Time for reform: Bringing transparency to appointing heads of the IAEA

By Tariq Rauf

VIENNA 1 October 2019: On Wednesday, 2nd October, four candidates will make their case before the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to be appointed as its next Director General. They are: Cornel Feruţă (Romania), Acting Director General of the IAEA; Rafael Mariano Grossi, Ambassador of Argentina to the IAEA and Austria; Dr. Lassina Zerbo (Burkina Faso), Executive Secretary of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization; and Dr. Marta Žiaková, Chairperson of the Nuclear Regulatory Authority of the Slovak Republic.

For only the sixth time in its 62 year history, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is engaged in the search for a new Director General. The Agency was established in Vienna in 1957, to promote the peaceful uses of atomic energy while preventing its misuse for weapons purposes, following the famous “Atoms for Peace” speech on 8 December 1953 by US President Dwight Eisenhower at the United Nations.  The IAEA is an independent, autonomous, international organization with the mandate to regulate safety and security of nuclear materials and facilities in civilian uses and to safeguard or verify nuclear activities in non-nuclear-weapon States party to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The Agency also is responsible for several international conventions and codes of conduct for the safety and security of nuclear and radioactive materials. The IAEA governance structure consists of a 35 member Board of Governors (Board) that meets five times a year and a General Conference (GC) that meets once a year with all Member States (171). The Board selects the Director General and the appointment is endorsed by the GC.

The first Director General (DG) of the IAEA, Steven Cole (USA) served one term from 1957 to 1961. Given the Cold War rivalry between the US and the USSR, East and West, it was decided that the next DG should be from a neutral country. Accordingly, Dr Sigvaard Eklund (Sweden) served for five terms 1961 to 1981; followed by Dr Hans Blix (Sweden) for four terms 1981 to 1997. The next DG, Dr Mohamed ElBaradei (Egypt) served three terms (1997 to 2009). In 2009, Ambassador Yukiya Amano (Japan) was appointed to the DG position and in his campaign he committed to serve for two terms; however, in 2017 he took on a third term and unfortunately passed away on 18 July 2019 at the age of 72.

This brings us to the present. On 2 August 2019, the Board adopted the procedure for the appointment of a new DG – based on methodology from 1997. The Board decided that 5 September 2019 would be the closing date for the receipt of nominations, and expected to appoint a Director General in October 2019 and, in any case, envisaged that the person appointed will assume office no later than 1 January 2020. Any Member State may nominate a candidate or candidates for the post of Director General; candidates need not be nationals of the Member State(s) nominating.  

The IAEA, unlike most other UN family international organizations, does not specify a term or age limit for the DG; however, except for the Agency, all other international organizations have instituted a two term limit for their executive heads. This practice has been recommended by the UN Joint Inspection Unit (JIU) for the IAEA, as well as procedures to avoid undue influence, gifts, deals and rewards.

Without casting any aspersions on candidates vying to be the next IAEA DG, in my view it is the appropriate time for the Agency’s Board and Member States to put in place term and age limits on the tenure of the DG, establish practices and procedures to avoid diplomatic corruption and deal making, set up performance reviews and avoidance of nepotism especially in senior appointments – as will be discussed below. If the IAEA Board and Member States miss this opportunity for much needed reform, the Agency’s reputation and credibility could be adversely affected.

Selection Procedure for IAEA Director General

On 6th September, the Chair of the IAEA Board of Governors informed Member States that four nominations had been received for the post of Director General. On Wednesday, 2nd October, the Chair of the Board has convened a session where each of the four candidates shall present their credentials to Member States and will try to convince them that he/she is the best qualified for to be appointed as the new Director General. Following these presentations, the Chair of the Board shall initiate informal consultations and “straw polls” with a view to making a recommendation by 21st October to the Board whether consensus exists for a leading candidate as DG. To facilitate consensus, the Board may conduct informal “straw polls” as many times as deemed necessary during the consultations. In the event that consensus is not reached, the Board has set out a balloting procedure divided into a selection stage (conducted by the Board in closed session) and an appointment stage (conducted by the Board in open session).

During the selection stage, each of the 35 Board members in closed session shall cast votes in a series of rounds for their preferred candidate. In each round, the candidate(s) receiving the lowest number of votes shall be eliminated. If, however, in any round, any candidate receives the support of two thirds of the Board members voting, the Board shall move promptly to the appointment stage. After the number of candidates has been whittled down to two, there shall be up to three further rounds of balloting in the same manner. If either of the two remaining candidates receives the support of two thirds of the Board members voting, the Board shall move promptly to the appointment stage.

