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Seminar on "The Current and Future Safeguards Role of the IAEA: Challenges and Opportunities"

Vienna, Austria
  1. I should like to welcome you all to this Seminar, to explain why we are organizing it and to tell you what we hope to achieve by it. I also want to talk about the situation of safeguards in the political landscape, their functions, potential uses and limitations.
  2. The cases of Iraq, DPRK and the Ukraine have naturally provoked much public and political debate about the means of preventing and countering nuclear proliferation. Safeguards are a part of these means and they, too, have been and remain the subject of much discussion.
  3. We are right now at a stage where safeguards verification has assumed extreme importance in some places, notably DPRK. We are also at a moment when -- after the experience of Iraq -- governments and the IAEA Secretariat very actively work on strengthening the system and on improving its cost-effectiveness. And we are at a juncture where verification systems need to be made part of new nuclear arms control and disarmament schemes -- a cut-off, the recovery of nuclear material from dismantled weapons, a complete nuclear test ban and nuclear-weapon-free zones in various regions.
  4. At no time could it be more important that governments, experts and media understand the subject. You are all very familiar with the safeguards system. Several of you have even written books about it. Is there really anything more you can learn about it? I hope so. And we who are organizing the seminar hope to learn from you.
  5. I said we are very actively working to strengthen the safeguards system. Some important things have already been done, others are projected. We would like to tell you about this and have your comments. Each subject presented is given about as much time for discussion as for presentation. We will fit the experiences of Iraq, DPRK and South Africa into the larger question of the effectiveness of safeguards, but we shall also properly analyse these cases and discuss them with you. We will, lastly, examine the potential use of the Agency's verification capacity and experience in new international agreements and seek your comments.
  6. In the course of these two days you will hear and meet several of the key actors of the Agency in the safeguards field, the Head of the Department, Deputy Director General Pellaud, the Head of the Action Team for Iraq, Prof. Zifferero, the Director responsible for safeguards in the DPRK, Mr. Perricos, the Section Head responsible for safeguards in South Africa, Mr. Dillon, the Director responsible for the major project for strengthening of safeguards, Mr. Hooper, and the Director responsible inter alia for the Agency's contribution to the preparations for the 1995 NPT Conference, Assistant Director General, Mr. El Baradei. They are all people of great experience and knowledge, but they are, of course, only a few among many who are engaged in the application and development of safeguards in the Secretariat. From the government side I shall only mention Mr. Ek, who is the Chairman of SAGSI (Standing Advisory Group on Safeguards Implementation), the group of government advisors who are grappling, together with the Secretariat, with the task of making the safeguards system both stronger and -- if possible -- less expensive. I also especially welcome the representatives from the Conference on Disarmament: Ambassadors Berdennikov of Russia, Marin Bosch of Mexico, and Tanaka of Japan. We are also very pleased that Ambassador Dhanapala, who was last week nominated President of the 1995 NPT Conference, is with us. Without mentioning any more of the distinguished participants from governments, media and think tanks, let me say that I think you may have as much interest in talking to each other as to discussing with us in the IAEA Secretariat.
  7. I should now like to make a number of points, placing safeguards in the political landscape. The IAEA has two main activities -- promotion and control
  8. A first, or perhaps even preliminary, point is that safeguards is one of the IAEA's major activities, but only one of them. The active promotion of various peaceful nuclear applications of nuclear energy, whether in medicine, agriculture or industry, is the other major activity. The safeguards budget is about 1/3 of the regular budget, or $68 million in 1994.

