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– Suzanne DiMaggio
Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
April 15, 2019
LOOKING BACK: The UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission

Trevor Findlay

The UN Security Council is soon expected to debate the future of the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC). The question facing the Security Council is whether to close down and dismantle the organization or to put its human and technical capabilities, as well as its intellectual and archival property, at the continuing service of the international community.

UNMOVIC was established in 1999 to pursue the task of verifying Iraqi compliance with Security Council demands that Iraq divest itself of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and associated capabilities. Although UNMOVIC’s inspectors were withdrawn from Iraq prior to the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, the organization continues to fulfill what remains of its mandate. Denied access to Iraq itself, UNMOVIC uses remote means, such as satellite imagery and open source information, to monitor developments within the country related to chemical and biological weapons and missiles. In addition, it has tried to track weapons-related equipment and materials that have been removed from Iraq since the war. UNMOVIC also is working to systematize its archives and catalog lessons from the Iraq experience.

UNMOVIC has an annual budget of about $12 million. It currently has a staff of 60 at its New York headquarters, as well as a small local staff in Baghdad. Moreover, it has a rostered inspectorate of 383 experts, 33 of whom are on staff in New York. In addition to its own screening facility, UNMOVIC has standing arrangements with 11 laboratories located around the world for chemical, biological, and other sample analysis.

Having succeeded in establishing a sophisticated and demonstrably capable UN-based verification apparatus, a strong case can be made for preserving and nurturing its capacities by bequeathing them to a new, permanent UN weapons of mass destruction (WMD) verification body. Such a body would broaden the range of options available to the international community for tackling the threat from these weapons, including that from nonstate actors; continue the work of expanding the frontiers of inspection, monitoring and verification; and give a much-needed boost to the United Nations’ technical capacities and credibility in this area.

Origins and Mandate

UNMOVIC inherited most of the responsibilities and capacities of its predecessor, the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM). That body was discontinued in 1999 after Iraq refused to deal with it any longer. Increasingly annoyed by UNSCOM’s intrusiveness, Iraq had taken advantage of allegations of intelligence gathering by the inspectorate, using them as an excuse to expel U.S. inspectors and subsequently all UNSCOM personnel.[1]

UNMOVIC was mandated to continue the work of UNSCOM in verifying and assisting in the “destruction, removal or rendering harmless” of Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons capabilities and means of delivering them and Iraq’s nuclear weapons, including missiles with a range exceeding 150 kilometers. Like its predecessor, UNMOVIC was required to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in verifying Iraqi disarmament in the nuclear field. UNMOVIC was endowed, however, with new powers and capabilities and with features designed to neutralize Iraqi excuses for noncooperation.

Given that Iraq had already been substantially disarmed on UNSCOM’s watch, UNMOVIC was instructed to focus on identifying “unresolved disarmament issues” and “key remaining disarmament tasks.” In the expectation that Iraq would need to be observed for several years even after it fully disarmed, UNMOVIC was also tasked with preparing a Reinforced Ongoing Monitoring and Verification (R-OMV) program.

UNMOVIC was encouraged to implement the recommendations of the Amorim panel, named after Brazilian diplomat Celso Amorim. The panel had been appointed by the Security Council to suggest ways forward after Iraq ended cooperation with UNSCOM. The reforms included employing inspectors and all UNMOVIC staff as UN civil servants rather than accepting inspectors on loan from member governments, as was UNSCOM’s practice. This was in part an attempt to avoid national intelligence agents being planted in inspection teams.

Organization and Capabilities

With Security Council approval, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan appointed Swedish diplomat Hans Blix, former IAEA director-general, as UNMOVIC’s executive chairman. Annan also appointed a 16-member College of Commissioners to provide Blix with policy guidance.

When Iraq refused to admit UN inspectors to its territory for another three years, UNMOVIC used the waiting period to great advantage. It determined priority sites for inspection, analyzed the huge amounts of information on Iraq collected by UNSCOM, studied the experiences of its predecessor, created a well-trained cadre of inspectors, and refined its monitoring and inspection methods. Notably, UNMOVIC created innovative, multidisciplinary analytical and inspection teams designed to avoid the “stove-piping” of information into separate tracks for nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and delivery systems, which could result in missed leads and lost opportunities. UNMOVIC, rather than member states, became primarily responsible for training. As UNSCOM had been accused of cultural insensitivity, training now covered Iraqi culture, history, and politics. In an effort to secure greater cooperation from the Iraqis, Blix pledged that the flow of intelligence information would be strictly “one way,” from national intelligence services to UNMOVIC.[2]

UNMOVIC also developed its technical capabilities, assisted by significant improvements in technology after 1998. Detection devices were now smaller, lighter, faster, and more accurate. They included miniature radiation sensors, portable chemical and biological weapons detectors, and ground-penetrating radar. Information technology developments also helped. For instance, the IAEA and UNMOVIC databases were linked, permitting new ways of looking for patterns and linkages across disciplines.