In the event that neither candidate receives the required two thirds support, a further round of balloting shall be held in order to determine the “leading candidate” on the basis of a simple majority; followed by a “Yes-No-Abstention” to establish whether he/she can command the necessary two-thirds majority in the Board. If the answer is positive, the Board shall move on to the appointment stage. If the “leading candidate” cannot command the necessary two-thirds majority, the same procedure (“Yes-No-Abstention” vote) shall be taken for the “second candidate”. If he/she also cannot command the necessary two-thirds majority, the slate of candidates shall be considered to have been wiped clean. The Chair of the Board then shall again invite Member States to nominate candidates for the post of DG – the nominations to be submitted within two weeks following the call for nominations; the original candidates can be re-nominated. The new slate of candidates shall follow the procedure noted above.

Once any candidate receives, at any point in the selection stage, the support of two thirds of the Board members voting, the Board in open session shall promptly move to the appointment stage on the basis of acclamation rather than by voting. If, however, the Board wishes to conduct a further ballot in order to appoint the proposed candidate, voting shall be secret and again on the basis of a “Yes-No-Abstention” vote, with the required majority of two thirds of valid votes cast. The appointment of DG subsequently would have to be approved by the General Conference.

In some respects, the notion of a “leading candidate” is somewhat bizarre and an oxymoron, as in the voting for two competing candidates there always will be one with more votes than the other but short of the required two thirds majority. By putting up the “leading candidate” for a separate vote to determine if he/she can get the two thirds majority, makes the process vulnerable to diplomatic corruption of deal making in order to buy/secure votes. The same concern would apply to putting up the “second candidate” to a separate vote. The logical methodology should be to hold three rounds of voting and if neither of the two candidates can secure the required two thirds majority to then: (a) either immediately hold a final round of voting without a break in the proceedings, and if there is no two thirds majority to clear the slate and start afresh; or (b) to clear the slate and start the process anew. 

Diplomatic Malpractice?

It is both remarkable and regrettable that in this day and age of transparency and accountability in many areas of business and governance, the process of appointment of executive head (DG) of the IAEA and of other UN international organizations, is still based on wheeling and dealing, back room deals, vote swapping on a cross international organization basis, promises of senior appointments, and even sophisticated financial inducements such as government to government loans or all expenses paid “technical visits”.

For example, it is reported that in the 2009 IAEA DG selection process some of the above mentioned ploys were in play, and further that one designated Board member persuaded another Board member to “abstain” in the final round of voting thereby securing the two thirds vote for the “leading candidate” and the abstaining Member State then got a senior position at the Agency.

And, reportedly in 2017, formal MoUs were concluded between certain Board Member States whereby votes for DG in Vienna were traded for votes for Security Council membership or for positions in other UN organizations.

Such practices should stop and must not be tolerated in 2019, and all candidates for position of DG and all 35 Board Member States should publicly commit to a transparent selection process free of diplomatic malpractice or corruption. It is hypocritical of States to champion the fight against corruption in government, trade and commercial activities but then to engage in the practice when it comes to top level appointments in international organizations.

The UN Joint Inspection Unit (JIU) has noted in its 2009 report on Selection and Conditions of Service of Executive Heads in the United Nations System Organizations, that it had been brought to the attention of its Inspectors that there had been alleged cases, in which favours such as tour invitations, gifts, promises such as recruitment and/or procurement from certain countries, donations, or pledges of extra-budgetary contributions, were provided by candidates and/or their supporting governments, during the election campaign to delegates and representatives of Member States, in return for favourable votes for certain candidates.

The JIU stated in its 2009 report that: “The legislative/governing bodies of the United Nations system organizations should condemn and prohibit unethical practices such as promises, favours, invitations, gifts, etc., provided by candidates for the post of executive head or their supporting governments during the selection/election campaign, in return for favourable votes for certain candidates. (Recommendation 7).” The IAEA Board and Member States need to heed and implement this recommendation at the forthcoming General Conference.

Term Limit

The IAEA Statute does not stipulate a specific term limit for the IAEA DG though Art. VII.A. states that the appointment of the DG is for a period of four years; however, as noted below in 2009 there was an attempt to put in place a two term limit thereby bringing the Agency in line with the practice in other UN organizations.

