Recent columns by Barbara Crossette:
Refugees in Limbo Where the U.N. Isn't Welcome
(December 29, 2003)
"For about a dozen years, tens of thousands of people, claiming to be Bhutanese citizens have been languishing in refugee camps in Nepal. Few officials believe they are all Bhutanese. Then who are these people, now numbering more than 100,000?"
Book on U.N. Creation a Welcome Reminder of Early Lessons
(December 16, 2003)
"Here's the perfect holiday gift for your favorite member of the U.S. Congress."
Too Soon To Count the U.N. in on Iraq
(December 9, 2003)
"The United Nations is not going to jump at the chance to take over the management of Iraq. Too much needs to change not only in Washington but also on the ground in Baghdad."
Sixteen Wise People and the Future of the U.N.
(December 1, 2003)
"This could be a last-chance opportunity to reinvigorate a battered United Nations."
Saving Congo, One Woman at a Time
(November 24, 2003)
"The impunity enjoyed by anyone with a gun, and the savagery of the sexual assaults women suffer as a result, has stunned and sickened aid workers."
Oil for Food: A Great Experiment Ends
(November 17, 2003)
"The oil-for-food program wasn't perfect. It was manipulated by both the Iraqis and the West. None of that, however, should obscure the essential value of the concept."
A New-Look Security Council: What Makes a Winner?
(November 11, 2003)
"The question of which countries might rightly claim new permanent seats is becoming less hypothetical. A group of newly emerging powers is already circling the chamber demanding a permanent presence."
More from U.N. Notebook.
U.N. Notebook | January 5, 2004
IAEA Chief Out Front on Arms Control
by Barbara Crossette
UNITED NATIONS—Think of Mohamed ElBaradei as one good reason why the world needs the United Nations. Since the departure of Hans Blix from the U.N. scene, ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has been the U.N. system's most visible arms controller, and some Bush administration officials wary of most arms control agreements have begun trying to undermine his authority just as they did with Blix.
Last week, ElBaradei was in Libya, helping the government of Colonel Muammar Qadhafi undo a nascent nuclear weapons program—a visit that provoked Washington to insist that the United States, not the IAEA, was in charge. Before Libya, it was Iran, where with help from the Europeans, ElBaradei maneuvered the Iranian government into more intrusive inspections of sites it insists are only nuclear power plants. North Korea could be next.
IAEA Director General|
What helps make an international official like ElBaradei effective in places the Bush administration would rather pillory than negotiate with is, in addition to his wide expertise, his inherent cosmopolitanism. This is an added value the United Nations brings to many crises.
ElBaradei is an Egyptian, but much of his legal training is American—a master's degree and doctorate from New York University. Like certain others among his more memorable contemporaries at the United Nations, such as the late Sergio Vieira de Mello (a Brazilian educated in Paris), ElBaradei moves around the world with ease, conferring with American and European lawyers and arms control officials one day and chatting in Arabic with a wily North African despot the next.
Thomas M. Franck, one of the world's leading experts and practitioners of international law, was ElBaradei's adviser at NYU law school in the early 1970s and he describes his former student in one word, "brilliant."
"He was so good a student that when I went to head the research department at UNITAR [the United Nations Institute for Training and Research] the one condition was that the Egyptian government lend him to me," Franck said. "He was at that time in the Egyptian mission in Geneva. And so they seconded him to me at UNITAR and we worked there together. He helped me run the research department. He was wonderful."
Franck, who has written more than a score of books for both professionals and lay readers on a range of legal issues and current world affairs, said in a telephone interview before leaving for San Francisco, where he will teach this semester at the University of California's Hastings College of Law, that during his time at the United Nations ElBaradei proved to be a skilled diplomat who served as a neutral intermediary with "a very difficult Russian" who had been working for Franck. That was in the early 1980s, when the Soviet Union was intact and Russian-American tensions still marked U.N. life.
