Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Hindu Rails Against the Government Approaching the IAEA

The Hindu has come out strongly against the government’s decision to ask the IAEA to circulate the initialed draft amongst members of the Board of Governors.
By sending the draft safeguards agreement to the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency before facing a vote of confidence in the Lok Sabha, the Manmohan Singh government has violated not just an assurance its External Affairs Minister gave the nation two days earlier but also the most fundamental of democratic norms. As Pranab Mukherjee put it in a press conference, the norm is that a government that has lost its majority will not have the moral auth ority to “bind” the country to “an international agreement.” The reason the Congress-led government is abandoning both procedure and propriety is not hard to find. The Bush administration’s principal concern at this juncture is that there should be enough time for the American legislative process to be completed following the proposed change of guidelines by the Nuclear Suppliers Group. The indecent haste with which the IAEA Secretariat was instructed to circulate the draft agreement to the Board of Governors offers a fresh basis for the charge that the Manmohan Singh dispensation is concerned more with fulfilling its commitment to the Bush administration than in looking after the interests of the Indian people. What is more, paranoiac non-transparency has been the hallmark of the government’s handling of the nuclear deal since March 2005. In the latest instance, the text of the draft safeguards agreement negotiated with the IAEA secretariat was kept a secret from political India after it was falsely claimed that IAEA procedure required the Indian government to treat it as a “privileged” and confidential document.

Pranab Mukherjee said that this was only being done to save time and if the government lost the vote of confidence, it would withdraw the request for the meeting of the Board. So long as the vote is held before that meeting, there is no case for claiming that any democratic norm is being violated.

Does the hurry have something to do with the calendar of the US congress? Absolutely. The government is anxious to complete the agreement during the Bush presidency as the policy stance of a future president is not known. These facts have all been perfectly clear for quite a while. But in pushing forward with it after more than a year, surely the Manmohan Singh government cannot be accused of acting in ‘indecent haste’. Nor does the editorial cite any good reason why the government has failed to ‘look after the interests of the Indian people’. The second paragraph which deals with the details of the draft accord cites no provision as being offensive or against Indian interests. Given this fact, both charges ring hollow. Lastly, is the government’s claim on the necessity to keep the text of the document confidential a lie? I have no idea whether the official explanation of diplomatic protocol is valid or not but the paper says that IAEA 'sources’ contradicted Mukherjee’s claims regarding the need for secrecy which does appear to suggest that it may well be so.

Brahma Chellaney has already written a critique of the safeguard agreement. I thought his criticism of the 123 agreement was over the top. While I find only parts of this recent article persuasive, I agree on a key point regarding the measures India is permitted to take in the event of a discontinuation of fuel supply. There is only one sentence in this agreement regarding this and it simply reads:
“India may take corrective measures to ensure uninterrupted operation of its civilian nuclear reactors in the event of disruption of foreign fuel supplies”.

The big question being asked is what ‘corrective measures’ entails. Siddharth Varadarajan’s article sheds some light upon this point – he argues that the vague language was a deliberate attempt to satisfy both US non-proliferation lobbies and domestic opponents at the same time. The main point, as Kakodkar pointed out today, is that the agreement is broadly written and details regarding fuel supply and reprocessing would have to be worked out in the future when specific subsidiary agreements are negotiated with the US or other states. So long as they are consistent with the provisions of this Act – I have found no reason to believe otherwise – this accord looks quite reasonable.

Update: Read this article in the WSJ that highlights prominent American concerns regarding the deal. Apart from similar questions being asked about fuel supply assurances, he says:
India will make a unilateral statement aimed at reserving its right to expel IAEA inspectors from reactor sites if the U.S., or other fuel suppliers, suspend nuclear fuel shipments for any reason -- including Indian resumption of testing. Indian officials are also likely to plead for nuclear fuel supply guarantees so the country can stockpile uranium fuel against future nuclear fuel supplier cutoffs that might occur -- again, following a future nuclear test. If, as expected, no IAEA board member or NSG country objects to these Indian statements, India will construe the silence as assent.

If indeed this is true, it is quite consistent with Kakodkar's assurance that 'the agreement allows India to stockpile nuclear material to meet the lifetime fuel requirement of imported reactors, reprocess the spent fuel and follow its closed fuel cycle programme to get the full benefit of the imported fuel'.

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