    A few critics of the safeguards system contend that there is a contradiction between these two functions. The most extreme form of this argument which I have met, is that safeguards inspectors of the IAEA do not want to discover any irregularities, because this would prove that the promotional work of the IAEA had contributed to misuse. Such argument has nothing to do with the practical reality. Inspectors routinely report anomalies which they find and these are fully explored. The argument also flies in the face of the original "Atoms for Peace" policy, which deliberately held out the bargain of offering peaceful nuclear techniques and obtaining commitments to non-proliferation and acceptance of verification. There is also no doubt that in many cases effective safeguards are more readily accepted because the IAEA is identified not only as an inspector but also as an organization which helps development. Although it is true that some assistance will expand the general fund of knowledge of things nuclear, the assistance we give is mostly focussed on medicine, agriculture, industry and safety or established nuclear power programmes. I suspect that those who criticize the promotional role of the Agency do it less out of genuine concern for the non-proliferation and effectiveness of safeguards than because they want to conclude that the safeguards system is weak or because they are opposed to any promotion and use of nuclear techniques. Whatever explanation, it is obvious that there is a massive support in the Agency membership for the dual role which the Statute lays upon the IAEA and an insistence by developing countries that there continue to be a balance between the two major activities. In this view, an expansion of safeguards activities should be complemented by an expansion in promotional activities.

    The legal basis for safeguards

  9. Let me take up another misguided criticism of the safeguards system. There is sometimes an unfortunate tendency to view the acceptance of comprehensive safeguards as something already incumbent upon all but the declared nuclear-weapon States -- a rule supposedly to be imposed by the IAEA. On this premise the Agency is considered as deficient in not imposing safeguards in, say, Pakistan or Israel. The system is also seen by some as weak when the Agency has been unable to force an access for inspectors in the DPRK. The Agency is criticized for not having sanctions available and sometimes it is suggested that the situation would be very different if the Security Council operated the safeguards.

    To understand how safeguards function we must understand how the international community functions. Rules binding States do not arise in the same way as rules arise within States and the means through which rules are upheld vis-à-vis States -- when they are upheld -- are different from the means by which rules are upheld within States. Within a State a legislature can adopt by majority vote a law under which, say, citizens are allowed to possess weapons only if they have a license. The police will possess the means to enforce this rule in all cases which come to their knowledge.

    In the international community there is no legislature authorized to decide by majority that only the five declared nuclear-weapon States are to be licensed the possession of nuclear weapons and although references are not rare to "a norm of non-proliferation", this is a "political" norm -- not a legally binding one. Clearly, however, it is a norm with considerable backing. In their summit statement of 31 January 1992 the members of the Security Council stated inter alia that "the proliferation of all weapons of mass destruction constitutes a threat to international peace and security" -- thereby implying a capacity for the Council to intervene. However, any attempt to maintain that a non-proliferation norm exists today which legally excludes the nuclear weapons option for all non-declared nuclear-weapon States would I think be opposed by Israel, India and Pakistan. The development of legally binding commitments to non-proliferation in the international community is not through majority votes but by the more cumbersome process of individual express consent of States to various treaties. This process as we know has been remarkably successful and now misses only a few crucial countries -- apart from the five declared nuclear-weapon States. We have also seen in the DPRK case how a State's notice to revoke its consent led to immediate and vigorous reactions. It is safe to assume that the NPT Conference in 1995 will not lead to a lapsing but to a prolongation of the legally binding non-proliferation commitments made under the Treaty.

    It is correct that from the viewpoint of any State, say on the Arabian peninsula, it would appear desirable that the Agency operate as fully effective comprehensive safeguards in Israel as in Iraq. And we are sometimes criticized for not doing this. However, it must be understood that, unlike Iraq, Israel has not yet adhered to the NPT and has not yet accepted a comprehensive safeguards agreement. Therefore the Agency has no right to implement such safeguards in Israel. This is not a weakness of the safeguards system, but a consequence of state sovereignty. The first step is to seek the contractual consent of Israel. In the same way, the IAEA cannot be criticized for not applying comprehensive safeguards in India or Pakistan, which have also not adhered to the NPT.

