Photo credit: IAEA - Photo: 2019

The IAEA: In Search of a Director General

By Tariq Rauf *

VIENNA (IDN) – 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 December 8, 1953 by U.S. 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 principally 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 is self-governing, and its 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). Under the Agency’s Statute, the Board has the authority to appoint the Director General and the appointment is endorsed by the GC.

The first Director General (DG) of the IAEA, William Sterling Cole (USA) served one term from 1957 to 1961. Given the Cold War rivalry between the U.S. and the USSR (Soviet Union), East and West, it was decided that the next DG should be from a neutral country.

(Left-to-right) Yukiya Amano, 2009-2019; Mohamed ElBaradei, 1997-2009; Hans Blix, 1981-1997; Sigvard Eklund, 1961-1981; Sterling Cole, 1957-1961. Credit: IAEA

Accordingly, Dr Sigvard Arne Eklund (Sweden) served for five terms 1961 to 1981; followed by Dr Hans Martin Blix (Sweden) for four terms 1981 to 1997. The next DG, 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 as by that time the emerging trend in the Board was to move to two terms; however, in 2017 he began a third term but unfortunately passed away in July 2019 at the age of 72.

This brings us to the present. On August 2, 2019, the Board adopted the procedure for the appointment of a new DG – based on methodology and practice from 1997. The Board decided that September 5, 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 January 1, 2020. Any Member State may nominate a candidate or candidates for the post of DG; candidates need not be nationals of the Member State(s) nominating. 

The Statute of the IAEA, the apex international organization based in Vienna, does not specify a term or age limit for the DG; however, except for the Agency, nearly all other international organizations have instituted a two term limit for their executive heads as recommended by the UN Joint Inspection Unit (JIU). The JIU has recommended the same for the IAEA, as well as the adoption of procedures to avoid unethical practices of undue influence, gifts, deals and rewards.

Without casting any aspersions on the integrity of candidates vying to be the next IAEA DG, in my view now 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 deal making, set up performance reviews and procedures to avoid nepotism especially in senior appointments – as will be discussed below.

Selection Procedure for IAEA Director General

Shortly after the circulation of nominations to all Member States, in early September, the Chair of the Board shall initiate informal consultations with a view to consensus on a candidate as DG. The Board may arrange for the candidates to address it at an open meeting as early as possible. 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 unethical practices of back-room 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.

Credit: IAEA

Acting Director General Cornel Feruta (Romania) and Ambassador Rafael Mariano Grossi (Argentina) are at present only two declared candidates vying to be IAEA DG.

Deal Making

It is both remarkable and regrettable that in this day and age of transparency and accountability in many areas of business and governance, in recent times the process of appointment of executive head (DG) of the IAEA may have become vulnerable to unethical practices involving “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”.

Such practices must not be tolerated in 2019, and all candidates for position of DG and all 35 Board Member States could publicly commit to a transparent selection process free of what might be termed as unethical practices or “diplomatic corruption”. While States champion the fight against corruption in government, trade and commercial activities, it should be unacceptable for them to engage in unethical practices when it comes to top level appointments in international organizations.

The 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 JIU recommendation in the current ongoing process to select a new DG, and an ethics policy or guidance to this effect could be adopted at the forthcoming General Conference and applied to the current ongoing process to appoint a DG.

Term Limit

The IAEA Statute does not stipulate a term limit for the IAEA DG; however, as referred to earlier there was an emerging trend at the Agency that from 2009 onwards there ought to be a two term limit for the DG thereby bringing the Agency in line with the practice in other UN organizations and thus the finalist candidates in 2009 committed to serve for only two terms.

The issue of term limits was raised specifically in July 2009 by the U.S., as reported in The Guardian referring to discussion of considering term limits at the September 2009 meeting of the IAEA Board to enable a “policy” 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.

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. 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 the Board did not object to him staying on for a third term that would have expired in 2021. As noted above, unfortunately, he succumbed to an illness on July 18, 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 could be subject to the JIU’s recommendation and the IAEA Board of Governors could commit to a “policy” of a two- term limit for the DG starting from 2019.