UNMOVIC’s capabilities would also be enhanced by the establishment of regional offices; the ability to fly into Baghdad rather than an airport several hours’ drive away; a fleet of helicopters; access to color satellite images, including from commercial providers; and the use of Mirage and U-2 aircraft for reconnaissance.[3]

Bowing to political pressure from a newly unified Security Council and military pressure from the United States and the United Kingdom, Iraq finally agreed to let UNMOVIC deploy in December 2002. Security Council Resolution 1441, adopted unanimously on November 8, 2002, threatened Iraq with enforcement measures under Chapter VII of the UN Charter if it failed to comply with the council’s demands. The United States meanwhile had begun a steady buildup of its forces and intensified military preparations in Iraq’s neighborhood and, along with the United Kingdom, had increased the tempo of air operations in enforcing no-fly zones over Iraqi territory.

Inspecting Iraq

Given the green light, UNMOVIC quickly swung into action. Its first inspectors arrived in Baghdad in less than three weeks, paving the way for inspections to begin just two days later. The early inspections were low-key, designed in part to test Iraqi cooperation. When Iraqi resistance proved negligible, inspections began in earnest, averaging eight a day. Inspection teams had an average of eight inspectors, but ranged in size from two to 40.

The inspections conducted by UNMOVIC and the IAEA’s Iraq Nuclear Verification Office (INVO) had two distinct phases. From November 2002 until the beginning of 2003, they focused on re-establishing a baseline for declared sites by assessing changes in activity, personnel, or equipment since inspectors left in 1998. Newly declared sites were also visited, and all sites assessed against Iraq’s December 7, 2002, declaration. A second investigative phase began in mid-January, designed to pursue leads obtained from previous inspections, Iraqi documents, and information from other sources, including intelligence. Key sites were re-inspected.

In its 111 days in Iraq, UNMOVIC conducted 731 inspections at 411 sites, 88 of which had not been inspected previously, while the INVO conducted 237 inspections at 148 sites, including 27 new sites, covering more than 1,600 buildings. Most of the sites were located around Baghdad or Mosul, the latter facilitated by the opening of a regional field office there.[4]

In sharp contrast to UNSCOM’s experience, the Iraqis did not prevent entry to any site that UNMOVIC sought to visit and imposed minimal delays even when inspections were conducted with little or no notice. Iraq used delaying tactics, however, in granting permission for helicopter, U-2, and Mirage aircraft overflights. It also obstructed UNMOVIC’s access to Iraqi scientists and other experts for interviews without Iraqi minders being present. In reporting to the council, Blix distinguished between Iraq’s cooperation in “process,” which was good, and cooperation in “substance,” where Iraq continued to be evasive and misleading. Blix identified at least 100 questions that Iraq had failed to answer, many relating to the amount of anthrax and VX nerve agent that Iraq had declared but not adequately accounted for.

UNMOVIC had barely been in the country three months when it was obliged to withdraw because of the decision of the United Kingdom and the United States to invade Iraq, following protracted but ultimately inconclusive debates in the Security Council on how to bring about full Iraqi compliance. UNMOVIC had not yet completed its second phase of inspections, had only just begun receiving overhead imagery, and had not installed the equipment necessary for long-term monitoring of Iraq. Nor had it yet inaugurated an office in Basra, which would have opened up southern Iraq to more thorough inspection and increased the element of surprise. In the end, only seven sites were inspected in the southern third of the country, and UNMOVIC had interviewed few of the many scientists and officials that it wished to query.

UNMOVIC’s Findings

UNMOVIC did not find undeclared weapons of mass destruction, relevant production facilities, or significant amounts of materials and equipment intended for such weapons. On the contrary, it confirmed that Iraq had destroyed the bulk of its capabilities, either unilaterally before UNSCOM inspections commenced in 1991 or under UNSCOM’s supervision. UNMOVIC determined that Iraq’s chemical weapons program had ended, and its previous arsenal, with the exception of a few chemical shells, had been destroyed. In the biological weapons area, although some substantive questions persisted, no weapons or facilities were found. Claims by the United States that Iraq had developed mobile biological weapons laboratories and unmanned aerial vehicles for delivering biological weapons were credibly refuted. Uncertainties also had remained about missiles after UNSCOM’s departure. UNMOVIC detected Iraqi violations of the 150-kilometer-range limit and was in the process of destroying the offending missiles and test platforms when it was withdrawn, but it did not find alleged hidden batteries of SCUD missiles.

