Diplomacy in the shadow of COVID-19: Sweden’s year as Chair of the IAEA Board of Governors

Diplomacy in the shadow of COVID-19: Sweden's year as Chair of the IAEA Board of Governors
“The International Atomic Energy Agency offers us hope by illustrating how effective international cooperation – multilateralism – can contribute to global peace, security and development in a very tangible way.” These are the words of Prime Minister Stefan Löfven in his opening statement at the IAEA General Conference on 21 September 2020. As Chair of the IAEA Board of Governors, Sweden not only played a leading role in the uninterrupted functioning of the IAEA during the COVID-19 pandemic, it also ensured that the work of the Board remained constructive despite different approaches to the Iran nuclear issue.

Sweden’s Permanent Representative to the IAEA, Ambassador Mikaela Kumlin Granit, led the work of the IAEA Board of Governors from 23 September 2019 to 28 September 2020. The ambition was to prioritise the cohesion and effective running of the Board rather than specific Swedish positions, while continuing to promote nuclear applications that support the 2030 Agenda, with a focus on women’s health and water resource management.

Normally, the work of the Board focuses around four regular sessions each year. But new developments during the summer of 2019 led to a more demanding term for Sweden than anticipated.

* The health of Director General Yukiya Amano deteriorated rapidly and he died in office on 18 July 2019. During a special meeting of the Board, it was decided that the next Chair would promptly lead negotiations with the aim of reaching consensus as early as October on a new Director General, who would take office no later than 1 January 2020.
* During another special meeting, a schism was revealed between the ‘maximum pressure’ strategy of the United States and that of the other Board members, who continued to support the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Iran nuclear deal that the US left a year previously. At the same time, Iran announced that it intended to gradually withdraw from its commitments under the JCPOA until the promised relaxation of sanctions occurred.

Selecting a new Director General

Following intense and complex negotiations, the Board was able to agree on appointing Rafael Grossi from Argentina as the new Director General on 30 October 2019. Few believed it would be possible to conclude the process within the tight timeframe set.

Sweden’s approach as chief negotiator was characterised by transparency, inclusiveness and trust – as well as an innovative way of applying the rules for informal and formal votes. For the first time, a session of the Board was live-streamed as the candidates made their presentations to the Member States. According to many representatives, the credibility built up by the Embassy in connection with the negotiations contributed to the positive outcome. Later on, this continued to benefit Sweden’s term as Chair of the Board.

Managing the Iran issue

Many Board members are concerned about Iran’s departure from the JCPOA, which is considered to have shortened the start-up time in the event of an Iranian decision to acquire nuclear weapons. However, the JCPOA is primarily managed by its signatories, while the role of the IAEA is to inspect and report.

The work of the Board has rather been focused on reports of a lack of cooperation and possible undeclared nuclear material within the framework of Iran’s bilateral safeguards agreement. The efforts to make progress on this issue led to an extraordinary board meeting in November, and special agenda items at the Board’s meetings in March, June and September.

Following a vote on 19 June, the Board adopted a resolution that laid out the framework for Iran in great detail, providing access to IAEA inspectors for sample-taking at two suspected locations. Despite the Member Countries’ different perspectives on the Iran question, it was still possible to maintain the Board as a forum for constructive exchanges and negotiations.

Adapting to COVID-19

The outbreak of COVID-19 has affected the work of the IAEA ever since the Austrian Government introduced social distancing measures in March 2020 – right in the middle of a board meeting. The outbreak forced the Board to quickly find new and previously untested methods of keeping working.

After many ifs and buts, the Board was able to agree on holding its annual budget meeting virtually in May without interpretation, with decisions taken by silence procedure. It was one of the first meetings of its kind in the UN system in a situation when experience of virtual meetings was limited and the legal and political aspects unknown.

The preparations for the board meeting in June were even more challenging, exacerbated by the difficulties of securing interpretation in a virtual setting and dealing with the contentious draft resolution on Iran. Until the very last week, there were different opinions on whether the meeting should be held virtually, physically or as a combination of the two.

Austria had relaxed its rules and now allowed gatherings of up to 100 people, and UN staff in Vienna had gradually begun to return to work. Despite this, the Board was split between those who did not want to risk meeting in person and those who preferred to discuss sensitive issues in a meeting room. In the end, as Chair of the Board Sweden succeeded in brokering an agreement between the E3 (France, Germany and the UK) and Russia to hold the meeting virtually, on the condition that the Board would meet in person in the event of disagreement on the Iran resolution or on any other agenda item.

In September, the last board meetings under Swedish leadership were held in the IAEA’s largest meeting room, where the annual General Conference was also held. Despite worsening COVID-19 statistics, Austria now allowed larger official gatherings as long as meeting rooms were set up to ensure adherence to social distancing rules.
Promoting national priorities

Sweden’s national profile had already been raised in the spring of 2019 through the attendance of Crown Princess Victoria and then Minister for Foreign Affairs Margot Wallström at the IAEA summit on the 2030 Agenda. During 2019 and 2020, Sweden provided targeted financial contributions to some of the IAEA’s operations.

These included efforts to combat cancer forms that affect women, a study on how plasticisers are spread in the marine environment and a survey of groundwater resources in the Sahel region. Sweden also contributed to a drive launched by Director General Rafael Grossi to give developing Member States access to nuclear-derived technology for diagnosing COVID-19.

Sweden’s visibility was further strengthened through the participation of Minister for Foreign Affairs Ann Linde at the IAEA General Conference in 2019 and Deputy Prime Minister Isabella Lövin at the IAEA ministerial conference on combating nuclear terrorism in February 2020. On 21 August, Prime Minister Stefan Löfven met with Rafael Grossi in a virtual bilateral meeting prior to his participation in the General Conference.

As Sweden’s term as Chair of the Board has now come to an end, it is time to summarise what has been achieved. Despite difficult challenges, the assignment was carried out successfully. The IAEA was able to weather the COVID-19 storm with minimal restrictions in terms of political governance and daily operations.

The organisation has a new Director General who enjoys strong support among Member States and a budget for 2021. As Sweden handed over to Canada on 28 September, a number of Member States congratulated Sweden for its skillful, effective and transparent multilateral diplomacy while Chair of the Board. As stated by Prime Minister Löfven, it was also a way for Sweden to demonstrate its support for the IAEA’s important work in pursuit of global peace, security and development.
Facts/The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)

* The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was formed in 1956 to promote the peaceful use of nuclear technology and prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
* In Sweden, the organisation is best known for its role in managing crises related to nuclear weapons in Iraq, North Korea and Iran, and for its Swedish Directors General (Sigvard Eklund and Hans Blix) who led the organisation from 1961 to 1997.
* In 2005, the IAEA and its then Director General Mohamed ElBaradei received the Nobel Peace Prize “for their efforts to prevent nuclear energy from being used for military purposes and to ensure that nuclear energy for peaceful purposes is used in the safest possible way.”

Jan Lodding Minister-Counsellor, Swedish Embassy in Vienna

Source: swemfa.se

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