US engineers the removal of the head of the international chemical weapons body

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Flexing its financial muscle, the United States succeeded on April 22 in removing the chairman of the agency charged with ridding the world of chemical weapons. The dismissal of Jose Mauricio Bustani, a Brazilian diplomat who had been the director-general of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) since its inception, was the result of a US-led campaign to force him to step down. Its success is cauing worldwide concern about Washington’s ability to influence the fate of officials in international organizations who criticise its policies. This is the first time that the head of a UN agency has been deposed in the middle of his term of office.

At the first session of the special OPCW meeting on April 21, Bustani warned that his fate was a hint of worse to come. He told delegates: “The decisions to be taken here over the next few days will leave an indelible mark on the history of international relations,” adding: “The choices that you will make during this session…will determine whether genuine multilateralism will survive or whether it will be replaced by unilateralism in a multilateral disguise.” He then left. “I clearly made some people in Washington very uncomfortable because I was too independent,” Bustani told the press. “They want somebody more obedient.”

The US-tabled motion to terminate Bustani’s contract as director-general was carried by 48 countries to 7; 43 abstained. John Gee, Australian deputy director-general, is acting head of the OPCW until Bustani’s replacement is named. US officials said that Washington hopes the organisation will approve a new director-general shortly, and would welcome a nominee from Latin America.

Most European countries voted for the US motion, except France, which abstained. Many countries accepted the US move reluctantly, reasoning that it was better to remove Bustani than have the US pull out and the organisation collapse. The US is the organisation’s largest donor, responsible for 22 percent of the OPCW’s $60 million annual budget. Washington had threatened to cut off funding until Bustani left. A US funding freeze would have plunged the OPCW, which is already in financial difficulty, into financial crisis, and perhaps closed it.

The large number of abstentions shows broad apprehensions over Washington’s manoeuvres, which comprise a precedent that might lead to future attacks on other international bodies and officials if they refuse to toe Washington’s line.

Among the countries that voted against the motion were Russia, China, Brazil, Cuba, Iran and Mexico. Hadi Farajvand, Iran’s representative, described Bustani’s removal as “a major blow to multilateralism,” adding: “what we lost during this process was the confidence in the independence of the director-general.” Mexico called Washington’s manoeuvres “illegal” because there is no provision in the OPCW rules for dismissal of the director-general. Ambassador Luiz Augusto De Araujo, the head of Brazil’s delegation, said, that the US’s move would impede efforts to rid the world of chemical weapons.

The OPCW came into existence on 29 April 1997 to oversee the implementation of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which bans the development, manufacture, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons. The CWC obligates states “for the sake of all mankind to exclude completely the possibility of the use of chemical weapons.” It provides a legal foundation to achieve four principal objectives: the elimination of chemical weapons and the capacity to produce them; the verification of non-proliferation through routine and unannounced inspections; international assistance and protection in the event of the use or threat of use of chemical weapons; and international cooperation in the peaceful use of chemistry. The OPCW conducts inspections of military and industrial facilities to guard against proliferation. It monitors dual-use chemicals, which could be misused as precursors of chemical weapons. Under Bustani’s leadership the number of signatories to the CWC (and membership in the OPCW) has risen from 87 to 145. The OPCW has conducted more than 1,000 inspections at both military and civilian sites. Its inspectors have administered the dismantling of 2 million chemical weapons and two thirds of the world’s chemical-weapons facilities.

Bustani was re-elected unanimously for another four-year term in May 2000. That he was re-elected a year before his first term was due to expire is a tribute to his exceptional and remarkable record. Last year Colin L Powell, US secretary of state, congratulated Bustani on the OPCW’s “very impressive” achievements.

But in January the US state department tried to pressure the Brazilian government to recall Bustani, citing his “management style.” On February 28 American officials approached Bustani, demanding that he resign and not make their request public. The request constituted a breach of the CWC, which states: “the director-general …shall not seek or receive instructions from any government.” The New York Times quoted Bustani as saying: “They said they did not like my management style, but they said they were not prepared to elaborate” (April 23, 2002). When it became clear that Bustani refused to give in to the US, Washington launched a campaign to engineer his dismissal, accusing him, without evidence (the usual American style of accusation), of “financial mismanagement”, “demoralization” of his staff, “bias”, taking on “ill-considered initiatives” outside his mandate, and what a senior US official described in an interview as “impetuous and arbitrary” decisions (The Christian Science Monitor, April 24, 2002). Washington’s battery of accusations against Bustani does not stand the test of scrutiny. A recent audit of the OPCW’s accounts revealed no financial misconduct, and staff morale is reportedly higher than at any other similar international organisation.