The issue of term limits was raised in July 2009 by the US, as reported in The Guardian referring to discussion of raising term limits at the September 2009 meeting of the IAEA Board to enable a decision by the 2009 IAEA General Conference, in light of the campaign commitment not to seek a third term made by the-then DG-elect, especially as the developing Member States (G-77/NAM) already had linked DG term limits to distribution of senior positions in the March 2009 meeting of the Board. However, the matter was shelved and over time forgotten by the Board and Member States.

The 2012 Report of the UN Joint Inspection Unit (JIU), Review of Management and Administration in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), observed that the IAEA is one of the few organizations within the United Nations system that does not have provisions on term limits of its executive head (DG). Accordingly, in its recommendations the JIU stated that: “The IAEA Board of Governors should recommend that the General Conference adopt provisions to limit the term of the Director General to a maximum of two successive terms.”

In making this recommendation, the JIU took the view that the benefits of limiting the term of the Director General to a maximum of two successive terms would outweigh any disadvantages. It would allow for adequate regional rotation and gender balance and, more importantly, for the periodic injection of new visions in the management and leadership of the organization. It would also be in line with the practices of other United Nations system organizations and resolution 51/241 on Strengthening of the United Nations system, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 22 August 1997. The Agreement governing the relationship between the Agency and the United Nations (14 November 1957), provides that “the Agency shall consider any resolution relating to the Agency adopted by the General Assembly or by a Council of the United Nations”. It will therefore be necessary for Member States of the Agency to consider the resolution and the Agency’s ensuing obligations thereunder.

The JIU stated that the “Director General, the chief administrative officer of IAEA, is appointed by the Board of Governors, with the approval of the General Conference, for a term of four years (IAEA Statute, art

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. VII.A). The IAEA Statue does not contain any limitations as to the number of terms a Director General can be re-appointed. In the past, IAEA Directors General served from three up to five terms, that is, for 12 up to 20 years. The last Director General started his first term of office on 1 December 2009”; though in his campaign he committed to serve for two terms, in 2017 he stayed on for a third term that would have expired in 2021. Unfortunately, he succumbed to an illness on 18 July 2019 thus leading the Board of Governors to start a search for a new Director General.

The JIU noted in its 2012 report that any decisions and/or changes as to the term limit of the Director General should be effective for future elections. The Agency’s Board and Member States have been delinquent in implementing the JIU’s recommendation. As such, the selection of the IAEA Director General now should be subject to the JIU’s recommendation and both the candidates and the Board of Governors should commit to a two term limit starting from 2019.

It is high regrettable and deeply disappointing that the Board in its meetings on 9-12 September and on 23rd September, and the General Conference on 16-19 September, completely ignored these important considerations and blithely persisted in their “heads in the sand” approach of stubbornly resisting any meaningful improvements in the selection process.

Job Description

The Board also needs to draft a Job Description for the post of IAEA DG, including required and desired qualifications and experience. According to Art. VII.A . of the Statute, the DG can be considered as “staff” and as “chief administrative officer”. Positions at the D2 level at the Agency and at the UN require a minimum of 15 years of relevant experience. Given that the Agency has a budget of € 592 million for the 2020-2021 biennium, some 2500 staff from over 100 nationalities, relevant qualifications and experience should cover: at least 15 years of relevant experience; management and coordination; policy and planning; human resource and financial management; communication; and judgement and decision-making. It is shocking that a candidate for a P4/P5 level position at the Agency has to undergo a more rigorous recruitment procedure than does the DG – whose selection according to current practice is based mainly on political deal making! Also, notification for nominations for position of DG should be posted on the IAEA Vacancies portal as well as on the system-wide UN Vacancies portal, in addition to major newspapers in Member States.    

The Board could secure the services of competent reputable international personnel management entities to assist with solicitation of candidates, and vetting for qualifications, personality traits and relevant experience.

Performance Appraisal

The JIU noted that the Secretary-General of the United Nations and other executive heads are accountable to Member States. For them there is no performance appraisal stricto senso comparable to that of staff members of the organizations. An implicit review by the organizations’ legislative bodies takes place on the basis of its periodic reports on the implementation of the programme of work or the submission of the programme budget proposals. For all executive heads, re-election also constitutes an implicit, indirect performance evaluation.

