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Interview with Ambassador Richard Butler, executive chairman of the UN Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM)

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Since taking over as executive chairman of the UN Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM) in July 1997, Ambassador Richard Butler has stood at the center of the stormy relationship between Iraq and the United Nations. UNSCOM, established by the UN Security Council in 1991, is charged with eliminating Baghdad's biological and chemical weapons programs and proscribed ballistic missile activities, as well as monitoring to ensure that Iraq does not reacquire any such capabilities in the future.

On September 24, as Butler was preparing the most recent six-month report on UNSCOM activities in Iraq—a report dominated by Iraq's refusal since August 5 to permit UNSCOM inspections—Arms Control Association Senior Analyst Howard Diamond asked him about this latest crisis and its implications for UNSCOM.

Butler's diplomatic career includes a number of positions in the Australian foreign service. Appointed Australia's ambassador for disarmament in 1983, Butler was named ambassador to Thailand in 1989 and ambassador to the Supreme National Council of Cambodia two years later. In 1995 he was appointed convenor of the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons. Immediately prior to joining UNSCOM, Butler served from 1992 to 1997 as Australian ambassador and permanent representative to the United Nations. The following is an edited version of his comments.

 


Arms Control Today: What are the current scope and status of UNSCOM's ongoing monitoring and verification processes? To what extent has Iraq's most recent suspension of cooperation affected the integrity of monitoring efforts?

Richard Butler: Iraq's decisions of 5 August sliced off all of our disarmament work. Iraq stated that we could, for a period of time, continue our monitoring work, and claimed that that would be in accordance with the provisions of the monitoring agreement settled years ago between Iraq and UNSCOM. That agreement is actually a piece of Security Council legislation, known as Resolution 715. The fact is that in the intervening seven weeks or so, we have found that Iraq's claim is not true. We are not able to do all of the monitoring we would want to do and would normally do pursuant to 715. Specifically, we are only being permitted to monitor at sites Iraq allows us to visit. We're not able to designate our own sites, and I've reported this to the Security Council. This significantly reduces the scope of our monitoring. There have been some instances where, even within a site designated by them, in other words a site to which they will allow us to make a monitoring visit, they are seeking to restrict our access to particular buildings or particular rooms, not to the whole of the site. So, on all of these grounds I've reported to the Council that we are not able to give the Council the kind of assurance with respect to monitoring that it requires under the law.

ACT: It's been about seven weeks since the last weapons inspections in Iraq. What are your primary concerns regarding Iraqi activities since the end of inspections?

Butler: Our inspections fall into two categories. One has to do with bringing into final account Iraq's proscribed weapons. Here remain outstanding issues in all three fields—missile, chemical and biological. Now that Iraq has sliced off our disarmament work, we're doing none of that—none—and that's a matter of concern.

As far as monitoring is concerned, it's not so easy to answer that question, because you can't know what you can't see. We don't know what Iraq may or may not be doing in the places we're not permitted to visit, and it would be foolish of me to make some kind of guess.

ACT: UNSCOM has provided the Security Council with an intensive and detailed review of the outstanding disarmament questions that stand in the way of the Commission completing its work. Is the "roadmap" that was provided earlier still the best evaluation of the remaining issues regarding disarmament? What are some of the specific remaining problems, and what does Iraq need to do to satisfy those concerns?

Butler: The "roadmap" is still the best available such list. I want to make clear what it is. It is a list of the priority tasks that need to be completed before we could give something like a final account of Iraq's proscribed weapons programs and capabilities. In setting forth that roadmap, I made clear that it was the priority issues—not that it was all issues. To put it another way, these are certainly the necessary conditions for the closure of, say, the missile and chemical files. They may not be the sufficient conditions. There are some other, lesser issues that would still have to be brought to account in some way.

Iraq knows that and was given an opportunity to work with us in bringing them to account, but it declined to take that opportunity in all cases. In the missile area, we still need an account of their indigenous production capability. We need a final account of special missile warheads that they've unilaterally destroyed—those that they had filled with biological or chemical warfare agents. There is an outstanding account with respect to Scud-specific fuel and there is the special issue now of VX. We did detect degradation products of the VX nerve agent in some of those destroyed missile warhead remnants and Iraq has refused to give us an account of that, simply stating that it never weaponized VX, which is not what our lab findings show. In the chemical area, in addition to VX, the quantities Iraq made, there are some extant munitions. There is an account that's required of extant production equipment.