    Is it justified to criticize the safeguards system as weak, because the inspectors cannot forcibly obtain access to countries and installations? We must realize that enforcing rules on States is mostly a very different matter from enforcing rules on individuals in a State. The inspectors of the IAEA are not an international nuclear police that can force its way to facilities it feels it must visit. Indeed, a country can even make the inspectors’ entry subject to visa. To exert pressure the Agency can suspend technical assistance or even suspend rights and privileges of a country, but such actions do not constitute very effective sanctions. However, the Agency can report a case of non-compliance to the Security Council, which possesses a wide spectrum of legal competences to bring a State to fulfil its obligations. It is for the Council to determine in the light of all circumstances what means it finds appropriate. It may safely be assumed that military force will only rarely be resorted to. Diplomatic pressures, trade restrictions, the stopping of air traffic, economic sanctions are more likely measures. Is this to admit the impotence of the world community? Yes and no. After the Cold War, the Security Council is much more likely than before to be able to agree on some measure of persuasion or enforcement. Yet, mobilizing and applying the force necessary to coerce a State will remain problematic and will only occur where enforcement appears vitally important to the great powers in the Council. In the face of Iraqi aggression, such force was mobilized and used. In the case of the DPRK's refusal of adequate access to safeguards, great power diplomacy is still being used.

    From the IAEA horizon, the DPRK case is straightforward: safeguards findings suggest that the DPRK has more plutonium than it has declared and when the country refuses to co-operate by allowing requested inspections of two non-declared sites and fails to give satisfactory explanations, the Agency turns to the Security Council. It is not really the effectiveness of safeguards as an alarm mechanism which is now being tested. Thanks to the use of new analytical techniques which are part of the strengthened safeguards, the system has produced warning signals. What is being tested are the means available to the Security Council and its Members of prompting the DPRK to demonstrate credibly through full acceptance of effective safeguards its assertion that it is not using any nuclear installations for the development of a nuclear weapons capacity. As I see it, the United States' talks with the DPRK representatives have been in pursuance of this Security Council objective.

    Incentives and disincentives to nuclear proliferation

  10. If safeguards inspectors cannot as a world nuclear police prevent or stop diversion of nuclear material from peaceful to military use, but can only observe and report, what disincentives are there against proliferation and what incentives are there for non-proliferation? The refusal of most possible supplier States to sell nuclear power technology and fuel to States not accepting full-scope safeguards is one form of disincentive. The offer of guarantees against nuclear attacks of States accepting the NPT and safeguards on the other hand is a reward to those who forego the nuclear weapon option. The current case of Ukraine shows how guarantees about inviolability of borders and economic compensation together provide incentives for commitment to non-nuclear weapon status and acceptance of comprehensive safeguards. And both the case of the DPRK and the case of Ukraine show how States are seeking to obtain assurances relevant to their security -- and perhaps more -- to formally forego the nuclear weapon option and accept effective verification.

    Inspection cannot -- as I said -- physically prevent or stop violation of a non-proliferation commitment, but the risk that verification could lead to the detection of violations and consequent reactions by other States, should provide some disincentive against violations.

  11. Despite the incentives and disincentives, there exists the possibility that some States refusing to commit themselves to non-proliferation actually develop nuclear weapons -- as South Africa did -- and that a State may withdraw from the NPT and proceed to make such weapons, or that a State may successfully secretly violate its commitment and circumvent export restrictions of suppliers -- as Iraq tried to do. The fact that these possibilities exist and need to be envisaged is not a good reason, however, to write off non-proliferation commitments and safeguards verification as soft, ineffective diplomatic stuff and to point to military hardware as the reliable remedy. If it is legitimate to critically examine the cost-effectiveness -- and limitations -- of treaty commitments, safeguards and non-military measures to prevent proliferation -- as it clearly is -- it is equally legitimate to examine the cost-effectiveness and limitations of the military option to achieve the same purpose.

    Regrettably, despite the strengthening of safeguards, the case of a non-discovered clandestine nuclear weapons capacity cannot be ruled out. As Mr. Spector was reported to have said, "We don't know what we don't know." Accordingly we have to conclude that neither the effectiveness of the legal commitments plus safeguards and non-military incentives nor military means will give 100% assurance. However, the ambition is to come as close as we can to such complete assurance.

