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Cross-posting from global norms blog

I had the pleasure to visit this year’s IAEA General Conference in Vienna (see some of my photos, below). The IAEA is one of the organizations we analyze in our broader research on changing norms of global governance. So, the direct contact with the organization was very insightful. In the following paragraphs, I will discuss some impressions that appear to be relevant for our collective and my personal research endeavour, which focuses on the openness of intergovernmental organizations (IGOs).

Overall, I think I learned two interesting lessons. First, the IAEA appears to be an organization in struggle with its self-image. It is caught between a public, politicized image as the UN’s nuclear watchdog that is involved in highly contested political arenas like Iran and the DPRK. Yet, the IAEA wishes to maintain a self-representation as a primarily technical, a-political organization that is engaging global problems with the help of nuclear technologies. Second, despite the public attention the IAEA receives, NGOs and other civil society organizations appear to show relatively little interest in the General Conference. One would expect to see more of these organizations, particularly those interested in peace and development, to be present and make their voices heard.

Getting access, who’s participating

Getting access to the GC is relatively simple as the GC is generally holding public meetings. So, all it takes is to register well in advance as an individual observer with the GC Secretariat. Upon arrival in Vienna, you need to fetch your grounds pass that grants access to the Vienna International Centre. All plenary meetings and side events are held in public. Only the Committee of the Whole – the organ where draft resolution and other issues are debated and negotiated – limits access to state delegations. In this respect, the IAEA’s GC can be considered to be fairly open and transparent.

Still, especially compared to other international conferences, as e.g. in environmental governance, there is relatively little non-state participation. According to the official list of participants, only 35 NGOs participated. In addition, about 15 other IGOs and UN Agencies were represented. Concerning the role of these non-state actors in the working of the GC, more research needs to be done. First impressions suggest that IGOs are somewhat more influential. Some of them, like the ABACC, OPANAL, and the CTBTO, had the possibility to address the GC’s Plenary. NGOs did not address the GC. Further, in the ceremonial greeting addresses of the GC President and the IAEA DG, neither NGOs nor IGOs were welcomed, in contrast to ambassadors, government ministers and state delegates. So, on the ceremonial level, NGOs are invisible. In the day-to-day interactions, NGOs seem to be participating in side-events both as participants and presenters. Still, their influence on state delegations remains unclear. Also, there was relatively little discussion of the IAEA’s GC in the blogosphere. Take for example the GC Twitter timeline. It is dominated by tweets of the Agency but rarely attracts critical voices from civil society.

State representatives, to be identified by their red badges, rather seem to be experts from national ministries than diplomats. Again, a look at the list of participants indicates that many delegations are headed by energy or technology ministries, not by foreign ministries. This also becomes visible during the conference. People seem to know each other and appear to have been in working relations for quite some time. The discussions are rather technocratic than diplomatic. As the IAEA’s image film for this GC (embedded below) states, it is a place for “[diplomatic] consensus building, knowledge sharing, peer-to-peer networking”.

Visual Impressions: 56th IAEA General Conference from IAEA on Vimeo.

Organization and atmosphere of the GC

The main representative events of the IAEA GC are the plenary meetings. They are held in a large conference hall. States are seated in alphabetical order. Participating IGOs have their desks in the back on the left side, NGOs sit in the rear right. Individual observers and guests are provided free seating in the rear. However, reserved seating only seems to be a problem on the opening day. I have never experienced the Plenary to be as crowded again as on Monday morning at 10. Traditionally, the GC is opened with statements from last GC’s President, the election of a new President and statements by the IAEA DG and UN SG. On this occasion, nearly all seats were taken, people were sitting on the stairs. This is not surprising as the opening speech of the IAEA DG often re-states Agency objectives, policies and presents new goals and programmes for the future. After the ceremonial opening, however, attendance of the Plenary sessions diminishes rapidly. This is especially the case during the general debate of the Agency’s Annual Report, taking up most of the Plenary time during the weak. Nearly all member states are invited to the podium where they use their 15 minutes to formulate wishes concerning the Agency, to describe their nuclear-related national programs and, in some cases, to comment on current issues of world politics (mostly Iran, Israel, DPRK). Still, these speeches hardly reveal any surprising new issues, so few people actually seem to listen. The Plenary only fills again when Resolutions are passed. This is, however, often done in consensus and without a vote. Exceptions are draft resolutions for which no consensus text could be negotiated. Then, “real” votes, sometimes by roll-call, and exchanges of diplomatic pleasantries attract a larger audience, even media attention ( see e.g. this article ).