Meanwhile, the IAEA essentially closed the nuclear file, concluding that Iraq no longer possessed significant nuclear capabilities and, due to disorganization, corruption, and the effects of sanctions, had been unable to rejuvenate them during the UN inspectors’ absence.[5]

UNMOVIC’s Performance

UNMOVIC succeeded in verifying that Iraq had essentially disarmed itself of weapons of mass destruction and rid itself of associated capabilities. The organization did this expeditiously, professionally, objectively, and without fear or favor in the face of considerable pressure from Iraq and some members of the Security Council to do otherwise. UNMOVIC learned to deal proactively with Iraqi deception and denial tactics and its reluctance to cooperate. It also overcame a failure by the United States to provide timely and reliable intelligence information to permit inspections to move at the quicker pace that it was demanding. It turns out that there was no such information. UNMOVIC ignored insinuations from critics within or associated with the U.S. administration that were intended to discredit it. The UN inspectorate’s reputation has since been burnished by the failure of the U.S.-led Iraq Survey Group, which had relatively free access to Iraq for more than six times as long, to overturn its conclusions. UNMOVIC has been further vindicated by the admissions of the British and U.S. governments that they were wrong about Iraq’s alleged retention and resurrection of its WMD capabilities.

If there was one failure by UNMOVIC to fulfill its mandate, it was Blix’s understandable reluctance—much criticized by U.S. officials—to remove Iraqi scientists, presumably accompanied by their families, from Iraq for interview. Although plans were being made prior to UNMOVIC’s withdrawal for this to happen, it probably would have been ineffectual. Even if removed far from Baghdad, the individuals concerned likely would have felt too intimidated by the Iraqi regime to have divulged any information of value.

The Future of UNMOVIC

There is disagreement in the Security Council over the future of UNMOVIC and its capabilities. The United States favors simply winding the commission down, but other permanent members, notably France and Russia, propose variously that it be permitted to make a final judgment on Iraq’s compliance and that the organization’s capacities and expertise be used in some form to permanently bolster the UN’s verification capability in the WMD area. Countries currently outside the council, such as Canada and Japan and the member states of the European Union, also favor enhancing the United Nations’ standing verification capacity. Some see particular merit in preserving UNMOVIC’s capacities with respect to biological weapons and missiles, for which there are currently no international verification organizations.

The most radical idea is for a permanent WMD verification body that would absorb UNMOVIC’s capabilities in their entirety. Such an agency could provide the United Nations with much needed technical capacity for dealing with WMD issues in their many dimensions. It would not be restricted to the relatively rare enforced verification operation typified by the Iraq case but could carry out a variety of fact-finding missions, investigations, and verification exercises at the behest of the UN secretary-general or the Security Council. States may themselves invite such inspections in order to demonstrate their compliance or assist the inspectors in detecting nonstate actor activity on their territory.

The new body could absorb the current, largely moribund mechanism available to the secretary-general for investigating alleged chemical or biological weapons use. Its day-to-day operations would include providing the Security Council with briefings and expert studies on WMD issues. These are likely to be particularly valuable to the nonpermanent members, which often lack their own expertise on such subjects. The new body would be designed to complement and cooperate closely with, not supplant, the existing multilateral verification organizations that deal with nuclear and chemical weapon: the IAEA, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization, and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

UNMOVIC’s experience in Iraq has been both salutary and path-breaking. It has added greatly to the store of verification lore and capacity that could be utilized in future verification endeavors. Lessons learned have already been fed into the standing multilateral verification bodies and were notable in the UNSCOM-UNMOVIC transition. It should be the goal of the international community to ensure that such hard-won capacities are preserved and strengthened for future use. Giving the United Nations a ready-made, standby capacity for launching effective monitoring, verification, and inspection operations when required would enhance the tools available for protecting international peace and security and give further pause to the small number of states that are tempted to violate international treaties and norms relating to weapons of mass destruction.

Trevor Findlay is director of the Canadian Centre for Treaty Compliance at Carleton University, Ottawa.


1. “The Lessons and Legacy of UNSCOM: An Interview With Ambassador Richard Butler,” Arms Control Today, June 1999, p. 3.

2. Hans Blix, Disarming Iraq: the Search for Weapons of Mass Destruction ( London: Bloomsbury, 2004).

3. The use of unmanned aerial vehicles was also planned but did not materialize before UNMOVIC’s withdrawal.

4. Of UNMOVIC inspections, 219 (30 percent) were conducted by missile teams, 205 (28 percent) by biological teams, 161 (22 percent) by chemical teams, and 146 (20 percent) by multidisciplinary teams. In addition to inspections, the INVO also conducted 125 surveys, including 42 at locations not previously visited by the IAEA. The surveys included land- and vehicle-based sampling, traveling more than 8,000 kilometers to visit state-run industrial and military locations as well as urban areas. They also conducted a radiometric survey of Iraq’s main watercourses December 9-19.

5. Central Intelligence Agency, “Comprehensive Report of the Special Advisor to the DCI on Iraq’s WMD,” Washington, DC, September 30, 2004.