International law or US hegemony: from chemical weapons to Iraq

Bob Rigg
9 January 2003

A former official at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons describes how an effective international system to reduce the threat from weapons of mass destruction was sabotaged by the US government. Can the resulting ‘Darwinisation’ of international relations be halted?

I worked with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague for nine years, ultimately as senior editor, inspired by the feeling that I was participating in a historically unique disarmament and non-proliferation venture. The essence of the OPCW resides in its verification regime, which gives the OPCW Secretariat far-reaching powers to verify whether each and every member state is complying with its undertaking to abolish all existing stockpiles of chemical weapons and not to develop new ones. (All previous international disarmament treaties and agreements had foundered on the fact that member states declared their opposition to weapons of mass destruction, and then proceeded to secretly develop them anyway.)

In this context the Chemical Weapons Convention assigns central importance to the political independence of the OPCW Secretariat and all of its staff members, including the Director-General. The role of the Director-General could be compared to that of an auditor-general, who is appointed by the state to independently and critically monitor the propriety of its financial dealings. But whereas the political independence of auditors-general is guaranteed by legislation, which makes it virtually impossible to dismiss them, the wide-eyed idealists who drafted the text of the Chemical Weapons Convention made no specific provision for such a contingency – a fatal omission, as it turned out. It should also be noted that, since the inception of the OPCW, its member states agreed to take all decisions by consensus, in order to defend the universal and multilateral character of this unique treaty.

The politics of empire

Almost three years ago, all OPCW member states, including the United States, decided by consensus to reappoint José Bustani of Brazil as Director-General, for a second term of office. He could not have been reappointed if even a single member state had declined to join consensus. In February 2002, without prior notice, and out of the blue, the US Secretary of State secretly called the then Foreign Minister of Brazil and demanded that he withdraw Bustani, a senior Brazilian diplomat. Even Bustani did not know of this until after it had happened. This was in flagrant violation of provisions of the Convention, which guarantee the freedom of the Director-General and of all staff members from political interference by individual member states.

When Brazil refused to play ball, the US delivered at least two unilateral ultimatums for Bustani to resign, even before its position had been deliberated on by OPCW decision-making bodies. The US lent weight to its ultimatums by stating that it would not pay its financial contribution for the 2002 financial year, and by hinting that Germany and Japan would also follow suit. The US indicated that, if Bustani did not go, it was prepared to bring the organisation down. This financial blackmail contravened the spirit and the letter of the Chemical Weapons Convention. As it was immediately apparent that member states would never approve the US initiative by consensus, the US invoked provisions that legalised decisions by less than an absolute majority of member states, and embarked on a campaign of arm twisting and intimidation, making full use of its considerable economic power in the process.

Many states felt unable to withstand such threats, and bowed to the wishes of the US. Many other states, fearing the consequences of opposing the US, but also not willing to support its initiative, elected to abstain. After a procedure lasting less than six weeks, which did not fulfil even the minimum requirements of due process or natural justice, a hastily convened kangaroo court of member states decided to terminate Bustani’s contract. Political lynch justice prevailed, with truth and fairness the first, but not the only casualties. For the first time in its history, the OPCW’s Conference of the States Parties had adopted a critically important decision, not by consensus, but through the votes of considerably less than half of its total membership. Two permanent members of the UN Security Council, China and Russia, were amongst the seven who were courageous enough to vote against the US initiative. With this decision, the OPCW condemned itself to a slow and lingering death, and destroyed its credibility as a politically independent multilateral organisation.

On the eve of Bustani’s termination I resigned, although I was still able to draft the report of the meeting which decided to terminate his appointment. For me at least, a dream of non-proliferation and disarmament had died a sudden and unnatural death. I no longer wanted to be associated with a multilateral organisation which was manipulated and held to ransom by one powerful member state.

It quickly became apparent that the US intervened to eliminate Bustani because he wanted the OPCW to play an independent role in UN inspections in the war against Iraq, which Washington was already advocating. Because Bustani was perceived internationally as someone who tried to mediate between the developed and developing worlds, rather than as an advocate for the developed world, it was then considered possible that states such as Libya and Iraq might become member states of the OPCW.

