SWF News Team member Jeremy Rose speaks to Richard Butler, the executive chairman of the United Nations Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM), which is charged with ridding Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction.
Rose: Would you comment on the recent resignation of U.N. Assistant General and head of the UN humanitarian mission in Iraq, Denis Halliday. According to reports he left in protest at what he said was the incompatibility of the sanctions regime with the U.N. Charter, and the terrible human cost it was imposing on ordinary Iraqis?
Butler: His first point that they are in contradiction of the charter is bullshit. It is simply without foundation. Secondly, sanctions have been very difficult for the Iraqi people. And there are a lot of people looking at the issue of sanctions as an instrument to bring about conformity to the law, and trying to refine them to hurt the leaderships with bank accounts in Switzerland, not the ordinary people.
The third point I have to make to you [is] that Iraq has been brilliantly successful in spreading, in a rather propagandist way, the notion that sanctions have been awful for them. But at the same time two things are true. One, the leadership is awash with money, they have everything they want, including money to buy military materials. Secondly, that they have always had in their hands the key to get out of sanctions. And it's called disarmament. And they have made this disarmament job last eight years when it should have been over in one year.
Rose: Surely, the point is that the people of Iraq don't choose their leaders, and if people such as Denis Halliday who have been criticizing, and UNICEF who claim that 5,000-6,000 children are dying every month as a result of sanctions are right…(interrupted)
Butler: If they're right?
Rose: But aren't we the civilized side of the coin. It's not surprising that a dictator like Saddam Hussein doesn't care about his own people?
Butler: But where does that leave us? No it's not surprising. Does that lead us to a position where we should accept or follow that? I mean, look, Iraq sends out reams of propaganda every day about how this is killing them and how this is a wicked thing being done to them by the world community. I tell you it is being done to them by their own leader. He could have turned that key.
Rose: But again, we could have turned that key?
Butler: No, no, years ago. By telling us the truth about his biological weapons program. That man has traded the welfare of 22 million people for his preference to have a biological weapons program.
Rose: And to stay in power?
Butler: Different issue. No one has ever said, there's nothing in the resolution that says he should be removed from power. Nothing.
Rose: I believe [secretary of state and ambassador to the U.N.] Madeleine Albright has said that?
Butler: That's her problem. There is nothing in the resolution of the Security Council that says that Saddam Hussein doesn't have the right to be the president of Iraq. All they say is that he has no right to have weapons of mass destruction and the minute they are got rid of us sanctions will go. So he has had that key in his hand for eight years. I tell you he has chosen to have a biological weapons program rather than the welfare of his people.
Rose: I'm sure you are familiar with the metaphor of shooting down an airliner to punish the hijackers?
Butler: It isn't like that at all.
Rose: If the figures of 750,000 children dead and so on are right. Why is that metaphor not apt?
Butler: Because the hijacker is not someone standing behind an innocent pilot with a pistol to his head. He is the person flying the plane. At any time he could have turned it around and landed it safely.
Rose: So you're saying the threat of Saddam to the rest of the world is such that we simply could not risk relieving the pressure for fear of what he might do?
Butler: I'm saying nothing of the kind. I don't know how you extrapolate that. I'm saying that it is really simple. They put themselves into the history books of the U.N., by being the only member state in 53 years of history to invade, and seek to absorb, a fellow member state of the U.N. No one else has ever done that. There have been breakdowns, cross-border disputes, coup d'etats, etceteras. No one except Iraq has ever simply sought to absorb a fellow member state of the U.N., which is utterly contrary to the charter of the U.N. to article one of the charter Number one.
When he [Saddam] was expelled from that, the U.N. put on him some very heavy-weight law in respect to the breathtaking array of weapons of mass destruction that he had accumulated. Including weapons that he had promised under treaties to never seek to accumulate. So the man behaved as a total outlaw.
Rose: I absolutely accept that the man is a total outlaw. What I don't accept is that the U.N. can absolve itself completely from the effects of those sanctions? Because they are dealing with a man without scruples and his population is suffering for that?
Butler: Whose fault is that?
Rose: Certainly it's his fault, but if there is any possibility to relieve…(interrupted)
Butler: I've already said that. People are very concerned about this and I'm amongst them. And I've been working quite hard at headquarters with others to try to design sanctions that wouldn't hit the ordinary people, but would hit the leadership.
Rose: Could you give me a bit of an insight into how those might work?
Butler: Swiss bank accounts and things like that. I think that's the future. I think the future in the Security Council will be more sophisticated designs of sanctions to try and mitigate the effects on innocent people, and to target those who really are the criminals. And I think that is the future. And I hope it comes soon. But as far as this piece of law is concerned it is irreducibly true that the law is heavy. I've said that in public many times. This is very heavy law. It was put there because of the gravity of what Saddam did and the seriousness of the weapons situation. But from day one he was given the key into his hands to get out of it.
Let me illustrate this for you. We had been doing this for eight years, right. The first resolution on disarmament called for Iraq to declare its weapons of mass destruction within 15 days. The Security Council had in mind such a short time frame. Fifteen days for declarations, six months of work to get rid of the stuff. The Security Council had in mind that it would be over in six months. The structure of my commission, as originally conceived of, was created as a temporary body. They had in mind it would be over in six months. And why it's taken eight years is because he has made it so.
Rose: I would like to raise the question of Israel. Israel is generally accepted to be the only possessor of nuclear weapons in the region, and has also occupied territories against the wishes of most of the members of the United Nations, and through Arab eyes that must be seen as hypocrisy?
Butler: There's widespread talk about what is routinely called the double-standard in the Middle East. And, I am deeply aware of the point. And it makes our good work of trying to get rid of the prohibited weapons of Iraq much harder than it should be. That's all I can say about that.
Rose: Would you support some form of pressure on Israel to disarm?
Butler: I won't talk about it further. There is a paragraph in our main piece of law that says that the disarmament of Iraq should be a step towards a wider development of the Middle East as a zone free of weapons of mass-destruction. And I frequently refer to that when I speak to people. I frequently say we are singling out Iraq because of what it did. But it's actually a bigger picture than that.
Rose: The sharing of intelligence information by UNSCOM with Israel must have made that even more difficult?
Butler: What sharing?
Rose: I thought you had said that in an interview with the BBC…
Butler: Not with me.
Rose: It must have been Scott Ritter. Did that sharing not take place?
Butler: Israel did what 50 member states have done, which is give us information, and that's legal, because the decision of the council on Iraq requested all member states to give us all possible assistance.
Rose: I thought his [Ritter's] assertion was that UNSCOM had given Israel information?
Butler: Ah…Not to my knowledge.
Rose: So there's been no spy film shared?
Butler: Not to my knowledge.