The JIU proposed that performance appraisal of the executive head (DG) of IAEA would be feasible and beneficial. Once established, it should be administered by committees, composed of Members of the organization equitably representing regions. Such a performance appraisal system would be a good means by which to complement the existing “implicit” performance appraisal (i.e. the annual report submitted by the DG to the General Conference), as such a system would allow for timely, periodic assessments, and would also include additional criteria, such as leadership, accountability, managerial competence and teamwork qualities. The Board, therefore, should establish a performance appraisal system applicable to the DG as suggested by the JIU.

The Board also should establish procedures for the termination of service of the DG and for approving a second term in office based on performance evaluation. In my view the Board has a differentiated accountability relationship with the Board of Governors and Member States: (1) the DG serves at the discretion of the Board and takes his/her direction from the Board and Member States on policy, financial and management matters; but (2) the DG stands in judgement of States with safeguards agreements and additional protocols in force, and reports to the Board on an independent, impartial and technically competent basis on the implementation of safeguards (nuclear verification) obligations by States, and on this matter he/she does not take direction as regards safeguards conclusions and findings. Thus, in order to protect and safeguard the DG’s independence on safeguards matters, the Board would need to be very careful not to impinge on the DG’s independence, impartiality and technical competence on safeguards implementation. It would inflict a great blow against the sanctity of the Agency were the Board to attempt to terminate the DG on safeguards matters and must take heed from the ill-considered decision in 2002 of a special session of the Conference of States Parties of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), under pressure from the Bush administration, to terminate OPCW DG José Bustani on political and irrational grounds. And, the Board should not forget the effort in 2005 to obstruct DG ElBaradei securing a third term in office, and must ensure that such practice is never to be repeated. ElBaradei’s authority and credibility were vindicated by the award of the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize to him and to the Agency in equal measure.

Senior Appointments

The JIU stated that the discretionary authority of the Director General, as the chief technical and administrative officer, to appoint the senior managers of the Agency, does not mean that he or she is given a “carte blanche.” The appointment of Special Assistants in the Office of the DG should follow an established competitive process, so as to be as transparent as possible, as stated in JIU/REP/2011/2 on “Transparency in the selection and appointment of senior managers in the United Nations Secretariat”. To this end, job descriptions or terms of reference should be developed for those positions, and should also serve as the criteria guiding the selection and appointment process. Furthermore, the DG should refrain and desist from appointing any special assistant or senior official in the Office of the Director General who is a national of the DG’s home country.

Possible Questions for Candidates

In the absence of any formal criteria governing the selection process for a Director General, the following questions could be useful for Board Members to put to the four candidates to determine their expertise, priorities and qualifications.

Safeguards: According to the Secretariat, nuclear facilities and nuclear material stocks both are increasing – posing challenges for the Agency’s capacity to implement safeguards and also to integrate new verification technologies.

Q. How would you propose to secure additional funding from Member States for Agency safeguards implementation and technologies – especially in times of fiscal restraints and near zero growth budgets?

Q. In 2005, the Board decided to rescind Small Quantities Protocols (SQPs) that hold in abeyance Agency verification measures in States with less than 1 effective kg or no nuclear material – how would you propose to secure the rescission of outstanding SQPs, especially in States embarking on nuclear programmes?

Q. It is a matter of concern that the Agency did not achieve timely detection of undeclared nuclear activities and nuclear material in Iraq, Iran, Libya, South Korea and Syria – under your leadership, how would you propose to enhance the Agency’s capabilities to detect undeclared nuclear activities and material keeping in mind that the Model Additional Protocol was adopted in 1997 (22 years ago)?

Q. The Secretariat is making increased use of “open source” and “third party” information as part of its safeguards information technology programme – how would you ensure that such information can be independently, credibly and authoritatively verified by the Secretariat?

Q. Regarding high priority safeguards implementation cases such as Iran and Syria – how would you propose to reassure Member States that the Agency will be able to implement safeguards credibly and in a timely manner?   

Scientific and Technical Cooperation: The IAEA has nearly 900 Technical Cooperation Projects and the TC programme contributes to the achievement of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Q. It seems that delivery costs of TC programmes could be streamlined and reduced – how would you propose to achieve efficiencies in the delivery costs of TC programmes?

Q. The TC programme (TCP) provides valuable assistance to Member States in areas such as human and animal health, water and the environment, food and agriculture – how would you propose to build new partnerships and alliances with traditional and non-traditional partners to enhance the effectiveness of the TCP – and which areas would you prioritize?

Nuclear Safety and Nuclear Security: The Agency is the recognized leader in establishing standards and practices for nuclear safety and nuclear security, while States primarily are responsible for safety and security of their nuclear programmes.

