IAEA Board of Governors Meeting: 7-11 March 2016
Item 9: Any Other Business: IAEA Archives and release of records of Board of Governors
There are three issues I would like to raise in the Board under Other Business:
- [i] how the Agency approaches the considerable and vital task of managing the records of the organisation, including those of the BoG as one of its principal policy-making organs;
- [ii] implementing the Board’s most recent decision on release of its records, a decision taken at the March session in 1996; and
- [ii] the broader question of public access to the IAEA’s records, and in particular the access for those wishing to conduct serious research into the role of the Agency since it was established in 1957.
Archival policy and management is a very real contemporary challenge to Governments and major international organisations. We rely on archives for an organization’s institutional memory, but also for our collective efficiency, for accountability and transparency.
One of the most important functions of sound archival policy is to ensure that records are collected, maintained and preserved. The Agency is to be commended for its approach to this custodial function. It has professional staff dedicated to this role, and a well-established and organized system for managing the diverse range of material for which it is responsible.
The IAEA Archives Annual Report provides a wealth of detail on managing the Agency’s institutional memory and makes some interesting comments about the challenges faced.
One is the scale and complexity of managing documents from multiple sources. The current hard copy records held by the Agency would, if laid out in a straight row, extend for about 10 kilometres. They are growing at a rate that adds about 1.5 kms each year.
Another challenge is the long-term task of converting from hard copy to digital records, and the associated challenge of preserving digital information in a variety of formats. Computerised record keeping began in 1979 (CRMS), and a new system for electronic record keeping, the Electronic Records management System (ERMS) was introduced in 2007. Techniques such as scanning paper correspondence and electronic lodgement of Duty Travel reports have been developed to advance this digital conversion. In December 2015 digitalization of the Agency’s historical magnetized audio tapes was completed, including recordings of some 1127 Board meetings and 217 GC meetings.
There are seven staff currently allocated to the Agency’s Archives Centre, which is a part of the Archives and Records section under the direction of the Director for General Service. I have had the pleasure of meeting the Director and a number of the Centre’s staff, and would like to thank them for finding the time to discuss their work and to show me a number of the archiving facilities which they run so efficiently. In particular I would like to acknowledge the contribution made by Mr Leszek Pudlowksi who recently retired as Director of Section after 14 service in this area. We do not see this team much in the Board, but their work is no less appreciated for that.
The Agency compares well to some other international organizations in Vienna in its commitment to record-keeping; the role played by the Archives Centre is only possible because of support for staffing the function against the many competing demands on the Secretariat’s resources.
Might I suggest to colleagues that, at the risk of straining the Archive’s centre’s resources further, they consider visiting some time. In particular, I can recommend a visit to the Historical Archives. This holds a fascinating collection of audio-visual, photographic and other material from the 1950’s on: it gives all of us a window into the Agency’s origins and, for many Member State representatives, historical material back to the founding of the Agency and to their respective entry and key moments. In my own case, I found material including photographs and letters from the moment when Australia signed the Additional Protocol to our CSA, the first country to do so. It is a rich resource, including for those of us dabbling in social media!
Derestriction of Board of Governors documents
Governors will be familiar with the distinction between IAEA documents that are restricted for official use only, and are provided to all Member States, the UN and some UN agencies and intergovernmental organisations such as the EU and the League of Arab States, and those which are for general release, such as the resolutions adopted by our annual General Conference.
The Board’s approach to liberalising release of documents about its work has paralleled the development of rules and practice opening up the Board to attendance and participation by Member State Governments not represented on the Board and its Committees.
As part of this process, in March 1996 the Board adopted decision recorded in Document GOV/2843 whereby, with the express exception of the annual Safeguards Implementation Report and documents on the deliberations of closed sessions of the Board, the documents of the Board and its committees would be derestricted and made available for public access two years after their date of issue. The Board was to have the discretion to vary the length of time for derestriction in specific cases, that is, to less or more than two years. (The decision was to have immediate effect with provision for a phased approach to pre-1993 documents and those thereafter.)
The Board further considered this decision at its June session in 2009. The decision was confirmed. The Chair’s summary comments on Board members’ expectation that derestriction before two years would be exceptional.
To implement this decision, most Board records up to 2000 have been reviewed and, with a few exceptions, derestricted. Systematic review continues to cover all categories of BoG records and documents including those from Committees and minutes of Board meetings. Given the relevance of the Board’s work on major current issues, I would suggest that the Board keep under review progress towards achieving the earliest possible implementation of the 1996 decision.
Public access to IAEA records
In addition to preserving records, the other vital function of archival policy is to ensure the availability of authentic and reliable records. To achieve this requires not only policies that balance the need to protect certain information with the public interest in transparency and accountability, but also developing effective tools for retrieval of, and access to, records for legitimate research.
The IAEA’s current approach is to:
- [i] according to its 2004 archives access policy, allow the classification of restricted material after 40 years (this policy will soon be revised);
- [ii] allow the public access to records held by the Agency that are not subject to any restrictive access limitations under the information security policy and procedures, if these are more than 30 years old
- [iii] if such records are less than 30 years old, the applicant must have written endorsement from the Permanent Mission or the competent national authority of the applicant’s country. The written consent of the DG or his authorized representatives is also required.
- [iii] only grant access to classified records on specific authorisation of the DG or his authorized representatives.
The trend for some years, both amongst national Governments and in international organizations, has been to make documents, and in particular historical records, more widely available unless compelling reasons exist not to do so. In the case of the IAEA records, the Agency policy for review of classified material and access to derestricted material is now somewhat out of kilter with that of many Governments – including my own which is moving towards release of Commonwealth Government records twenty years from document creation.
I understand that, in practice, the Agency follows a thirty-year rule, and am pleased to hear the Agency is considering other steps to provide simpler and faster access to its records.
Comparable international organizations like the WTO, the World Bank and the WHO have instituted regular, documented declassification review procedures that have helped to ensure appropriate public access to records held by these organizations. Most hold these reviews somewhat earlier (some now 20 years after the document’s release) and more regularly. Some governments, such as the US, have adopted the practice of identifying those documents withdrawn from derestricted files or withheld from general release; this is useful to researchers in tracking the status of documents and understanding the continuing sensitivity of some of them.
I have no doubt that there is historical and other material held in the Agency’s records that requires ongoing protection; this is in the nature of its work and its relationship with Member States.
There are, nonetheless, some steps worth considering to facilitate access to Agency records without jeopardizing our common interest in sensible management of sensitive material:
- clarify and regularize declassification procedures and bring them in line with comparable organizations;
- streamline the requirements for access to non-restricted material;
The more flexible arrangements to facilitate access for researchers that have been introduced are welcome, as would be developing more detailed finding aids for the archival holdings.
We welcome advice that the Agency is developing an ‘archives portal’ for information on archival policy and access to IAEA records under the Management heading of the IAEA website, which would send a positive signal about the Agency’s archiving policy.
I have emphasised that archival policy is a serious challenge for many Governments and international organizations. One difficult aspect is the judgement on how much to hold under close protection, and what can be released – and when. The trend has been towards more liberal policies on derestriction, more regular review of classification and on greater public access. This is both a path to greater transparency and helps to limit the rapid accumulation of records that is straining available resources. The Board should support, and encourage, the Agency in addressing these challenges.