Although Iraq’s membership would have been very good news for the Chemical Weapons Convention, this was the last thing which Washington wanted, as it would have weakened US arguments in support of a military intervention in Iraq. Moreover, if Libya and Iraq had both joined, there could have been a follow-on effect throughout the Middle Eastern region, with key players such as Syria, Egypt, and Israel perhaps being tempted to come to the party. None of this will ever happen now, with the OPCW being internationally perceived as controlled by Washington. And without the prospect of full universality the Chemical Weapons Convention is just another scrap of paper.

The political crucible of the OPCW stimulated me to reflect at length on issues relating to weapons of mass destruction and Iraq. This article is the first, but not the only, fruit of these reflections.

Iraq and the Darwinisation of international relations

One principal source of misunderstanding of the Iraqi question today is the general lack of awareness of the history of US foreign policy in the Middle East region, and of the considerations that drive that policy. If we are to see beyond the trees to the woods, we must view fragmentary information about the present within its historical context.

After the Second World War the American eagle – in the context of the escalating cold war – finally replaced the British bulldog as the politically, technologically, and economically dominant superpower. US policy towards the Middle East sought to ensure that the Middle East, with its strategically important position on both the south-western flank of the Soviet Union and the shores of the Mediterranean, remained firmly within the sphere of influence of the ‘free world’ in general, and the United States in particular. In addition, of course, a large proportion of the world’s oil was produced within the region.

In 1953 the United States was so alarmed by the preparedness of Mohammad Mossadeq, the newly elected Prime Minister of Persia, to nationalise the US-controlled oil industry, that they intervened to topple him and to install the Shah of Persia in his place. This ushered in a lengthy phase of political repression and destabilisation, which ultimately led to the violent overthrow of the Shah, and the election of a radical Islamic government. Although the truly popular power base of this government has now largely evaporated, it was the first major political manifestation of a radical or fundamentalist Muslim view of the world, which sought to protect the integrity of an Islamic state from the seemingly all-powerful encroachment of western and US influence. The government of the Islamic Republic of Iran, as it is now called, together with those of Iraq and North Korea, in 2002 shared the dubious distinction of inclusion in President George Bush’s ‘axis of evil’.

The United States also threw its weight behind the newly established state of Israel – its political sheet anchor amidst the shifting political sands of the Middle Eastern region. We should therefore not be surprised that Israel has received very substantial amounts of direct and indirect annual US assistance (one estimate is that, for the 1997 financial year alone, Israel received as much as US$10 billion in aid from grants, loans, interest payments, and tax deductions). The political destabilisation of the Middle East and the threat that Saudi Arabia will cease to be reliable have made the US even more dependent on Israel. If the US succeeds in assuming control over the territory of Iraq, this will reduce its dependence on Israel, while also driving a wedge between the front-line Arab states, thus greatly strengthening its position in the region.

For its part, Israel has continued to provide the US administration with high‑quality intelligence about a range of issues of strategic importance, and has played an important role as a provider of high technology, especially with a military/intelligence application. Referring to a possible future war with Iraq, the Israeli daily Ma’ariv recently reported that Tel Aviv had authorised Washington to store ‘enormous quantities’ of weapons in Israel.

Following the Bush administration’s recent offer of US$2.2 billion in designated assistance for 2002, Israel requested an additional grant of up to US$10 billion, justifying this in terms of the current extraordinary situation in Israel and the occupied territories. Those who say on the right or left that US continues to support Israel because of the power of the ‘Jewish lobby’ have overlooked the fact that Israel is a key factor in the international strategic and economic design of the United States. Although Israel has never publicly admitted to the possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), it is an open secret that it possesses an advanced capability to use and to ‘deliver’ nuclear weapons, and possibly other types of WMD as well. In common with most other states in the region, Israel has declined to join the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the Biological Weapons Convention, or the Chemical Weapons Convention.

As Israel and the US have collaborated closely on military and security matters for decades, the US must have been familiar with Israel’s development of WMD, and could certainly have restrained or stopped this. Indeed, it is possible that the US even provided Israel with advice and assistance to develop its WMD, simultaneously demonising any Arab neighbours suspected of doing the same. The United States are also overlooking the fact that at least some regional Arab states other than Iraq have certainly developed at least some WMD, in particular biological and chemical weapons. Current US policy in the Middle East is based on the key assumption that the United States and Israel must have a regional monopoly on the possession and use of WMD in general, and of nuclear weapons in particular, in order to guarantee continuing US domination of the region and its strategically vital oil reserves.