Q. Despite the Fukushima nuclear accident, the Convention on Nuclear Safety (CNS) remains a voluntary instrument and not all States with nuclear power programmes are parties – how would you propose to enhance the salience of the CNS, and promote it as a requirement for all relevant States?

Q. Though the Agency responds to requests from Member States to provide nuclear safety and nuclear security advisory services and missions, this does not preclude the Agency from exercising a leadership role in promoting further enhancement of safety and security in States, in regions and globally – how would you propose to exercise a leadership role to take pro-active initiatives on nuclear safety/security in the Middle East-South Asia (MESA) and Far East regions, and in other regions?

Q. Unlike other UN sponsored activities such a UN Security Council Committee 1540 (C-1540), UN Office of Counter Terrorism (OCT) etc., the Agency’s nuclear security programme provides concrete technical and regulatory assistance to Member States in the areas of nuclear safety and nuclear security – how would you propose to strengthen the Agency’s nuclear security programme, avoid duplication of effort with UN entities, and secure financial reimbursement for Agency services and missions provided to C-1540, OCT and other UN agency activities?

Management and Staffing:The Agency has a staff of more than 2500 drawn from some 100 Member States and total resources of nearly €600m – a complex management and personnel challenge. It is surprising that the Agency’s Annual Report does not include a report on management and personnel, even though in the Agency’s Programme and Budget “Major Programme 5” covers “Policy, Management and Administration Services”. In addition, the level and degree of transparency by the Secretariat to Member States has declined noticeably.

Q. Given your experience and expertise, what are the main qualifications and qualities that you would bring to the post of Director General considering that the Agency has a multinational staff of more than 2500 and financial resources of about €600m? What are the areas where you think the Agency’s management and personnel practices can be improved?

Q. How would you propose to include coverage of management and personnel in the Annual Report – with regard to, inter alia, efficiency, productivity, performance, hiring practices, and accountability?

Q. How would you propose to enhance transparency to Member States, provide information pro-actively, respond promptly and efficiently to Member States requests, and overall run an “open house” (recognizing confidentiality in safeguards matters)?

Q. Under the Agency’s Statute the term of office of the Director General is one term but it does not preclude additional terms. However, term limits have been discussed in 2009 and later – would you commit to serve for no more than two terms and pledge to honour such a commitment?

Q: In today’s management practices accountability is of primary importance – would you commit to hiring an international management consulting company, in your first year in office, to advise the Board on what specific performance assessment criteria for the Director General should be considered for Board approval?

Q. How would you propose to further increase staffing in the Agency from developing Member States? And, in this regard, how would you propose to provide training opportunities at the Secretariat for developing Member States so that a cadre of professionals can be available for consideration for employment at the Agency to increase fair representation on a geographical basis? 


This discussion has tried to explain that the procedure adopted by the IAEA Board of Governors for the appointment of a new Director General is not wholly adequate and as presently formulated cannot insulate the process against diplomatic corruption. Possible remedies have been suggested above such as eliminating the notion of “leading candidate”, and conducting the selection stage rounds of voting without a break to guard against back room deals. Several important recommendations made by the UN Joint Inspection Unit for improving the governance structure of the Agency for appointment of Director General still remain to be implemented by the Board and Member States, such as: establishing a two term limit; guarding against diplomatic malpractice; preparing a job description; setting out performance appraisal criteria; a transparent process for appointment of special assistants to the DG; and possible substantive questions to be put to the candidates. All of these much needed reforms and practices are overdue at the Agency and the Board and Member States will be failing in their statutory responsibilities if they fail to redress the situation forthwith.

Tariq Rauf was Head of Verification and Security Policy Coordination, Office reporting to the Director General, serving Directors General Mohamed ElBaradei and Yukiya Amano from 2002 through 2011; he left the Agency in October 2012 at the conclusion of his service contract. The views expressed in this article are purely personal and presented for purposes of information and discussion. A version of this paper was published earlier by IDN InDepthNews.

JIU Reports

Selection and conditions of service of Executive Heads in the United Nations system organizations, Note by the Secretary-General, UNGA A/65/71, 8 April 2010, (JIU/REP/2009/8).

Transparency in the Selection and Appointment of Senior Managers in the United Nations Secretariat, JIU/REP/2011/2, (Geneva 2011).

Review of Management and Administration in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), JIU/REP/2012/13/Rev.1, (Geneva 2012).