Don’t Kick the Inspectors Out of the U.N.

By Richard Butler, the head of the United Nations Special Commission to disarm Iraq from 1997 to 1999 (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 29/06/07):

TODAY, the United States and Britain will ask the United Nations Security Council to abolish the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission — the organization it created to oversee the elimination of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.

On the surface, the proposal appears to be good housekeeping. After all, the work of the commission seems to be done. Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction. Why prop up an entity that requires millions of dollars a year to run? (The money comes from Iraqi oil.)

In fact, it’s not so simple. Saddam Hussein’s purported possession of weapons of mass destruction was at the heart of the American and British justification for invading Iraq five years ago. We now know that those claims were false, and in some instances fabricated.

Actually, we knew that then, too. Yes, Saddam Hussein had demonstrated a deep attachment to nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. United Nations inspectors collected ample evidence of that attachment.

But those of us involved with United Nations inspections — the group I headed was the predecessor of the imperiled weapons commission — also knew that virtually all of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction had been removed. This judgment was confirmed by the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei.

Which is why we would not be wrong to be suspicious of the action proposed by the United States and Britain, which overruled the judgment of the United Nations in their decision to go to war in Iraq. Their decision demonstrates the danger of substituting national intelligence for the assessments assembled by an independent, international body. While individual governments will always track and analyze weaponry, their own national conclusions can never form a credible basis for action by the international community, especially for enforcement actions.

So what should we do? Closing the commission creates an opportunity to create a standing office of weapons monitoring and verification at the United Nations. This body would provide the Security Council, member states and the secretary general advice and analysis constantly needed in the world of proliferation. It would also conduct some weapons inspections beyond those carried out under the individual weapons of mass destruction treaties.

This is not a new idea. Twelve years ago, a committee led by McGeorge Bundy, national security adviser to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, issued a report for the United Nations Association of the United States describing the need for such a body. Two years ago, the Canadian Center for Treaty Compliance, led by Prof. Trevor Findlay, called for a standing United Nations verification body. This would work, cost little and have potentially great benefit.

Opponents of this idea will say that objectivity in this field is in the eye of the beholder. They will also say that no United Nations finding would have deterred the invasion of Iraq.

But it is that very experience that confirms that the world needs such a body. What’s more, we should know by now that no single state, no matter how powerful, can prevent the spread of dangerous weapons alone. International cooperation is essential and that must include continuing monitoring and verification of nonproliferation obligations.

If the Security Council decides to abolish the Iraq-centered monitoring commission, it should then create a permanent entity to keep a global eye on weapons of mass destruction.