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former IAEA Director-General

Shifting Priorities: UNMOVIC and the Future of Inspections in Iraq: An Interview With Ambassador Rolf Ekeus
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Rolf Ekeus, Sweden's ambassador to the United States and former executive chairman of the United Nations Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM), was in the headlines this January when UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan nominated him to head the newly created United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC). Despite strong support by the United States, his nomination did not receive the approval of the Security Council, whose members finally settled on Hans Blix, former director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, to lead the new organization. (See ACT, January/February 2000.)

Ekeus led UNSCOM from its inception at the end of the Persian Gulf War until mid-1997, when he stepped down to assume his current post. UN Security Council Resolution 687, adopted at the conclusion of the war, had created the inspection body and charged it with discovering and destroying Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs. The organization operated until December 1998, when all inspections were suspended following the U.S.-British airstrikes against Iraq. After a year of negotiations, the Security Council adopted Resolution 1284 on December 17, 1999, replacing UNSCOM with UNMOVIC and opening the door for new inspections and the possibility of sanctions relief. (For the full text of the resolution, see ACT, December 1999.)

On February 24, Arms Control Today Editor J. Peter Scoblic and Research Analyst Matthew Rice met with Ekeus in Washington to discuss Resolution 1284, Iraq's weapons programs, the humanitarian situation in Iraq, and the political climate in the Security Council. The following is an edited version of their conversation.


ACT: How would you characterize the differences between UNMOVIC and UNSCOM?

Rolf Ekeus: Resolution 687 outlined two principal tasks. One was for Iraq to declare, and for UNSCOM to verify and supervise the elimination of, its prohibited weapons. To make it more clear, it was a sort of search and destroy mission. Iraq's capabilities should be found and should be eliminated. That was task number one. Equally important was task number two—to establish some monitoring of Iraq's capabilities so that no new WMD [weapons of mass destruction] capabilities would be created.

The new resolution refers back to 687, so the elimination element is still there, but the emphasis is now on monitoring. Resolution 1284 gives the impression that the matter of past weapons, which was the focus of 687, is no longer as significant. The new resolution doesn't indicate that there are any existing weapons in Iraq. The emphasis is on monitoring, and by implication that gives the impression that the Security Council is no longer concerned with existing capabilities but more concerned about Iraq's intentions.

ACT: Do you think the Security Council is right to make the assumption that the existing programs are no longer a threat? Absent inspections, what do we know about the nature of Iraq's activities?

Ekeus: UNSCOM was highly successful in identifying and eliminating Iraq's prohibited weapons—but not to the degree that everything was destroyed. The loopholes in the presentation by Iraq and the contradictions in Iraq's declarations mean there is reason to be careful. Iraq did not make a coherent presentation in the biological field or in the chemical field. There was a slightly better one in the missile field, and there was a coherent presentation with regard to the nuclear program.

Without inspectors one cannot be sure. But there is recent information that gives one the impression that something is going on. First of all, the UNSCOM inspectors have solid knowledge of the structure of Iraq's programs and the personnel involved. They are also aware of what was not sorted out in the Iraqi presentations.

You then add information from at least two types of sources. First, new information about procurement efforts by Iraq. The procurement efforts at least indicate in which direction Iraq is looking: what type of items, what type of equipment, what type of machinery, and what type of commodities they are buying or asking for. You get a pattern of what the procurement efforts are.

Secondly, there have been a number of people leaving the country, individuals who in their earlier activity have been involved in Iraq's program. Useful information has been picked up from them. These are the two main sources.

To that there can be added more marginal sources—overhead imagery and so on. If we take all of these data together and put good analytical minds to work, then we have at least a pattern that could be interpreted by people with experience.

That doesn't mean that one knows enough. In the long run, it is unsatisfactory, and it is a problem that there are no inspectors inside Iraq. But important conclusions can be drawn from the continued systematic work that UNSCOM has been doing. UNMOVIC, which according to Resolution 1284 is supposed to take over the assets of UNSCOM, will have access to all of this. I hope that UNMOVIC is wise enough to take on these capabilities and assets for the new organization.