Just to complete the picture, the biological area as a whole is deeply deficient. Iraq's overall declaration on its biology program has been found on four occasions in the last year—by groups of international experts, not just our own—to be simply not credible. We've made it clear to Iraq that they'll have to start again and do better than the declaration they've given us, which doesn't approximate, in almost any respect, something like reality.

ACT: In reports to the Council, you've mentioned that you have asked for additional documentation on the biological weapons issue. Do you believe that there are still pertinent documents in Iraq that you haven't seen? Why wouldn't Iraq already have destroyed them?

Butler: We certainly do believe that. In concluding the recent discussions I held with Mr. Tariq Aziz, I summed it up by saying three things: one, the materials that we need do exist; two, they are in the possession of the government of Iraq; and three, it's their call as to whether or not they give them to us. If they do, I've said our promise is that we will verify those materials quickly and honestly, so that we can bring these things to account without any further delay. He did not argue with those three points.

There have been times where Iraq has said it has lost or no longer knows where relevant documents are. But I have to tell you, the overwhelming experience we have had is that Iraq does know very well what the true story is. They are excellent document and record keepers, and there's no credible basis for us to believe that they are not able to give us the information required if they choose to do so. That's why I put those three points in that way, and I repeat, he didn't actually dispute those points but instead argued that what we sought either wasn't relevant or would intrude on other aspects of Iraqi life and basically declined to surrender those materials. Actually it was interesting that there was no direct argument against those three propositions.

ACT: If the Iraqi government is seeking to maintain strategic capabilities in all the proscribed weapons programs, and if Baghdad follows through on its threat to completely cut off cooperation with UNSCOM, what do you think Iraq is capable of achieving in each of these weapons programs, and in what kind of a time frame?

Butler: I'm sorry, I'm not either in a position or indeed, perhaps, expert enough to answer that question. I'll put it to you a different way. Iraq's current tactic is to say, first, "We are disarmed." Now we can't agree with that because the evidence that would support that claim has not been made available to us by them. We're not in the business of doing disarmament by declaration. We need evidence.

Secondly, they have also said, "We don't threaten anybody. If you think we do, say so. Tell us what you think we've got." Quite frankly, this is a political, if not a propaganda stance. The law that we work under doesn't have any word in it about the threat that Iraq might pose to its neighbors or elsewhere. Our job, under the law, is to deal with the hard evidence and the materials themselves—the weapons and the ability to make them. We can't declare that Iraq has fulfilled its obligations to be disarmed of those weapons and production capabilities until they put us in a position to do so, by giving us the relevant materials and evidence. That's what we focus on, not some other more extraneous political notion of whether or not they threaten anybody.

ACT: How would you judge Iraq's concealment activities compared, say, to a year ago, and how has concealment affected UNSCOM's ability to do its job? Are concealment activities the key factor preventing UNSCOM from closing its files?

Butler: Iraq has had a practice of concealment from the beginning in 1991. When it was obliged under the law to declare all of its weapons to us, it actually took the step of declaring only a portion of them and concealing a residual portion. That activity has always hampered our work because it withholds from us the basic database we need, which is the quantity and quality of weapons—illegal weapons—that they held. Iraq's stance today is that there is no concealment. Again that's a political statement, not verifiable by evidence, the kind that we require. In 1996, in a formal document signed with the previous executive chairman, Iraq actually admitted that there had been concealment.

Now, to the last part of your question, concealment has slowed us down in doing this job because it denies us a basic database. The other two factors that have also slowed us down have been: one, that Iraq has never made the full, final and complete declaration on its holdings that it was obliged under the law to make available to us, and two, that Iraq has unilaterally destroyed some of its weapons in order to obscure from us what the basic size and quality of those weapons were. That unilateral destruction, which itself was illegal, compels us to go into a kind of forensic activity trying to put together the pieces of the past in a way that is inevitably difficult. It has had the effect of slowing down—I think unacceptably—the job of disarmament that we should have been able to complete years ago.

ACT: From your perspective, if Security Council members are no longer willing to support a policy of threatening to use, or using, military force to insure unconditional and unrestricted Iraqi cooperation, how will UNSCOM's operations and mandate be affected? Are you concerned that the individual national interests of Security Council members will overtake their commitment to the principle of collective action?

Butler: I'm not sure that I would concede the first premise of your question. When you said that if the Council is no longer prepared to enforce the law—I think that's a question to which the answer is still open. By saying that, I'm not in any way implying that I want to see force used. But I do remind you that all of the decisions on these matters taken by the Council have been taken under Chapter VII of the Charter, which includes the possibility that if necessary, the law would be enforced.

ACT: Are you concerned that the individual national interests of Security Council members will overtake their commitment to the principle of collective action?

