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Hans Blix – a diplomatic life

Hans Blix ponders his long career in international politics and diplomacy, the state of the Middle East, and why he is an advocate for nuclear power. Interview.

Hans Blix. Hans Blix. The Official CTBTO Photostream. All rights reserved.

52Insights (52): Let’s go back in time in your distinguished career. You were the first western representative to inspect the consequences of the Chernobyl disaster and you were also a central figure in the fiasco in Iraq. Is it easy for you to comprehend the pivotal roles that you’ve played in these huge moments in history? What are your feelings when you look back on those events?

Hans Blix (HB): It’s been a privilege to take part in, and play a role, sometimes important, sometimes less important in a number of events.

Chernobyl of course remains a great disaster. I’m still chairing a committee that meets in London that helps finance reconstruction and sheltering. The Chernobyl accident occurred in 1986 and governments around the world were very angry that the Russians didn’t inform them immediately. We chose to contact them and ask how we could help and they responded by inviting me, with two collaborators to come to Moscow. We were extensively briefed about the accident and then taken to Chernobyl in a helicopter to see the black smoke. We tried to learn as much as we could and then we gave a big press conference in Moscow about what we had seen and learnt. It was exciting just to be there because this was when perestroika was beginning and we know that there had been discussions about whether we should be invited or not. They had some fear I suppose about what we would say because we were free to say what we wanted. It turned out that the Russian population was thrilled by what we were saying as independent observers because they didn’t believe what their government was telling them. Of course things were pretty bad but their fear had been that it was even worse. So that was sort of a victory for glasnost in Russia.

What we did following Chernobyl, apart from this huge conference, was that we managed to have an international conference at which two conventions were drafted, one on the duty of states to inform the world about accidents that happen and the other one about the co-operation to allay the consequences of accidents.

52: If we fast forward to the nineties when you experienced your first major brush with the US and Iraq. You were first deployed to check for the possibility of nuclear weapons. This was when the IAEA was asked to investigate and the special committee – the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) was set up. Talk us through that period.

HB: Yes, it was a rather painful affair. In Washington we had enemies who said that the IAEA had failed to discover what Iraq had been doing and that we were incompetent. They wanted to have a new body set up and exclude the IAEA from the investigation. Well luckily this didn’t happen, but at the same time it’s clear to this day that the State Department succeeded partly in their attempts to take control of the whole inspection. They did so through the UNSCOM commission and we had many frictions with them. In at least one of the major missions that we had, we discovered that members of our team were all appointed in UNSCOM. Then towards the end of the nineties, this bubble burst and UNSCOM was revealed to be an instrument of the CIA. At the end of 1999 the Security Council decided to set up the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) which I came out of retirement to become chairman for.

52: We talked with a professor of political science at MIT, Stephen Van Evera and he made a very interesting point. He said that a lot of very successful political action is based around the construction of theatre. Did those periods ever feel like theatre to you?

HB: The theatrics that you referred to was not anything that we tried to engineer. We did not seek such theatrics. But nevertheless we had the world’s attention. I made two speeches at the Security Council which were printed in the New York Times. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many cameras at the Security Council as when I was there at that time.

I think it’s simple. I regarded myself and my colleagues as international civil servants. The governments ultimately make the decisions but they must have the most honest dossier in front of them as possible. They claim that that’s what they want, though in reality they don’t always, and they may try to influence the civil servants in their biases. UNSCOM In the nineties was just a very large remote control, but we were not. We were there to find the truth. In the autumn of 2002, having seen how the Iraqis had closed their doors to inspectors, I too suspected there might be biological and chemical missiles. I thought they may very well be hiding something. But nothing nuclear. We were pretty sure there was nothing nuclear.

As we went along with our inspections we began to realise we couldn’t prove anything. You can’t prove that something doesn’t exist, but you can get a strong impression, and it gradually became less deeply believed that there was anything to find. And we reported that to the Security Council.

52: And you were the person that held the potential answer to that one important question – did they have weapons of mass destruction or not?

HB: Many people now say that we were right when we reported there were no weapons. But we never said that. We said, we’ve carried out several hundred inspections, we have been to dozens of sites that you recommended, and we have not found anything in these places. We didn’t say there can’t be anything. There could have been.

52: How much contact did you have with characters such as Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, George Bush and Condoleezza Rice?