In my view, such a “policy” on term limits for the DG could be adopted by decisions of the Board and the General Conference in September this year without the need for a formal amendment to the Statute, justified on the basis of improved management and accountability practices in order to better carry out the functions of the Agency. 

Job Description

The Board also could draft a Job Description for the post of IAEA DG, including required and desired qualifications and experience. For example, positions at the D2 level at the Agency and at the UN require a minimum of 15 years of relevant experience; the position of the IAEA DG obviously is at a higher level.

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 could 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 noteworthy 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 involving the 35 Member States of the Board!

Also, notification for nominations for position of DG could 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; thus making the vacancy announcement available to a wider pool of potentially qualified candidates rather than limiting it to those with professional association with the Agency as is current practice.

Furthermore, in seeking a wider pool of potentially qualified candidates, the Board could secure the services of competent reputable international personnel management entities to assist with solicitation of nominations of candidates, as well as for utilizing current state of the art practices for vetting 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 could 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 quarterly statements by the DG to the Board and annual report submitted by the DG to the General Conference), as such a system would allow for timely, periodic professional rather than political assessments, and could also include additional criteria, such as leadership, accountability, managerial competence and teamwork qualities.

The Board, therefore, could establish a formal performance appraisal system applicable to the DG as suggested by the JIU. The Board also could establish procedures for the termination of service of the DG and for approving a second term in office based on performance evaluation.

According to the Agency’s Statute, the Director General “shall be under the authority of and subject to the control of the Board of Governors. He shall perform his duties in accordance with regulations adopted by the Board.”

In interpreting this guidance from the Statute, in my view, the IAEA DG has a differentiated accountability relationship with the Board of Governors and Member States: (

1) on the one hand, the DG serves under the authority of and subject to the control of the Board, i.e. 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) on the other hand, 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 the respective safeguards (nuclear verification) obligations undertaken 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 integrity and authority of the Agency were there to be any attempt to terminate the IAEA DG on safeguards matters and we 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.

Nor should we lose sight of the political machinations in 2005 to obstruct the then-DG in securing a third term in office since term limits were not discussed at that time – the point being that political considerations should not come into play with regard to the appointment of the IAEA DG. It is noteworthy, that the then-DG’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 appointments of Deputy Directors General (DDsG) and Special Assistants in the Office of the DG could 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 could be developed for these positions, and also serve as the criteria guiding the selection and appointment process.

At the IAEA, the positions of DDsG are part of the established management structure authorized by Member States. In contrast, the positions of Special Assistants or Coordinators in the Office of the Director General are outside the formal management structure.

Thus, in recent years, some confusion has emerged over the roles of the established management structure (DDsG) and that of the DG’s Office (Special Assistants and Coordinators); thus creating the perception and also the reality that the authority of the DDsG has diminished leading to inefficiencies and lack of transparency and accountability.

Given the present opportunity of appointing a new DG; the Board and Member States could propose restoring the traditional balance regarding the formal management authority of the DDsG and the “advisory role” of the staff of the Office of the DG.

Furthermore, in light of modern management practices designed to promote transparency, accountability and avoidance of nepotism, the new DG would be well advised to refrain 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 and to rely on the competent professional staff of the Agency to assist the DG in fulfilling the mandate given to him/her by Member States. IAEA Member States could take note of this recommendation.


This article has tried to explain that the procedure adopted by the IAEA Board of Governors for the appointment of a new Director General could be improved to insulate the process against unethical practices and political deal making. Possible remedies have been suggested 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; and to put in place an ethics policy governing the selection of the DG (and senior appointments).

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 “policy” regarding the two term limit; guarding against unethical practices; preparing a job description; and setting out performance appraisal criteria for the DG.

Tariq Rauf | Credit. Researcg GateIn my view, all of these much needed reforms could be easily implemented by the Board and Member States, thus strengthening their capability to carry out the functions of the Agency.

* 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. [IDN-InDepthNews – 27 August 2019]

Top photo cedit: IAEA

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –

NOTES: 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).

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