Feeding the nuclear watch dog

Watch dog watching, photo credit: Rhiannon Davies

Earlier this month, Myanmar announced that it will sign the Additional Protocol to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Comprehensive Safeguards Agreements—a bold step for a country that has long been suspected of having nuclear weapons aspirations. If the government follows through on this pledge, it will make it much easier for the IAEA, often referred to in the media as the UN’s ‘nuclear watch dog’, to investigate these suspicions and either confirm them or lay them to rest. This is because the Additional Protocol allows the IAEA to conduct more thorough safeguards inspections of a country’s nuclear facilities—it gives the watch dog more scope to sniff out dodgy activities (PDF).

Since the Additional Protocol was introduced in September 1997, 139 states have signed it, and 119 have brought it into force (PDF). This is an important albeit partial victory for international nuclear governance, demonstrating a commitment among more and more states to higher standards of nuclear transparency. The ultimate goal of the Additional Protocol is to build confidence that states are complying with their nonproliferation obligations, which in turn helps to prevent further nuclear proliferation and to promote conditions that are more conducive to nuclear disarmament. Viewed in these terms, it’s easy to see why the IAEA is regarded as an international agency of major strategic significance.

Australia is a strong supporter of the IAEA’s nonproliferation role and is widely respected for the work it has done to strengthen international safeguards. It was one of the first countries to sign and ratify the Additional Protocol and it has gone to great lengths to encourage other countries to follow suit. In fact, as a country with nothing to lose and everything to gain from an effective international safeguards regime, Australian officials have been quietly advocating for the development of even stronger safeguards instruments (a process they have been closely involved in) and for empowering the IAEA in ways that make some countries uncomfortable. This includes supporting the so-called ‘state-level approach’ to safeguards implementation, which provides the IAEA Secretariat with an expanded intelligence-gathering and analysis role.

Over the next few months, this issue of whether and how to strengthen the IAEA’s nonproliferation role is likely to take centre stage in Vienna, as the IAEA Secretariat prepares to take its case for an expanded information-gathering capacity before the Board of Governors. It’s fair to say that discussions will be heated, and the chances of building a consensus are not high. Some countries have made it clear that they oppose the state-level approach altogether (Cuba, Iran and Venezuela), and others have expressed a desire to limit it or at least to pin down exactly what information is collected and how it is assessed (Argentina, Brazil, Egypt, the Philippines, South Africa and Switzerland). A recent article also identifies Russia’s position as a new and serious hurdle: whereas in the past, Russia has supported strengthened safeguards, at a meeting of the IAEA Board of Governors in June 2012, it objected to the state-level approach on the basis that it is discriminatory.

It’s likely that the IAEA’s in-house intelligence role will remain restricted in the short term. But as the experience of the Additional Protocol has shown, the process of norm change may be slow, particularly in areas of hard security, but it can still succeed over the longer term. The best strategy for states that support the state-level approach is to continue feeding the dog: provide practical support to the IAEA Secretariat in Vienna while making sound arguments in favour of strengthened safeguards in international forums. Slowly but surely, it should be possible to reach agreement on what types of proliferation-relevant information should be assessed by the IAEA Secretariat and how, and what judgments can be reached on what basis. Eventually, even states that once demonstrated strong resistance to new or expanded international instruments may accept them, just as Myanmar has accepted the Additional Protocol.

Tanya Ogilvie-White is a senior analyst in international strategy at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Image courtesy of Rhiannon Davies.