In my view, there are no large quantities of weapons. I don't think that Iraq is especially eager in the biological and chemical area to produce such weapons for storage. Iraq views those weapons as tactical assets instead of strategic assets, which would require long-term storage of those elements, which is difficult. Rather, Iraq has been aiming to keep the capability to start up production immediately should it need to.

ACT: Given that assessment of the program, should the new organization have a stronger mandate than simply monitoring?

Ekeus: As Resolution 1284 is written, it is possible to carry out both elimination and monitoring tasks. It is just that the resolution is written in a way that gives the perception that one of the tasks, elimination, is not that important. In doing so, the resolution sends signals from the council to the new chairman indicating he shouldn't worry that much about it. But it is definitely not prohibited for UNMOVIC to search actively for prohibited capabilities. It is just so that the resolution stresses a strengthened monitoring system. The chairman will probably draw his conclusions when the first inspectors have made their first rounds.

ACT: As UNMOVIC begins work, one of the biggest points of contention will be the determination of disarmament tasks for Iraq. What do you think they will be?

Ekeus: The members of the Security Council appear to have different views. Some will say the tasks should be written in very general terms, say Iraq shall declare fully its past and ongoing biological, chemical and missile activities. Others will say that is too general. One should be more precise. The Security Council has had the same quarrel before. Even during my time, there were efforts by some permanent members to demand tasks that were more limited, time-wise and quantity-wise. I resisted a specific definition, which was also what Iraq wanted because it would make the tasks easier to fulfill. The problem with being too specific is that during the inspection process you detect new facts—the landscape changes with your investigation—so you can't say when you start out on your inspection trip exactly where it will lead you. With Resolution 1284, the Security Council is trying to force the organization to be more precise.

ACT: Some analysts have argued that in trying to resolve the Iraq situation we should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good, while others have said that watered-down inspections are worse than no inspections at all. Where do you fall in that argument?

Ekeus: It is important that high-quality, professional, competent inspectors carry out the work. In other words, one should not be sloppy. And the reason why is that we're talking about some of the most dangerous weapons—long-range missiles and warheads with biological and chemical agents. There is nothing humane in being generous to Iraq. You must have in mind the potential victims—there were victims of Iraqi chemical weapons before—the Iranians and the Kurds. So a humane position and sense of responsibility toward human suffering demands that you be strict and firm with regard to these capabilities. There is nothing won in being loose and incomplete in inspections.

ACT: Do you worry that if UNMOVIC adopts a monitoring posture instead of a search and destroy posture, it could generate a false sense of security that could actually be more dangerous than a stalemate in the Security Council?

Ekeus: Iraq has been stating that it has declared everything, that there is nothing of the prohibited capabilities left, that UNSCOM was 100 percent successful. UNSCOM people do not boast quite as much about what we did. We believe we did a good job, but I don't think that we were 100 percent successful. As I said, Resolution 1284 evokes that perception a little. However, I believe that one can do a full job of inspections within the parameters of the resolution, including search and supervised elimination. I don't think that it is correct to say 1284 is only about monitoring.

UNSCOM's monitoring operations, which were extensive, formed a highly effective system and did not really lead to any confrontations with Iraq. Monitoring had a routine character. You went to a facility you had been to many, many times before. The facility was known in detail. The production records were available, the inspectors had a detailed list of machines and machine tools, they knew the personnel, and they came and checked off that everything was normal. They looked upon the input and the output, they looked at the raw materials brought in as to how they had been disposed, and if they saw some new engineers or some engineers missing, for instance, they would inquire.

The confrontations were related to UNSCOM's search operations. Under these, UNSCOM inspected new facilities not declared by Iraq. When UNSCOM wanted to investigate the correctness of statements and investigate mobile capabilities and undeclared facilities, confrontations with Iraq occurred, as Iraq hindered the inspectors. The complaints and the difficulties with Iraq came out of the search and destroy task, while there were relatively few complaints about the daily monitoring.

So if you avoid those type of investigative inspections, you will probably have few problems, suggesting good cooperation, which will give the impression that the monitoring system is functioning well.