History’s dust, a century’s lessons

It is useful to recall that, at the time of the ill-fated Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the ‘free world’ identified the fundamentalist Muslim opposition to that invasion as the most promising source of resistance to the Soviet invaders. Using Pakistan as a conduit, the US provided massive amounts of financial and military aid to fundamentalist rebels inspired by the Muslim revolution in Iran, including advanced high‑tech weaponry such as ‘Stinger’ missiles. As we learned shortly after 11 September 2001, a British military adviser had personally trained Bin Laden and others in the arts of modern guerrilla warfare, including dirty tricks, torture and terror.

Not for the first time in US foreign policy, as soon as the immediate objective of enforcing a Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan had been achieved, the United States lost all interest in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The militant Muslim groupings, which, with active US backing, had played a key role in forcing the Soviet withdrawal, were left to vie for supremacy amongst themselves and with the local warlords.

The struggle to liberate Afghanistan from Soviet control had attracted from all over the world a wave of ideologically-driven, alienated, and frequently highly-educated Muslims, many of whom dispersed into the Muslim diaspora after contributing to the humiliating Soviet exodus. Bin Laden was one of many such individuals. There is no doubt that the far-flung al-Qaida network was of central importance until 11 September 2001, after which bin Laden and that network went underground. However, the devastating symbolism of 11 September had in the meantime stimulated the worldwide development of numerous small militant and conspiratorial Muslim cells and groups, most of which now operate with only the most tenuous links to each other and al-Qaida, principally in order to escape surveillance and detection.

With characteristic Manichean fervour, the United States has nevertheless persisted in attributing all subsequent acts of international terrorism to al-Qaida alone, casting itself as Saint George slaying the dragon, rather than as Hercules severing the many heads of the hydra. If the United States incorrectly identifies the problem it is seeking to resolve, the problem will persist, while increasingly ineffectual attempts at problem solving will alienate more and more people from US policy.

When bin Laden changed the face of contemporary warfare by launching well-planned attacks on symbolic civilian targets, he wrote a new chapter in modern military history. From the beginning of the 20th century onwards, perhaps the most significant change in conventional warfare had been the growing preparedness of both military and civilian leaders to kill and injure civilians on a large scale in the pursuit of political and military objectives. Nanjing, Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki are but four examples of this. Bin Laden took this one step further by showing that the strategic and effective use of violence against symbolic civilian targets makes it possible for small, well-organised and ruthless terror groups to destabilise the most seemingly all‑powerful of governments, and even the stability of the world order.

If the United States had then attacked Iraq in the face of the declared wish of the international community, this might have marked the beginning of the end of the age of multilateralism ushered in by the creation of the United Nations (UN), and perhaps the terminal decline of the UN itself. The United States would have thumbed its nose at the established institutions and conventions of multilateral diplomacy, and the world would have been flung into a new dark unipolar age characterised by the achievement of political objectives through the naked assertion of power, force, and economic influence.

In an attempt to avert such marginalisation of the UN, the Security Council, in adopting resolution 1441, saw no option other than to sanction a military intervention lacking any universally convincing rationale. If the Security Council had declined to adopt such a resolution, amongst other things because it was not then supported by a convincing body of evidence, the United States would simply have launched a unilateral attack on Iraq, and the UN, like the League of Nations before it, might have ended up in the trash can of history.

Strategies of fear

The doctrine of the inviolability of national sovereignty, which has been a legal and diplomatic cornerstone of the UN since the Second World War, is now in tatters, as is the integrity and independence of its multilateral decision-making capability. The UN resolutions in support of successive pre-emptive interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq have struck at the heart of the hitherto inviolable doctrine of national sovereignty. What in the bipolar age of the cold war was conceived of as a multilateral decision-making body has now, in the unipolar age of Pax Americana, become a somewhat unwilling vehicle for the unilateral political and military aspirations of the world’s only superpower, and has accordingly compromised itself, possibly irreparably. If the UN Security Council resolves to attack Iraq, it will be seen by many to have become an instrument of US foreign policy. If it does not support the US initiative, it will be politically and financially marginalised by the world’s only remaining superpower.