    Before leaving this point let me finish by recalling -- even with Iraq and DPRK before our eyes -- that the policies leading to legally binding commitments to non-proliferation and safeguards have achieved a great deal, most recently regarding Argentina, Brazil and South Africa, and perhaps soon regarding Algeria, Cuba and Ukraine. The ending of the Cold War, the drastic reductions in the nuclear arsenals and the patient policies of military détente and incentives and disincentives to non-proliferation are paying good dividends.

    Limits to willingness of States to accept verification and inspection

  12. We shall talk a good deal about the strengthening of safeguards and describe what has been done and what is contemplated. I shall not enter into the substance of that discussion, but I would like to make some comments on the general question of how far governments may be willing to go in accepting verification and inspection. The safeguards system set up under NPT has been pioneering in the field of verification and on-site inspection. To minimize intrusion and perceived risks of revelation of technological and commercial secrets, it focussed on the nuclear material and paid little attention to the risk of secret installations, which is now a major point of interest. As we seek to expand verification and make it more effective, we also become aware of State sensitivities.

    As the purpose of inspection is to justify confidence between States, it is an activity in the direct interest of neighbouring States and the world at large. Generosity concerning inspection should thus be expected. However, we find that while States may wish to see intrusive inspection in other States' territory, it may wish to see some limitations when it comes to its own territory and installations. The most recent experience of governmental discussion of this matter was in the long negotiations which resulted in the Chemical Weapons Convention. While on some points the inspection system accepted there contains clear improvements over what we have under the NPT -- e.g. regarding multiple visas and the right to communication and travel -- many features are very similar in the two verification systems, e.g. the need for acceptance of inspectors designated. The limitations are perhaps not so surprising. As citizens we do not want the police to search homes without some warrant issued for adequate reasons. It should not be expected that sovereign States will be less jealous about their privacy.

    International inspection of facilities under military control may be both particularly important and particularly sensitive. The CWC solves the problem by so-called "managed access" which will allow the shielding of certain sensitive objects not relevant to chemical weapons. The problem was encountered in practice by the IAEA when the DPRK asserted that two non-declared sites which the IAEA wished to visit and take samples from were non-nuclear and military. One of them, to which the Agency was allowed access on one occasion appeared, indeed, to have some military function. In requesting access to these sites, the Agency has informed the DPRK that it is ready to discuss special arrangements which would take into account concerns about military secrecy. This is probably as far as one can go. While a State, like the DPRK, could have a genuine fear that its accepting inspection of military sites could be misused, the immunity of any sites could equally be used by a State wishing to hide prohibited material or installations.

    In my view, objections to the use of satellite photography or intelligence data by an inspectorate deserve less understanding. Satellite pictures and remote sensing have been part of confidence-building for a very long time and must by now be regarded as conventional surveillance. It might be good for an international inspectorate to obtain pictures from several different systems -- to reduce the risk of any manipulation. National intelligence offered to an international inspectorate may, of course, be disinformation or erroneous. So long as the inspectorate is fully aware of this possibility and critically examines any such data, I do not see strong reasons for objecting to its use -- if it is offered. There will undoubtedly be restrictions in States’ readiness to offer such data. However, a State can hardly complain about ineffectiveness of an international verification system if it silently sits on information that could have helped the international system to examine particular sites. Both the Special Commission of the UN on Iraq and the IAEA received valuable information from national intelligence during their inspection work in Iraq. It is, on the other hand, excluded, of course, that an international inspectorate could engage in illicit activities, or offer any State information in return for intelligence obtained.

  13. With some new safeguards techniques which have become available, with a readiness of States to be somewhat more accommodating -- in their own interest -- to comprehensive inspection with little or no notice and be more generous with information, one can considerably reduce the risk that undeclared activities go undetected. However, as I have noted, 100% assurance cannot be achieved. Accordingly a so-called "clean bill of health" can never be issued by the Agency. Member States will have to make do with reports that after such and such extensive verification measures, the Agency has found no evidence suggesting the existence of undeclared material or activities which should have been declared.