It is striking that 1284 says nothing about investigation and elimination. The words "elimination" and "destruction" don't appear at all. The reference to Resolution 687 in the beginning of 1284, however, means that everything is possible—by implication, all the rights and duties are the same—but 1284 is very polite. If it had mentioned elimination, it would have implied that there was something to be eliminated. The resolution is very careful not to upset and is phrased in a friendly fashion. It is not confrontational. Resolution 687 really implied that there was something wrong that had to be bettered. Resolution 1284 has no indication that there is anything missing.

ACT: Given the different tenor of Resolution 1284 as compared to Resolution 687 and given that the unity in the Security Council that existed at least early on in your tenure has disappeared, how is the role of the new executive chairman going to be different?

Ekeus: The chairman will have a very difficult task to start with because Iraq has not readmitted inspectors, so the key is to convince Iraq to allow inspectors to enter the country. And there I hope he will have the backing from the council—you have to recall that three permanent members abstained from voting on the new resolution. But I understand that they have declared that they intend to support the implementation of the resolution.

ACT: The secretary-general apparently considered some 25 or 30 names when he was trying to pick an executive chairman and either rejected them himself or was told by the Security Council that they would not be acceptable. Obviously your name was on that list. Why was it so difficult to find someone who would be acceptable?

Ekeus: This job, as it has turned out, is one of the most important in the international multilateral scene. It is of great significance to the UN's status and its role in the future. A failure would harm the organization. A wise decision with regard to the post of chairman is the first challenge.

But, secondly, the job is so difficult that no one wants it. With other high posts in the multilateral system—the heads of the World Health Organization, the UN Human Rights Commission or the World Bank—there is a tremendous line of candidates. Governments present their own best names, and they fight to get their choice into that job. With UNMOVIC, there were 25 names, say. Only one was proposed by his own government. Instead, governments pointed to people from other countries. The Swedish government didn't propose a Swede. The Dutch government didn't propose a Dutch. It showed how difficult this task is considered. It's so difficult that you don't want it. There was no candidate stepping up saying, "I would like the job," as you have on all other positions.

It's a special job because of its non-UN tradition, its non-UN culture. Namely, it has an element of enforcement. With the UN, almost everything—even 99 percent of Security Council work—is to serve the membership. For the International Labor Organization or the World Health Organization, your purpose is to help people. You help them with labor, you help them with food, you help them with medicine. What you're doing is positive. Even peacekeeping forces go in because both sides accept the peacekeepers. But UNSCOM was a counterculture operation. You implement and you enforce—that was Resolution 687. Of course, now the hard edges of 687 are taken away with 1284, but still the enforcement idea lingers.

The secretary-general's concern was also in light of the resolution, that he understands how important a successful dealing with the Iraq issue is. And how difficult it is politically, physically and in many other respects. But still it is important to the UN to demonstrate that it can handle this new task, that it can move into the new era that has such difficult jobs. The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is a threat to international peace and security, and the UN should, in my opinion, have a major role in dealing with this threat.

The secretary-general's step in first proposing such an UNSCOM name was in a sense counter to the style of the resolution. He was trying to demonstrate that he didn't want the new organization to be less than UNSCOM was. Iraq is still a serious problem and must be dealt with in a serious manner. And I think he succeeded. I think people understood that he takes Iraq very seriously.

ACT: Why do you think that your nomination was not ultimately accepted?

Ekeus: Well, it is not for me to identify arguments against something containing my name. I can imagine some arguments that could be advanced. Some arguments were wrong, other arguments one can understand. There were many considerations. There was a new resolution and especially a new organization. Why then go back and take an UNSCOM hat? The nomination of Hans Blix, who was an excellent choice, brings someone very strongly associated with the old UNSCOM, but not totally an UNSCOM personality.

ACT: Would you have accepted the job?

Ekeus: I asked Kofi Annan not to put forward my name. But then he outlined what I just said. He said that it is so important that we succeed. In support of the secretary-general, I would have accepted it if the Security Council went along. But with the nomination of Hans Blix, who did an excellent job as director-general of the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] and who has also been in Iraq, UNMOVIC got someone who also has been around before and has some battle scars.

