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Victory for the Watchdog

July 06, 2009 12:36 IST
The long drawn out election process for the next occupant of the 28th floor of the A Block of the Vienna International Centre to succeed Dr Mohamed ElBaradei was not a clash of personalities, but an extension of the perennial search for the soul of the Agency, the eternal quest for balance between the promotional and regulatory mandates of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The victory of Yukia Amano of Japan over his nearest rival, South Africa's Abdul Minty, is clearly a victory for the "watchdog" role of the IAEA. The resistance to him till July 2, 2009, by the developing countries stemmed from the fear that he, representing as he does the only country in the world which became a victim of a nuclear attack, would turn the Agency into a ferocious watchdog rather than a benevolent advocate of atoms for peace.

Amano, being aware of this perception, was careful enough to order his agenda in a way that might reassure those who opposed him: "I will dedicate my efforts to the acceleration and enlargement of the contribution of atomic energy to peace, health and prosperity throughout the world. I will work towards the enhancement of technical cooperation and its related activities, the prevention of the spread of nuclear weapons, and the overall management of the Agency." But nobody doubts that his agenda will be reversed in actual practice. Prevention of the spread of nuclear weapons will be his highest priority and the IAEA's "other job" will recede further in the background.

Dr Homi Bhabha, who chaired the preparatory meetings of the IAEA, had shaped a carefully balanced mandate for the IAEA in 1956. The objective of the IAEA is 'to accelerate and enlarge the contribution of atomic energy to peace, health and prosperity throughout the world' and to 'ensure, as far as it is able, that assistance provided by it or at its request or under its supervision or control is not used in such a way as to further any military purpose'. But this delicate balance began to get eroded as the Agency was given the additional responsibility to monitor the implementation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Today, it is hard to remain focused on the promotional aspects of the Agency's work because it is perceived as the instrument of non-proliferation. Even the budget of the Agency becomes lopsided as voluntary contributions pour into the safeguards budget, while the pledged contributions for technical cooperation get dwindled every year. The original idea was that the Agency should give equal importance to its three pillars -- nuclear power, safety and non-proliferation.

The IAEA is at the crossroads today because demands for technical assistance to developing countries, who want to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes are as pressing as the demand for measures to deal with proliferation and nuclear terrorism. An eminent persons group convened by the director general to look at the prospects of the IAEA in 2020 could not strike a balance because the group tended to engage, to a large extent, on issues beyond the mandate of the Agency, such as disarmament. The new director general has the responsibility to guide the Agency in the right direction, keeping as close as possible to the mandate of the Agency. The developing world did not believe that a Japanese non-proliferation expert will be the person for the job at this time.

No statistics are available to see the percentage of success that Japanese or Korean candidates have registered when they contest for UN positions. Very few of them lose because they select the positions after much thought and once candidates are put up; their governments go all out to support them. It was, therefore, a foregone conclusion that Amano would win. As a candidate, he had impeccable credentials as a specialist in non-proliferation and disarmament and had also served as the chairman of the IAEA Board of Governors. As the resident ambassador to the IAEA, he knew his colleagues, who had to cast the votes. In spite of these advantages, Amano had to struggle to get the required number of votes to make it. Till the very end, there was some expectation that the impasse would continue and the incumbent would be persuaded to stay till a consensus candidate was found.

Directors general have been elected by secret ballot in the past, but the polarisation between developed and developing countries was never so acute or persistent as it happened this time. Amano was referring to this when he said: "The tasks awaiting us will be tremendous, but I am confident that a director general who is trusted fully and actively supported by all member States will not fail to achieve the goals enshrined in the statute." It will take the new director general time to get universal support, given the bitterness of the election.

The towering personality of ElBaradei and the unanimous support he received during his three terms, crowned by the Nobel Prize for Peace, has set high standards for the Agency and its head. IAEA is, perhaps, the only UN agency which has never been plagued by charges of incompetence or corruption. The same integrity was evident in the manner in which he handled sensitive and crucial matters throughout his term. His steadfast opposition to the second Iraq war on the ground that there was no evidence to show that it still had nuclear weapons was a shining example of his impartiality, transparency and wisdom. His single-minded pursuit of truth in the case of Iran was subject of criticism by both sides in the dispute. While he was considered soft on Iran by the United States, Iran made no secret of its irritation over its persistence. His commitment to non-proliferation was unshakeable, but he had no hesitation to support and facilitate the India-US nuclear agreement. He gave great attention to the development dimension of the IAEA and maintained its balance. He leaves the Agency with an impeccable reputation, which will be a hard task to follow by his successor.

The IAEA, with the global responsibility for promoting the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, needs to reorder its priorities, considering that its budget is less than that of the Vienna police force. Much of its resources is spent in the safeguards area, leaving aside its primary purpose of promoting nuclear energy in such crucial areas as power generation, health and water. As the world moves towards "global zero", the IAEA should focus more on development. By the time the general conference formally appoints him in September, the new director general should win the confidence of the developing world. The world has a major stake in his success.

T P Sreenivasan, a former Indian diplomat, is presently a Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington, DC

T P Sreenivasan