    The conclusion that 100% certainty is unattainable through safeguards verification takes on greater significance as nuclear disarmament proceeds. The fewer nuclear weapons there remain in the world, the more important it becomes that no clandestine weapons capacity develops anywhere. No doubt this lack of full certainty will be one factor suggesting retention of a nuclear military capacity in the existing nuclear-weapon States -- or in some distant international security organ to deal with any surprises. It also points to the importance of regional and global policies which not only create but maintain disincentives to the acquisition of nuclear weapons and which maintain incentives to do without them, as well as export restrictions making it more difficult for anyone to acquire sensitive material or technology.

  14. After the uncovering of the clandestine nuclear weapons programme in Iraq and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, it has been rather common to refer to the risk of nuclear proliferation as the greatest threat on the horizon. It is true that the case of Iraq showed that more developing countries will be attaining the technological level at which a weapons programme is possible. It is also true that Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan posed -- and at least Ukraine still poses -- problems and that the breakdown of discipline and order coupled with miserable living conditions and the existence of an abundance of nuclear material and nuclear expertise in the former Soviet Union raise specific dangers in the sphere of nuclear proliferation. So far, none of these dangers seem to have materialized. The material that has been smuggled and found so far raise more concern about fraud, health and safety than about proliferation.

    Alarmist reports which we read from time to time about new threats of nuclear proliferation, while useful as reminders of risks, often overlook the very significant progress that has been achieved in the realm of non-proliferation in the last few years. With Argentina having accepted full-scope safeguards and Brazil near this decision, and Cuba apparently ready to do the same, the Tlatelolco Treaty may soon come into force. And with South Africa having joined the NPT and Algeria declaring its intention to do so, an African nuclear weapons-free zone -- a draft of which already exists -- seems a very likely early project. There remain three problem areas: the Middle East, India/Pakistan and the Korean peninsula. It seems clear that regional tailor-made solutions will be needed in all three cases.

  15. A cut-off of production of fissionable material for weapons production is of general interest as a complement to the reduction of nuclear arsenals in the declared nuclear-weapon States, and as a cap on the production of such material for weapons in Israel, India and Pakistan. For the Korean peninsula, an agreement already exists on non-production of plutonium and enriched uranium. It may need confirmation. That agreement incidentally shows that the ambitions in the non-proliferation effort have increased from a ban on making weapons to exclude -- as far as possible -- the possession of weapons grade material and of capacity to produce such material.

    The conclusion of a comprehensive test ban treaty -- CTBT -- is of undoubted value to prevent the development of reliable nuclear weapons technology -- at least in some States. It is also of signal political importance for the continued broad support of the NPT that the nuclear weapons States join such a treaty, which has been held out as an expectation for several decades. Perhaps the time might even be ripe for a non-first use agreement. Paul Nitze has recently argued that smart conventional weapons might be more credible than nuclear weapons. A non-first use agreement -- by definition -- does not rule out nuclear retaliation.

  16. Let me conclude by confirming that verification will not of itself stop violations, but can and should bring warning signals of efforts to violate. Verification may help to deter violation as the alarms must be expected to trigger reactions by governments, individually or collectively. Although verification techniques are being improved and strengthened over today's level and will bring higher levels of assurance and confidence, they are not likely to bring 100% certainty. Verification, alone, is not a sufficient barrier against proliferation. However, it is the one we focus on here. It should be made as strong as possible. Following Iraq and the conclusion of the CWC, States may be willing to accept a number of measures making inspection more effective than before and making transparency greater. New techniques are also available to inspectors. The IAEA is in the midst of discussing and adopting new measures and has a rich experience to draw on. This experience and the Agency's infrastructure -- if expanded and funded -- could be used also for other verification functions that will be needed under a number of new nuclear arms control and disarmament agreements.

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Last update: 26 Nov 2019

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