As the first stage of its campaign to dismiss Bustani, the US state department circulated a long paper among OPCW member-states that accused him of confrontational and abrasive conduct, and poor administrative and financial management. Washington also sent envoys to several capitals to secure votes for the motion to fire Bustani. The list of American “grievances” includes allegations that Bustani had taken “ill-considered initiatives” without consulting the US. These include efforts to persuade Iraq to join the OPCW, which would make Iraq subject to its inspections. This initiative angered the Americans: it would have resolved the deadlock over Iraq’s refusal to submit weapons of mass-destruction facilities to inspections by the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC). This would deprive Washington of its main pretext for war against Iraq.

The state department also accused Bustani of threatening to hold inspections in five unspecified countries “for political ends.” The document gave no details, but one of these five countries is believed to be the US itself. The OPCW had raised the Americans’ ire by trying to examine facilities in the US with the same strictness as facilities elsewhere. The American government and military-industrial complex are firmly opposed to intrusive inspections inside the US. Uneasy over the OPCW’s scrupulous even-handedness, the US refused to allow weapons-inspectors from countries it regards as hostile to its interests to inspect its facilities. It also restricted the inspections to certain parts of the sites it gave inspectors access to. The US congress has also given the president authority to block unannounced inspections of chemical-weapons facilities and to ban inspectors from removing samples of chemicals for analysis, thus making the inspections useless.

The state department also complained of Bustani’s alleged “habit of refusing to consult” with member states, such as when he proposed anti-terrorism measures after September 11 without consulting the US first. The OPCW had responded that Bustani’s authority does not include the power to order inspections at will. It also described his anti-terrorism proposals as “a responsible action on his part in regard to the concerns being expressed” by member states. On September 25 last year Bustani suggested to the 41-country OPCW executive council that the organisation “is in a position to make a considerable contribution in the struggle against chemical terrorism.” He described the OPCW as a “powerful, efficient and effective tool to stem the terrorist use of chemicals and to respond to the threat of their use.” He called for “universal membership” in the OPCW in order to “deny ‘safe havens’ to any terrorist group planning the use of chemical weapons.” Obviously this would undercut Washington’s efforts to justify its policies around the world as counter-terrorism.

In March Bustani survived a US-led no-confidence vote. After the vote he issued a statement: “It is time to set priorities as they are perceived by all of you and not just by a few so-called ‘major players.’ This is why I refuse to resign under pressure from a handful of member states.”

Bustani’s removal raises serious concerns about US unilateralism, especially shortly after the removal of the head of another international organisation at Washington’s behest. Only a week earlier intense US pressure had succeeded in bringing about the dismissal of Robert Watson, a British-born American climatologist who is outspoken on the dangers of global warming, from his position as the chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the UN climate-control advisory body. Watson is a strong advocate of the Kyoto Protocol, an international pact to reduce industrial nations’ net emissions of greenhouse gases. Washington has refused to sign up to Kyoto on the plea that it would undermine US economic growth. One American oil company, ExxonMobil, was unhappy with Watson and had sent a memo to the White House complaining about him.

It recently transpired that US deputy defence secretary Paul D Wolfowitz had earlier asked the CIA to investigate Hans Blix, the Swedish diplomat who currently heads UNMOVIC, when he served as head of the IAEA (the International Atomic Energy Agency), in an attempt to undermine him. The CIA report concluded that Blix had conducted inspections of Iraq’s declared nuclear power plants “fully within the parameters he could operate” between 1981 and 1997, a conclusion that made Wolfowitz “hit the ceiling” (Washington Post, April 15, 2002). Baghdad has recently signalled its readiness to allow UNMOVIC inspectors into Iraq, and Blix has hinted that, if Iraq cooperates, he will be prepared to issue a report certifying that Iraq is free of weapons of mass-destruction. This will pave the way for the end of sanctions, and torpedo Washington’s efforts to go to war against Iraq.

At stake, then, is the autonomy of the few relatively independent international bodies. One report is that on April 19 the US ambassador to the OPCW organised an illegal meeting of the American staff, in which he told them that the US will “screw the organisation” if it does not get its way. Clearly the entire system of international treaties, cooperation and organisations is in danger of falling prey to disdainful and arrogant US cowboy-style unilateralism and bullying.

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