Although the United States now claims that Iraq should be attacked because it possesses WMD, one must bear in mind the following: the US government has refused to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty on the grounds that it must safeguard its pole position in the global nuclear race by reserving the right to further develop its nuclear capability. Furthermore, early in 2002 John Bolton, the US Undersecretary for State, quietly announced that the US had unilaterally withdrawn from an agreement extending back to the cold war period which had been of central importance for convincing non-possessors of nuclear weapons to stay out of the nuclear arms race. Bolton indicated that the US was no longer bound by its undertaking never to use nuclear weapons against states which do not themselves possess nuclear weapons, and specifically reserved the right to use nuclear weapons in a first strike against any state.

In the current overheated and aggressive international climate this move can only encourage any state entertaining fears about the stability of its relationship with its key allies to consider the option of acquiring a nuclear capability, or to develop other WMD. In this situation any ‘rogue’ states with a known nuclear capability, coupled with the capacity to deliver such weapons, can quickly improve both their international standing and their balance of payments by sharing their secrets as extensively as possible. And the possibility that some Muslim states could invite, for example, Pakistan, to share in developing a truly nuclear family cannot be altogether ruled out – all the more so in the light of known Pakistani links with both North Korea and Saudi Arabia.

The Americans know, for example, that Pakistan recently helped North Korea to develop a secret centrifuge system of uranium enrichment in return for missile technology and equipment, in violation of the agreement on this question between the United States and North Korea. And it has just been revealed that Iran has decided to accelerate the completion of its first nuclear reactor, and will simultaneously, with Russian assistance, press ahead with the development of a second reactor of this kind. The US government has strenuously objected to the construction of both reactors, which will produce enriched uranium as a by-product. Furthermore, Israel has just alleged that Iraqi scientists are assisting Libya to develop a nuclear reactor. After Iraq, not merely Saudi Arabia, but also Iran, Pakistan and Libya will find themselves the focus of increasingly close American attention, further inflaming hostility between Muslim states and the US in particular.

Notwithstanding the post 11 September anthrax scare, the Bush administration has continued to deadlock the negotiation of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC). These negotiations will never achieve a result without the support of the United States, the major producer of substances falling within the jurisdiction of that treaty. And the recent US takeover of the multilateral organisation charged with abolishing all chemical weapons has rendered it incapable of independently and professionally monitoring the verification provisions of the Chemical Weapons Convention. In the meantime there have been well-documented allegations that the US government has been secretly developing its own biological and chemical weapons capability, especially incapacitating nerve agents and genetically modified anthrax.

A dangerous moment

Political, economic and cultural Darwinism has been reborn and legitimised, with an increasing number of states and political groupings encouraged to break out of the straitjacket of multilateral consultation, in favour of the direct and unilateral use of the threat of force, or the actual use of force, in order to achieve political objectives. We have seen various examples of this unsettling trend throughout the international community since 11 September, initially in Israel and the occupied territories and in Chechnya, and even more recently in a remarkable statement by the Prime Minister of Australia, faithfully modelled on statements by the President of the United States and subsequently endorsed by the US Secretary of State, that Australia now reserves the right to intervene militarily in neighbouring and other states in defence of the national interest.

In the present bellicose security environment, more and more governments will feel tempted to secretly acquire WMD of their own, in order to give themselves at least some leverage in the event of an armed attack by a more powerful state (no small state can ever aspire to match the overwhelming conventional superiority of the major league players). And increasing numbers of ideologically-driven militants who see themselves as representing the poor and the downtrodden will feel spurred on by the example of how a previously obscure grouping can dominate the world stage through a single well‑planned act of symbolic terrorism, and will follow in the footsteps of al-Qaida with further assaults on the soft underbelly of the most developed nations.

The world we have known is beginning to spin out of control. An unholy dynamic is now leading into a spiral of threatened and actual violence and counter-violence, terror and counter terror, with the capacity to suddenly and unexpectedly touch on the lives of each and every one of us. If the US strikes against Iraq, the international community could be shaken to its very foundations by a series of unpredictable and explosive chain reactions. Do we, individually and collectively, have the knowledge, the commitment, the power, and the will to call a halt to this process?

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