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Atomic Energy Agency Dangerously Weak, Warns Report

WASHINGTON, Jun 25 2012 (IPS) - The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is “significantly underfunded”, warns a new report released here on Monday.

The agency is labouring under a three-decade-old budget cap that, the report says, is significantly hampering the organisation’s ability to function at the necessary level.

Under several of its mandates, the IAEA is the only organisation in the world tasked with such oversight. It remains entirely funded by voluntary contributions from its member states.

“In spite of (a) well-deserved reputation and its apparently starry prospects, the Agency remains relatively undernourished, its powers significantly hedged and its technical achievements often overshadowed by political controversy,” warns the report, released by the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI), a Canadian think tank.

Currently, the IAEA’s regular budget stands at 321 million euros (around 400 million dollars), which pays for a staff of around 2,300.

“This is tiny, considering what it does,” the report’s author, Trevor Findlay, said on Monday at the Washington offices of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

What that budget currently does, according to Findlay’s research, is oversee nuclear safeguards at 949 facilities in 175 countries, as of 2010. That same year alone, the organisation engaged in more than 2,100 on-site inspections.

Indeed, the IAEA has garnered surprisingly widespread accolades since its creation in 1953. At the same time, much of this praise has inherently acknowledged the agency’s relative budgetary limitations, choosing to laud its efficiency.

In 2006, the U.S. government office tasked with assisting the president create the federal budget gave the IAEA a perfect score in terms of its value for money. In 2004, a U.N. panel cited the agency as an “extraordinary bargain”.

Yet while Findlay notes that the IAEA has repeatedly been called out as “one of the better-run agencies in the U.N. system”, he warns that the organisation’s capped budget is having negative ramifications across its several mandates.

Zero real growth

The funding problems stem from a United Nations-wide policy instituted during the mid-1980s called zero real growth, which halted budgets from growing beyond the median rate of inflation. This came about due to pressure from the so-called Geneva Group, comprised of the largest contributing countries to the U.N.

In the IAEA’s case, this policy essentially froze the budget until 2003, when small though incremental increases were made to the agency’s budget, particularly as a result of U.S. pressure.

Indeed, in this regard the United States remains one of the agency’s most powerful proponents, with President Barack Obama having pushed to double the IAEA’s budget and significantly raising the U.S.’s own voluntary contributions.

Even as its budget has remained stuck, the IAEA has been called on to take on a growing spectrum of responsibilities. Further, the agency’s own estimates suggest a doubling of nuclear power over the next 20 years.

Inevitably, these budgetary constraints have had wide-ranging ramifications, Findlay reports. He calls for a shift to a needs-based budgeting system, in order to support the full range of activities in which the agency has become involved.

“The Agency has not been provided with the latest technologies and adequate human resources,” the report notes. “Most alarming of all, the Agency has failed, by its own means, to detect serious non-compliance by Iraq, Iran and Libya with their safeguards agreements.”

A particular wake-up call came surrounding the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in March 2011, following which the agency was proved unable to respond for more than 24 hours.

For many observers, this highlighted not only a dangerous failing within the IAEA, but also the continued lack of any other international body to take on the mantle of the world’s “hub” on nuclear safety.

Political obstacles

For many, the Fukushima and ongoing Iran issues have highlighted the critical need for a re-examination of the IAEA’s functioning.

“After years of crucial Agency involvement with Iran, that country is closer to acquiring nuclear weapons than ever before,” the report states, with Finlay expressing anxiety over the IAEA’s lack of capacity to deal with protracted issues of non-compliance.

But rectifying the budgetary issues is only part of the overall problem, he says. His report, based on two years of work, offers 20 recommendations, broken down by the range of actors that would be expected to make the changes.

Of these recommendations, the Iran issue particularly highlights the fact that the IAEA’s governance has become dangerously divisive, particularly in recent years.

“Politicisation has debilitated the agency’s governing bodies,” Finlay says, noting that cases involving non-compliance have proven to be particularly incapacitating. He puts this down particularly to the Iran stalemate, though he also cites contentious votes on Israel’s nuclear programme, safeguards throughout the Middle East and other issues.

“Increasing politicization may be partly attributed to the more active role of the developing countries in Agency affairs,” the report suggests. It points to the increased heft of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), a bloc that purportedly functions as Iran’s “diplomatic bulwark”.

Yet the report hastens to add that “the West is also guilty of politicizing the IAEA … Nicholas Burns, US undersecretary of state for political affairs, reportedly told (former IAEA chief Mohamed) ElBaradei, in pressing him to toe the US line on Iran, that ‘we pay 25 percent of your budget.’”

While the report offers a few strategies for attenuating this divisiveness, Finlay is clear that the intrusion of politics is also inevitable. Given that it is the member states that established and pay for the IAEA’s services, he concludes that “it is they that ultimately control its destiny.”

“(The IAEA) can in some respects strengthen and reform itself. But ultimately, it is constrained by the strong preferences of its membership as a whole or those of key, active member states. It is therefore to the member states that we must look to trigger and sustain lasting strengthening and reform.”

 
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