Butler: No, I'm not, because I draw a distinction—and I think that many, many others do, and the members of the Council themselves do—between the fundamental objective and the ways in which it might be best achieved. I see no argument in the Council about the fundamental objective, namely that Iraq should obey the law and be disarmed. Even those who appear to be a bit more sympathetic to Iraq's concerns than some others don't have any difficulty with that basic proposition. There is no daylight amongst any members of the Council on that basic objective—that Iraq must obey the law, in particular the disarmament law. There is a difference of view amongst Council members on how best to achieve that goal, and that's the region where discussion, and perhaps some argument, takes place, but not about the basic task. Until that changes, and I don't expect it will, I believe the Council will hang in and see that this job gets done.

ACT: As the executive chairman, how do you balance the imperatives of your mission to identify and eliminate proscribed weapons with the political concerns that members of the Council may have regarding opportune times for conducting weapons inspections?

Butler: That's a very good question, and it certainly is one that's come into focus recently, following Scott Ritter's resignation. There is a certain balancing required there, but what I try to do is to insure that to the highest extent possible, our work has as its hallmark a technical and scientific approach. Now, obviously our technical and scientific work does take place within a political context, and I have to listen to that. Indeed I seek the views of members of the Council on policy matters, on how and when we should be proceeding at certain times. But in being the recipient of the views of members of the Council on political issues and, indeed, in seeking them, I have never had an experience where a member of the Council has crossed the line between their unique responsibility for policy and my unique responsibility for the technical and operational decisions. The receipt of their point of view doesn't mean that it has to be followed into the operational things for which I'm responsible, and they recognize that. So I don't see any of them having transgressed that line between policy on the one hand and operational responsibility on the other.

ACT: One of the more recent events that has come up regarding UNSCOM's work is the resignation of Scott Ritter. Could you clarify the July and August events surrounding UNSCOM's inspections, which he says led him to resign? You've been quoted as saying that his account of events in July and August was inaccurate. What exactly was inaccurate and why do you think so?

Butler: I'm not going to go into that, as I've already said publicly in other places. If I were to do so, I'd be putting UNSCOM on a pretty slippery slope. It would lead to a circumstance where I would be obliged to discuss in public the views of individual members of the Council, the operational imperatives that I think I have to follow. I think it would be a very bad precedent if I were to discuss those things in public because then the question would arise, "Well, you discussed your decision making process in instance A, why don't you now do it in B, C, D and so on?" And I won't do that. I think it would be harmful to our effort, and it would abuse the confidence of members of the Council who do come and talk to me about their concerns.

But as far as Scott is concerned, I'm deeply aware of what motivated him; I deeply respect him. I was a bit saddened that his account of some of the events in the last few months was at variance—at least in some respects—with what I know to be the facts. I don't want to go beyond that. I certainly respect him enough to not want to have some kind of public dispute with him.

ACT: On the subject of intelligence sharing, are you receiving sufficient intelligence cooperation from UN member-states to do your job? Are there any changes to current arrangements that you'd like to have made?

Butler: Again, a very interesting question. We've been given a lot of support from a considerable number of member-states of the UN, whether material or in terms of information, and what we might loosely call intelligence. On the whole, it's been very strong and good. There have been some cases where we have sought further information from member-states and they've not been able or prepared to give it to us, but on the whole I'm satisfied with the level of support we've been given.

ACT: It's been reported that there are some discrepancies between results from the laboratories in the United States and in France and Switzerland regarding the presence of VX on the warhead fragments that were found. What could these discrepancies mean? How do you intend to deal with any conflicting results?

Butler: It's interesting that you asked this question today. There is, as we speak, a technical meeting taking place here in our office involving scientists from the various labs concerned and some other external scientists as well.

Going back to what I said a moment ago about our attempts to insure that our work has as its hallmark, scientific and technical accuracy, obviously I will place great importance on whatever report I receive from today's meeting on the findings from the various labs. I don't know what they are. I'm leaving them to do their work independently, as I should.

In the theoretical circumstance that the labs have different findings, all that means is that different samples gave different results. It doesn't obliterate the results that were obtained from the Maryland lab. They've been examined by international experts and found to be valid; even Iraq doesn't question the internal scientific validity of those findings. And speaking of Iraq, whatever is found elsewhere, they still owe us an answer to how VX degradation products got into those warheads, as found by the Maryland lab. Those results were impeccable. The answer still needs to be provided, especially since Iraq continues to claim that it never weaponized VX.

More important than these results, however, is that Iraq has never told us how much VX it made, having first denied that it made any. We know it made at least 4 tons. We need to have a fully verified total of production.

