IAEA Safeguards: Staying ahead of the game

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Preventing the spread of nuclear weapons is a complex task requiring international cooperation and confidence building at bilateral, regional and global levels. Today, more than half a century after the destructive power of nuclear weapons was first demonstrated, a number of international political and legal mechanisms are in place to help to achieve nuclear non-proliferation objectives. They include political commitments, treaties and other legally binding agreements in which non-proliferation commitments are anchored, export control and nuclear security measures and, also importantly, the safeguards system of the IAEA. In implementing its safeguards, the IAEA plays an instrumental verification role, demonstrating to and on behalf of States that nuclear non-proliferation commitments are being respected — or sounding the alarm to set other mechanisms in motion if the reverse seems to be the case.

What are IAEA safeguards?

IAEA safeguards are measures through which the IAEA seeks to verify that nuclear material is not diverted from peaceful uses. States accept the application of such measures through the conclusion of safeguards agreements with the IAEA. Although there are various types of safeguards agreements (see Box), the vast majority of States have undertaken not to produce or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons and to place all of their nuclear material and activities under safeguards to allow the IAEA to verify that undertaking.

The NPT is the centrepiece of global efforts to prevent the further spread of nuclear weapons. It entered into force in March 1970 after being ratified by 40 States including the three depositaries (the former Soviet Union, the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States of America (USA)). Today, with some 190 States party, it is the treaty most widely adhered to in the field of disarmament and nonproliferation.

The NPT represents a balance of rights and obligations with regard to nuclear disarmament, non-proliferation and peaceful use, and its duration was extended indefinitely in a Conference of States party in 1995.

Although the IAEA is not party to the NPT, it has an essential verification role under that Treaty. Under Article III of the NPT, each non-nuclear-weapon State is required to conclude an agreement with the IAEA — in accordance with the IAEA’s Statute and its safeguards system — to enable the IAEA to verify the fulfilment of its obligation not to develop, manufacture, or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.

Similarly to the NPT, the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean (the Treaty of Tlatelolco, concluded in 1967, before the NPT) requires its parties to conclude CSAs with the IAEA. So do the other regional nuclearweapon- free zone treaties, including the 1985 South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty (Treaty of Rarotonga), the 1995 Treaty of Bangkok (for SoutheastAsia), the 1996 Treaty of Pelindaba (for Africa) and the 2006 Central Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone  Treaty (which also requires States party to conclude additional protocols to safeguards agreements).

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