEA Statute refers to “safeguarded worldwide disarmament”. Also, the mandate in Article III.A.5 does not exclude an Agency role in safeguarding weapons usable material. On the contrary, it seem to foresee it.

Personally, though, I agree with the first view. Over the years, the word safeguards have come to mean instruments deployed mostly in non-nuclear weapon states. Its usage has been strongly associated with non-proliferation. Altering the meaning now is bound to lead to resistance, and perhaps confusion.

In addition, the safeguards resolution is already too clumsy, too long, too vague, and too meaningless to matter that much. After a long preamble, one would expect to find some exciting operative language. Alas, the resolution simply continues with more preamble language, making the entire document one long tiring list of ideals, soft welcoming statements, with one or two twists embedded for show. As the years have passed, revisions have been added to revisions, suggestions interbred with suggestions, and confusion squared with confusion. I stopped reading it some time ago and I’m not surprised that some Agency officials just shrugged at its absence this year.

Some will see this is a great setback. Others, to paraphrase a close colleague in Vienna, will simply see this as an accurate reflection of the state of affairs and the divergence of views in the house. I see this is a great opportunity.

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. Most delegates in the safeguards resolution working group are passionate supporters of the Agency, and its role. 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.

This is a crosspost from my own blog, and from the VERTIC blog. Apologies if you’re receiving multiple notifications.


  1. Mark Lincoln (History)

    The NPT was created (with loud humanitarian protestations) to achieve for those possessing nuclear weapons what the UNSC veto achieved for the victors of WWII. That those nations were one and the same (once the USA allowed the real China to be seated, and China decided the NPT could be a useful tool for it’s foreign policy).

    The ability to enforce the NPT has always been linked to the UNSC veto.

    There have been monumental failures. Particularly important was the covert support of the Reagan administration for the Pakistani bomb program, which alas led to A.Q. Khan.

    Still what could the IAEA do besides whine? How loudly did it dare whine?

    The Additional Protocols are fixes to the original optimistic NPT.

    Safeguards, love them. The more the merrier as I see it.

    Still, when the Veto leaves the NPT itself virtually toothless, what do we expect?

    The Veto leaves the major nuclear powers and their separate foreign policy interests able to prevent any collective support for Additional Protocols – or indeed an NPT – which they do not wish.

    May the UN coerce nations like India, Israel, and Pakistan to come under controls and safeguards? Hah. Will the ability of any of of the ‘permanent members’ of the UNSC – which happen to be the major nuclear weapons states – to vex any action be ended?

    The efforts of an army of nattering diplomats will come to naught so long as all they are doing is discussing what might be enacted, employed and enforced IF it does not offend the current foreign policy goals of 5 nations who are beyond responsibility and accountability.

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