ACT: On the subject of VX, does UNSCOM have any knowledge of Iraq moving any of its proscribed weapons activities outside of the country or assisting foreign entities in such efforts? The allusion I'm making is to Sudan.

Butler: I hope you'll allow me not to answer that question because it would involve violating a principle that I mentioned earlier, namely that it wouldn't be right for me to discuss in public internal information, or intelligence information available to us, so I'm afraid I won't go into that.

ACT: Is that specific to the question of Sudan, or is that broadly, with regard to foreign cooperation?

Butler: No, I was answering your question with respect to foreign cooperation and the other part of your question, which was Iraq seeking to conduct some of its activities outside Iraq.

ACT: Another story that has popped up in news reports is that Iraq possesses one or more assembled nuclear devices that lack only their fissile material cores. Do you have any information about that?

Butler: That was something Scott Ritter claimed in public, correct?

ACT: Yes.

Butler: Sorry, it's the same situation there, but with a slight variation. The main responsibility for Iraq's nuclear program lies not so much with my organization, but with the IAEA. We do obviously have an interest in the nuclear field, but the IAEA has prime carriage on it. Secondly, I would prefer, for reasons of keeping security over our internal information, not to go into that one in any detail at this stage. I will say, however, if UNSCOM had hard evidence to that effect we would have taken it to IAEA or the Security Council or both.

ACT: If such a report were true, what would that say about the future of monitoring and verification efforts?

Butler: I'm very concerned about that. In this current phase, where Iraq is actually confronting the Security Council and its laws, there have been some suggestions that Iraq has a view of future monitoring that is far less than effective monitoring would require, or is already laid down in Resolution 715.

Part of my concern about the current situation is to discover just exactly what Iraq has in mind when it says, "We don't have a problem with monitoring. Our problem is with UNSCOM's insistence that we're not yet disarmed."

I'm not sure that we know the truth of the claim that they don't have a problem with monitoring. I've already raised this in the Security Council; we need to know exactly what Iraq means when it talks about monitoring, as against what we know should be meant. And I think we're going to have to explore that in the months ahead. The monitoring in the future will be a crucial activity, and we need to know very clearly what Iraq thinks it's about, as against what we know it must be about.

ACT: In your view, has the Security Council changed its approach to eliminating Iraq's weapons? Has it moved from insisting on active identification and elimination to a policy of containment?

Butler: No, I don't believe so. In an answer to an earlier question I said I saw no dispute amongst members of the Council with respect to Iraq's compliance with the law, in particular the disarmament law, and I don't see any shift of the kind that you've just described.

ACT: Given the current state of affairs, what is the next step for UNSCOM? Will you be forced to wait until the Security Council decides it's ready to support weapons inspections by the threat of force or the use of force? Or are there alternatives that you can foresee that would allow UNSCOM to get back to work?

Butler: The current state of confrontation is between Iraq and the Security Council and that obviously has operational implications for UNSCOM. In the meantime our job is to continue to keep the Security Council informed of the scientific and technical facts so that it is in a position to make the best policy decisions it can. We're here; we're doing that job. When and how we'll get back to doing our full job is something that needs to be resolved between Iraq and the Security Council.

ACT: In the end, do you believe that the determination as to whether Iraq has met its disarmament obligations will be based on "sufficient compliance" or on "total compliance"? In your opinion, what would be the most important factors in distinguishing between those two judgments?

Butler: I've seen no one suggesting that the yardstick of compliance should be trimmed. We've made clear to the Council in recent months that there may be some weapons areas where we won't ever have a complete account of what Iraq held in the past or of the present status of those weapons or capabilities, principally because Iraq has unilaterally destroyed relevant materials. We're compelled to put the jigsaw back together, and we may not quite find all the pieces. If that proves to be the case somewhere along the line, and we say, "Look, this is all we're ever going to get from this story," then the Council may have to accept that. But that's different from foreseeing a situation where the Council itself acts to change the yardstick, to change the standard, and I don't hear anyone talking about that. The goal remains to destroy—these are the words, "destroy, remove, or render harmless"—all of Iraq's proscribed weapons systems. And I don't hear anyone saying that that standard should be reduced.

ACT: Do you have any reason to be optimistic that the current impasse can be resolved in the short term, or do you think this is going to become a longer term problem?

Butler: I think it's a serious problem now, and I think the steps that the Council and others are taking to getting it solved are being taken carefully and with deliberation, and I believe, with resolve. I cannot predict how long it will take, but I don't foresee a situation where the task will be abandoned. I just don't foresee that.

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