Most of the diplomatic work during the GC is done in the Committee of the Whole (CoW). Here, state delegation discuss draft resolutions. As the CoW has decided to meet in private session (see the rules of procedure), I can only report some second hand information. Yet, what I have heard suggests that negotiations in the CoW are not that different from discussions of draft resolutions elsewhere. First, drafts are presented by sponsoring countries, shortly discussed in formal session, and then re-written in smaller, unofficial groups until consensus, or in rare cases a majority, has been organized. The work in the CoW seems to be the main diplomatic activity during the GC. In this respect, the GC’s openness is limited on the decision making level.

Next to the diplomatic work done in the Plenary and the CoW, during the GC, the IAEA and others organize a number of side-events. These range from Agency presentations of their long-standing and latest programs to embassy-organized panels of experts on electric energy (for an overview, see the conference journal). Here, the “peer-to-peer networking” atmosphere prevails. Still, in most of the side-events, there is relatively little actual discussion during the official events. So, most of them have the character of advertisements for Agency services, expertise and programs.

Finally, since the late 2000s, the Agency organizes scientific forums as large-scale side events. Issues to be discussed by the scientific forum are selected by the IAEA DG to put a special focus on some Agency activities. This year’s forum focused on nuclear sciences’ contribution to global food security. The format is organized like a journalistic panel discussion, where 3-4 experts are invited to give short presentations and then answer questions from the chair and the audience. The invited speakers were often scientists or regulators from national agencies. The different sessions were introduced by short video clips, also available on the Agency’s youtube channel. Then, an Agency expert was invited to the stage to quickly explain the Agency’s activities in the field currently discussed and to respond to 2-3 questions of the chair. To me, the scientific forum appeared to be very well prepared and produced according to the rules of current media standards. Overall, the scientific forum advertised the Agency and its contributions to current global challenges. Hard questions and critique were rare.

Normative evaluations of the IAEA

Finally, what did the observation of the GC tell me about the norms and values on which the legitimacy of the Agency rests? First of all, the Agency presented itself as a partner and service-provider to its member states. This notion of a knowledge and expertise driven Agency was very present in the side-events. Here, the Agency staff was trying to sell its services, like reactor-safety peer reviews and research coordination to its members. Accordingly, presentations were often highlighting how states may profit from services like IPPASS or INPRO. When non-agency presenters were invited, they usually presented stories how the Agency has helped their countries. This self-presentation of the Agency appears to ring in harmony with what most states think. In their statements, they commend the IAEA for its services and expertise.

Towards the general public, the Agency portrays itself as a valuable partner for global development. As stated by DG Amano in his 2010 GC speech the IAEA needs to develop a more nuanced image in the global discourse. It is “more than a nuclear watchdog” and the broader public should be informed about its multiple activities for the peaceful development of the world. Here, it is especially the scientific forums that transmit this image. The promotional films shown during the forum tell stories of individuals and how the IAEA has helped them.

Finally, the Agency struggles with its role as a global political actor. As one Agency staff member complained during a side-event, the IAEA may be one of the most mentioned UN agency in the global media. Yet, when it is reported about it is in the context of political conflicts like Iran, North Korea or Iraq. Little is said about its non-political, i.e. technical activities. That this fact is perceived as troubling for the IAEA staff shows how the Agency struggles with its grown political influence that is in conflict with its prevailing self-image of a technical organization. In this year’s GC speech, DG Amano clearly indicates in which direction this conflict should be solved:

“The IAEA should remain first and foremost a technical organization, although our work can have important political implications. I believe we contribute most effectively to addressing the challenges I have outlined when we approach them from a technical perspective. We must manage the Agency as efficiently as possible. That way, the IAEA will remain an effective organization that truly delivers.”

So, to conclude, I learned a lot from visiting Vienna this September. Lots of new questions have come to my mind that I will need to address in the next months. In particular, I was surprised by the general technocratic character of the conference and the little non-state partcipation and activism. In a next step, I will work on an analysis of the IAEA’s openness towards the general public and non-state actors.

Anyone else out there working on similar issues and wishing to share thoughts? Please comment or send an e-mail.

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Tobias Weise


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Tobias Weise

political scientist, university administration specialist

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