ACT: One of the reasons for making Resolution 1284 less confrontational was to create consensus within the Security Council. But France, China and Russia all abstained. Why did they do that, and do you think that abstention is the closest to consensus that the Security Council is going to get?

Ekeus: The abstention was a little odd because since the vote was taken, all of them have said that they support the resolution and that they will assist in its implementation. But I think the main problem for them was not the arms control aspect of the resolution but the link to the lifting of sanctions—it was not clear enough. They wanted to have language that was more distinct with regard to the lifting of sanctions. They had hardly any problem with the weapons part. My conviction is that these three major abstaining states all have serious concerns about Iraq's weapons. The Russian military is concerned—there is no Russian wish to have an Iraq with nuclear weapons. The French are concerned about weapons of mass destruction capabilities in Iraq. And the Chinese, too. The three of them all have a concern with Iraq's weapons. However, they also have a wish to get the sanctions lifted.

ACT: You said that Russia, China and France have said that they will help implement the resolution, but Russia has also said that it's not bound to help enforce the provisions of 1284 and the Chinese have said that, in the end, the Security Council is not going to be able to implement this resolution. Given those attitudes, what is the likelihood that there will be full implementation of Resolution 1284?

Ekeus: Even if you abstain on a Security Council vote, you are still bound by a Chapter 7 resolution. My sense is that their intention is to back it. Then it becomes a question of how strongly. And how much clout do they have in Baghdad—how much will their support matter? We don't know where Baghdad will end up, but it will probably begin bargaining over conditions for entering Iraq, and maybe the countries that abstained can help there.

ACT: So you think that Iraq will work with this resolution, that it will not just flatly refuse to accept 1284, which is what it has done publicly to date?

Ekeus: First of all, I believe that Iraq will accept 1284 after some friendly—or less friendly—persuasion from members of the Security Council. It depends a little bit on how Iraq interprets the idea of working with 1284. There is one distinct advantage in 1284. It takes away the ceiling on oil exports.

But Iraq is still not happy with the sanctions aspects of 1284, which do not speak of lifting sanctions but of suspending them. This will create problems for the Iraqi authorities' ability to plan ahead. The language of suspension injects an element of instability and insecurity. That is probably the major reason why Iraq has been withholding its approval of the resolution. In that respect, 1284 is not better than 687. From an Iraqi perspective, that part of the resolution is more negative than 687, which talked about lifting the sanctions. Now it discusses only suspension.

What is positive from Iraq's view is the softer language on the arms position. But, as I have said repeatedly, it is softened language, but that does not mean UNMOVIC is prevented from doing what is necessary because the references back to the old resolution and to the weapons issues give UNMOVIC considerable rights and capabilities to act.

Iraq is again confronted with a choice: does it get anything for cooperation, and is it worth cooperating if you don't get any positive fallout? If the suspension language is deemed okay by the leadership, Iraq will probably cooperate.

ACT: Hans Blix has said that UNMOVIC will be more of a "UN-style" organization. What does this mean?

Ekeus: I don't understand. UNSCOM was a creation of the UN Security Council after the Gulf War. It was a UN operation. Everything was operated under UN resolutions. The staff was, to a high degree, on loan from member governments. This had to do with not wanting to create a permanent bureaucracy. The Security Council wanted to have an efficient, cost-effective, high-quality operation. The people who came in were contracted by me as chairman and had exactly the same obligations under the contract as all other UN field operations staff. UNSCOM was financed in the beginning by frozen Iraqi assets and later by Iraqi money generated by oil sales. No resources were provided from the ordinary UN budget. And there are still not. UNMOVIC will not see one cent from the UN. Everything will come from Iraqi oil money. The new resolution states that the funding should come exclusively from Iraq—from oil money taken from the escrow account. UNMOVIC is identical to UNSCOM in this sense. So, we can say that it is a UN operation. But one should not say that it is more of a UN operation.

ACT: Earlier you said that the traditional UN culture was more cooperative than the culture of UNSCOM. Could Blix have been indicating that UNMOVIC was going to be more cooperative than confrontational?