HB: I met Bush and Cheney once and that was unpleasant, but my relations with Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell were fine. And as I wrote in my book, I warned both Blair and Rice very strongly, even more strongly than I had made the point at the Security Council.

52: The intelligence complex itself is fascinating and such an integral part of your career, you’ve gone on record as saying there is as much information as disinformation. What do you mean by that?

HB: I spend perhaps three hours a day reading newspapers and various blogs and when you take in information from various quarters you try to find a picture that you believe. The fact is that the media is dominated from information from the western side. I read the New York Times every morning and I think it’s very good, I couldn’t live without it. That and the Financial Times, The Guardian and a few others, but they too have their biases. And you need to get information from the other side.  You need to go to the sources. I think I get a better picture of the world this way but it’s not easy.

52: You seem very diplomatic in the way you speak even though you have gone on record several times saying, “I am of the firm view that [the Iraq invasion in 2003] was an illegal war.” Yet you also say “the Americans had a legitimate standpoint”. Looking back on it now were you comfortable with your position?

HB: Well I think it’s true that international civil servants, even up to the secretary general of the UN are invariably courteous to their bosses. I remember when Colin Powell came to talk to the Security Council, he had a telephone conversation that he had bugged and which he played to the whole council. I asked myself, well what is the proof that these are authentic? We were sceptical but we were also very courteous in the way we questioned these things.

Another example is when Mohamed ElBaradei insisted that the IAEA should be given a copy of the alleged agreement between Iraq and Niger about the import of yellowcake uranium, and that document had been cited by both Bush and the US congress. Eventually the IAEA were given a copy and it took them less than a day to establish that it was a fake audit. When Mohamed came to the Security Council the way he phrased it was that the document was not authentic. Everybody in the Security Council were well educated enough to know that this meant it was forged, but I think the media might well have reported it differently if he had actually used the word fake. That’s a much tougher word. And I think you find traces of that sort of thing in my speeches, some deliberately courteous language.

This is where I stand. I think it would have been wiser if they had decided to delay an invasion. Our inspections could have continued and wouldn’t have yielded anything and then I don’t think they would have then been able to invade Iraq.

"I’m asking myself the question now, which was worse, Saddam or anarchy?"

52: If we look at some more recent events, were you prepared at all when the Arab Spring happened in 2011? What were your thoughts when all of that was taking place?

HB: When the Arab spring came I was as elated as anyone else and it was only gradually that I began to feel that the experience of Iraq was one that was repeating itself. I was in favour of the intervention in Libya. In distinction to Iraq I felt that it was the Security Council’s decision. America and the west took advantage of the situation, the Russians are right in that, but nevertheless I felt at the time that there was a risk of a massacre in Benghazi so I was in favour of it. I am now becoming more sceptical about the possibility of intervening positively in these situations. I’m asking myself the question now, which was worse, Saddam or anarchy? That was the choice. Some people say that we didn’t stay long enough at the job, but is it even really possible for an outsider to plant democracy in a place like Iraq? In Libya it’s failing miserably and it has failed in Egypt and it’s very shaky in Tunisia.

These things have to act out over time. We still have the Castro’s in Cuba. In North Korea we see a regime that is absolutely horrendous. It’s a sad observation but these things take a long time.

52: In terms of what the future looks like, I think a lot of people feel it’s a precarious one. As an advocate for peace, what does peace look like to you in the future?

HB: I’m optimistic. We have come a long way in terms of achieving peace. The UN is now in its seventieth year. We can now add what I call MED, Mutual Economic Dependence to the things we already had as an assurance against war, mainly MAD, Mutually Assured Destruction, which arose after the Cuban affair in 1962.

Yes, the situation is terrible in Syria, it is terrible in the Ukraine and Sudan and many other places but we used to fight each other here among the Nordics too. The Swiss and the Danes and the UK as well. Now because of the European Union, you cannot have these wars in Europe. You also cannot have a war between US and Mexico, or a war in South America, I’m pretty sure of that.

In terms of worrying about the future I would be more concerned about Asia. There are two giants out there, China and India. They have a common border in the Himalayas and they both sit on horrendous weapons. Nevertheless I’m still somewhat optimistic that diplomacy can triumph.