ElBaradei, 61, was born in Cairo and got his first academic degree at Cairo University. His father, Mostafa ElBaradei, was president of the Egyptian Bar Association. After attending university, the younger ElBaradei joined the Egyptian foreign service and worked as a diplomat in both New York and Geneva before enrolling at NYU. After earning his doctorate, he went back to Egypt's foreign service before Franck asked for him to be assigned to U.N. headquarters as a senior research fellow. By then, ElBaradei, who also taught as an adjunct professor at NYU law school, was a recognized specialist in international law, arms control and the peaceful uses of nuclear technology.
Probably inevitably, he soon came to the attention of Hans Blix, his predecessor as IAEA director general, who in 1984 chose him his legal counsel. By 1993, his diplomatic skills back in play, ElBaradei had become assistant director of international relations for the IAEA. Unlike many other international civil servants, he developed a good relationship with the media, almost always willing to take time for a briefing or news conference at critical moments.
When Blix retired from the agency in 1997—he would later be named executive chairman of the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission for Iraq—there was considerable speculation about who would succeed him at the IAEA. ElBaradei was not as colorful a figure as Blix, who voiced his opinions publicly and scrappily as the occasion demanded—a quality in play last year as he parried Washington's denigration of the U.N. Iraqi inspection system. But many people who had worked in the agency thought ElBaradei would be a good, solid choice.
A lot of politics among and inside countries goes into the competition for a job as important as that of IAEA director general, and there was rivalry for the position, including within Egypt, in 1997. ElBaradei got the job, however, and in 2001, he was reappointed by the agency board for another four-year term. He is now a strong voice for tighter weapons controls generally, at a time when Washington seems intent on weakening a range of arms control agreements.
In an interview in November with Arms Control Today, ElBaradei called the current system for stopping the spread of nuclear weapons "inadequate" and said that nuclear arms are still relied on "as a weapon of choice."
"I think it is fair to say that it [the system] is under a great deal of stress, and if I am asking for significant changes, it is because the world is going through significant changes," ElBaradei told the journal. "A few years back, the terrorist phenomenon was not the major phenomenon we had to face. Efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction were not with the intensity we see in the last few years. The security threats are changing, and with it our response needs to change."
The importance of having an international figure, and someone from a significant but not overwhelmingly powerful country running a hot spot like the IAEA "is exemplified by ElBaradei, but isn't limited to him," Franck said.
In an earlier crisis in Libya over demands that Qadhafi turn over two Libyan suspects for trial in a Scottish court for the bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, Hans Corell, a Swede and the chief U.N. legal officer, did the tough negotiating, and well out of the limelight. Corell ultimately brought the two Libyans to The Hague himself, where an "offshore" Scottish trial was held, accomplishing what American bluster could not.
"There are many things that can be accomplished internationally by our not making it into an America-versus-whoever confrontation," Franck said, "and using highly professional people who have good staffing behind them, who know the facts and who over the years painstakingly built up relations—not necessarily very warm ones, but credible ones—with difficult people in various countries. That gives them a real, marked advantage over your average American politician trying to do that."
"First of all the politicians probably don't know the places all that well," Franck said. "Secondly, they haven't built up those kinds of relations, and thirdly they're going to turn over."
North Korea may reach the stage of having to rethink its decision late in 2002 to expel the IAEA, he said, adding that the North Koreans "know that there's going to be a point when [U.S. President] George Bush is gone, but the ElBaradeis go on forever."
"It pays to establish a reasonable relationship with them," he said.
What do you think? Discuss this article in the Foreign Affairs conference of Post & Riposte.
More on foreign affairs in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic
Barbara Crossette, a writer on foreign affairs and columnist for U.N. Wire, was The New York Times bureau chief at the United Nations from 1994 to 2001. U.N. Wire is a free daily online news service covering news about and
related to the United Nations. It is sponsored by the U.N. Foundation and
appears on the foundation site, but is produced independently by The National
For information on National Journal Group publications, see
Copyright © 2003 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All