Ekeus: Yes. Formally, there is no difference. But politically it can be a whole different thing. UNSCOM had the task to control, supervise and somewhat enforce the elimination of WMD capabilities. UNMOVIC is not directly asked to look for WMD. As I said, the language of Resolution 1284 is the language of no suspicion.

ACT: Do you think that it is important to include current UNSCOM inspectors in the new organization?

Ekeus: It is up to Hans Blix. There are those who are advising him not to take any UNSCOM inspectors, and there are those who are advising him to take all of UNSCOM. I can only say that I know the UNSCOM personnel, and they are of the highest quality imaginable. In talking about how staff is to be recruited, Resolution 1284 mentions experience, which suggests UNSCOM.

ACT: Since your tenure at UNSCOM, there has been an increasing attention to the humanitarian impact of the economic sanctions on the Iraqi population and in the last week, two top UN officials have resigned, saying the sanctions are hurting the Iraqi people. If Iraq does not cooperate with Resolution 1284, will the oil-for-food program and the other humanitarian programs in Iraq be sufficient?

Ekeus: There were a few reasons for the imposition of sanctions after the Gulf War. In 1991, we all felt that it was important that Iraqi oil go back on the market, but on the other side, it was felt that the Iraqis, with their gross violation, could not go on as if nothing had happened.

There was deep concern about the Iraqi weapons capability, and that concern only deepened because the problem turned out to be worse than we had expected. Sanctions were the way to convince Iraq to cooperate with inspectors. Why should Iraq have cooperated with inspectors if there was no carrot and no stick? And in this case it was a combined carrot-and-stick approach. Keeping the sanctions was the stick, and the carrot was that if Iraq cooperated with the elimination of its weapons of mass destruction, the Security Council would lift the sanctions. Sanctions were the backing for the inspections, and they were what sustained my operation almost for the whole time.

But there was care taken in humanitarian respects. Witness the resolutions opening up oil sales for food and medicine. The only problem was that Saddam and the Iraqi leadership didn't go along with it. It was offered, it was presented, it was asked, begged. I really have to salute [former UN Secretary-General Boutros] Boutros-Ghali. During his tenure, he spent several years trying to convince Saddam to accept the system of selling oil to buy food. He succeeded in the end, but the delay was exclusively Iraq's fault. I think it is important to remember that.

Under the sanctions as they function today, Iraq is allowed to sell unlimited amounts of oil, probably even if it has not accepted Resolution 1284. Theoretically, even under the earlier resolutions, it is $5.26 billion per six months, let's say $11 billion per year. But Iraq can get, just by saying yes, unlimited sales, as the market permits. But the thing is that payment for the oil sales goes into an escrow account, and from there Iraq can use money to import with some restrictions. The question is then if you lift the sanctions, and give the funds directly to the leadership of Iraq, does it mean that Iraq will use this for food and medicine for its people? I haven't met anyone who believes that the money will be used for the same purpose as dictated by the UN. And that is the message for those who are critical of the sanctions. They have to make the case that if you lift the sanctions system, the Iraqi people will be better off. That the $11 billion will be used to get food and medicine to the people. That is the problem.

It is a problem to get Iraq back to being a normal country. It is an enormous problem, but in the meantime, it is not humane to cancel the oil-for-food program.

ACT: For years, UNSCOM was held up as a model for what collective security and intrusive inspections could accomplish for arms control. But UNSCOM's use as a model seems to have been tarnished by Iraq's apparent ability to outlast the Security Council just in terms of sheer political will. What lessons can we draw from that and apply to UNMOVIC?

Ekeus: There is a simple reason why UNSCOM was a success. The success was due to the quality of the people and to the political element. So that is how it worked: the combination of high-quality practice methods, high technology, wonderful personnel and science. It was the brainpower, not muscles, plus the political backing that gave results. What in the end created problems was not the professional quality of UNSCOM, but problems on the political side. That is the single, dominant and only reason that it failed.

The unity of the Security Council was the political fact that sustained the UNSCOM operation and helped its success. The failure to maintain that unity undermined it. Now the Security Council members are trying to restore unity. The adoption of Resolution 1284 was a first step. The implementation of it will be the first test.

Posted: March 1, 2000