Looking at the future I’m more worried about global warming. I feel desperately unhappy that we’ve not been able to persuade people that nuclear power has tremendous potential. It’s not totally without risk, but on the other hand nothing is. I feel sorry that for all these years I’ve spent on improving nuclear safety and efficiency and now even in Sweden there is talk about closing four nuclear power plants prematurely. And Germany is closing all of theirs. I am passionately interested in nuclear energy and its connection with the environment. I’m convinced that nuclear power has a potentially vast role, though we have not yet succeeded in allaying people’s fear of radiation. So energy and the environment are focal points and I’ve worked at improving peaceful relations and developing international law for that purpose.

Paris and COP21 will be very far from achieving what we need today, but it will mark progress compared to where we have been. The gravity is beginning to sink in. Big business seems to have come further than many governments. More record temperatures, storms, floods, heat waves, melting glaciers and dying polar bears combined with alarming reports about inadequate restraint in CO2 emissions will create greater global readiness for action. The media, who are the only ones thriving on disaster, will help in this process.

52:You’re in favour of nuclear energy but you’ve also been seen as a public figure standing against nuclear weapons. Do you think this stance may appear to some people paradoxical?

HB: Yes I think it does. I have friends who are against nuclear power. They hate nuclear, peaceful or not. And I say for god’s sake aren’t you using X-rays occasionally? I’ve given lots of speeches on this but I think in the long run what will win for nuclear power is the good reliable functioning of it without any accidents. Accidents like Chernobyl and Fukushima shake the whole world, and that sets us back. If we hadn’t had Fukushima I think we would have a great deal more nuclear power stations now.

The Official CTBTO Photostream. Hans Blix. The Official CTBTO Photostream. All rights reserved.I’m in favour of all research into alternative ways to reduce carbon emissions but nuclear is there now. I’m chairing an International Advisory Board in Abu Dhabi and I’m going there next week. They are building four reactors of 1,400 megawatts each so that’s no small thing. "Looking at the future I’m more worried about global warming. I feel desperately unhappy that we’ve not been able to persuade people that nuclear power has tremendous potential."

52: What are your thoughts on the chaos and turmoil around Syria and its wider implications for the stability of global politics?

HB: I think the US is right – and has been right – to bomb ISIS targets. Legally, I see the bombings as permissible ‘collective self-defence’ at the demand of Iraq that is attacked by ISIS from Syrian territory with Syria unwilling or unable to prevent the attacks. 

Perhaps the US has not worried much about the legality, but the UK parliament was at first reluctant to allow British planes to bomb ISIS in Syria. Tragically, much of the war on the ground is a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

In my view it would be unwise for the US or other western states to send their ground troops to fight ISIS. Even though the Arab world is opposed to ISIS, it does not want to see American or other western troops again on ground. Nor is the US public keen to see US boots on the ground. There remains to try to destroy ISIS by ‘choking’ it – deny it resources by bombing oil transported to be sold, weapons deliveries, preventing money being transferred to ISIS from rich sources in the Arab world. So far, this has not been effective, but with the exception of the bombing it does not seem to have been carried out on a large scale yet.

I think Obama has been right in resisting the ever louder voices of the many US hawks who feel the world sheriff is mandated to send boots on the ground. He and Kerry, I believe, seek to get all fighting parties, except ISIS, to sit around a table and agree on a ceasefire. Kerry hates war. They want to work out some scheme for power sharing. Assad personally would withdraw, but the Alawite regime, supported by Iran and Russia, would take part. It still represents considerable military power. Now that the Iran deal does not demand all their efforts perhaps Obama and Kerry can take on this bundle of snakes.

52: Hans, our last question to you would be what would you like your legacy to be?

HB: To have contributed to a more honest and competent international civil service. We need an organisation based on professionalism and truth seeking. As I’ve often said, I admire those who seek the truth and I’m a little worried about those who have it.

This interview was originally published on the 52 Insights blog on December 17, 2015.

All images courtesy of Hans Blix and The Official CTBTO Photostream. 

About the authors

Swedish diplomat Hans Blix is the man most famous for leading the investigation that failed to find any evidence of WMD’s in Iraq. One of the first on the scene as the Chernobyl disaster unfolded in 1986, he later worked for the International Atomic Energy Agency under George Bush Sr. in 1991 and again in 2003 with George Bush Jr.


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