Why Richard Butler went to the Sydney peace rally Interview with Richard Butler, former UN chief weapons inspector, In the National Interest
21 February 2003
In the National Interest
Australian Broadcasting Corporation
On this program, broadcast on Sunday 16 February 2003, former UN Chief Weapons Inspector Australian Richard Butler tells host Terry Lane why he has decided to join public demonstrations against a US-led war in Iraq.
Terry Lane: The United Nations Chief Weapons Inspector, Dr Hans Blix has presented his report on Iraq to the United Nations, and while he hasn't found any smoking guns, he is unimpressed with the level of disclosure that he's getting from the Iraqi regime. But he says that things have improved, even if the co-operation falls short of being unconditional.
On the other hand, in delivering his report, Dr Blix rejected some of the evidence that Colin Powell had presented to the Security Council on February 5th. The inspectors say that they have found no evidence of nuclear activity so far. Dr Blix says that inspectors have made progress and they want more time. France, Germany, Russia, China and some other nations are ready to give them more time; the Americans, and presumably the Australian government, are not.
Well to cast an experienced eye over the Blix report this morning I spoke to the former Head of the United Nations Weapons Inspectors in Iraq, Richard Butler. And the reason for doing it this morning, I should point out if you're listening to this program on Monday, I'm talking about Sunday morning, the reason I recorded this interview with Richard Butler before the program went to air, was that he was off to the No War Rally in Sydney, and I asked him why.
Richard Butler: Terry, two reasons, one large, one smaller. The larger reason is that I believe that there is a very real prospect now that the United States of America will attack Iraq without the approval of the UN Security Council. That is contrary to international law, it should not happen, and I believe the consequences of such an action could be possibly catastrophic. I also finally believe that war is almost certain not to be the solution to any of the problems that are posed by Saddam Hussein, and they are real problems. The smaller reason, not so small for we Australians, is, I don't know how to put this as simply as possible.... Let me just say that I'm sick to death of the lies that we're being told about this by the Prime Minister of Australia. I heard him again this morning on a national television interview, and it was shocking, it was astonishing to hear him duck and weave, including by the way, say that in answer to a question about the possible deaths of Iraqi women and children, that something broadly like, 'Well, you know, that was unfortunate but it was their fault that Saddam Hussein was their president, and that's how it goes'. Astonishing, and I'm really deeply distressed by his position.
Terry Lane: When you say 'lies', specifically what lies?
Richard Butler: That there's been no decision taken, the continual insistence to the Australian people that our military is just there by way of preparedness and so on. No-one in this country believes him, and nor should they. And I have reason to believe that this is simply not true, it's classic John Howard where he always splits these straws. He says no decision has been taken, meaning that there is a notional piece of paper, right, that he as Prime Minister will actually sign off on, let's say the day before the war starts, or immediately after it starts, and that's what he's referring to. But the very idea that our troops and our government haven't been committed to this with the United States for months now in all practical purposes, is just to completely lie to the Australian people. Some of the people involved, some of the military people, have already made clear that they've been involved in planning for this with the United States for a long time. It's just, to split those straws and to seek to dramatically mislead the people is nonsense. I want to know what battle plans does he understand the United States will use in a unilateral war? We hear it leaked in Washington that there'll be thousands of Cruise missiles and bombs used in the first 48 hours. There's another paper been leaked that says the United States may be prepared to use nuclear weapons. Has John Howard considered that? Does he want Australian troops involved in a nuclear war? Why hasn't he discussed this with the Australian people? He's clearly discussed it with the President of the United States, but not with the Australian people.
He says he's not driven by polls. Nonsense. He's been driven by polls all his life. If he were a serious man in a democracy, he would take this issue to the Australian people, he would not take refuge and say 'This is an executive government decision' like Bob Hawke did in 1991 with the Gulf War. When Bob Hawke did that in 1991 it was an enforcement action authorised by the United Nations under international law. It is not comparable to what John Howard is doing now. Why doesn't he take it to the Australian people and say, a referendum, 'Do you want Australia to go to war against Iraq with the United States without UN approval?' I wager you he would lose that comprehensively.
Terry Lane: I suppose that's why he doesn't do it.
Richard Butler: Well this is not good enough. He didn't get a mandate from the Australian people at the last election to go to war, or possibly a nuclear war with the United States. He got no such mandate for that. What happens in between elections is that when great issues come along the people should be consulted, and what he's saying is that he doesn't care about public opinion because he's going to do 'what is right for the Australian people'. This is obfuscatory nonsense of the first order, and it's time that people stood up and told him so, and that's why I'm going to stand up in public today and say so.
Terry Lane: Let's have a look at the Blix report that was delivered this weekend to the United Nations. One of the things that I'd like you to comment on is the changing tone between Dr Blix's interim report in January and his final report this weekend.
Richard Butler: Well it's not a final report.
Terry Lane: No, it's not a final report, I shouldn't say final report.
Richard Butler: But I think the question is a fabulous question, because I stayed up through the night and watched it all with very great care, and one of the things that leapt off the page was precisely that change. On the 27th January, he drew a distinction between superficial co-operation by Iraq and a fundamental decision that they need to take, which is to give up their weapons. He said the superficial co-operation was fine, but it was perfectly clear to him that that fundamental decision had not been taken. Subsequently he said to Baghdad, 'You know it's five minutes to midnight. You really have a problem here, you've got to take that decision', and now in his report of two days ago, he never addressed that issue. He said that co-operation has further improved, but he walked right around the issue of whether or not Iraq has taken the fundamental decision it needs to take if it's to avoid these terrible consequences and that is to lay out the weapons, to give them up, and his choice to remain silent on that I suspect, was driven by his knowledge that if he said 'I still don't detect that decision having been taken' that that might be seized by the Americans and perhaps by others as saying, 'Well that's it, we must go to war'. I think if that was his motive, I think that's slightly to be regretted because really he shouldn't take political decisions. I'm well aware of that, I was in the identical position 4 years ago. He should just basically address the issues of the weapons and in that context, he did. He said 'There are four categories of weapons, or three categories of weapons: missiles, chemical and biological, and Iraq's declaration of the 12,000 page document, which remained efficient and weapons remain unaccounted for. But he didn't say that last word and what this means is that 'I still do not detect in Iraq a real willingness to get this job done.' He walked around it in that sense, and in one way I can understand that but on another level it is notable. You see, you noticed it, that he didn't address the same issues the second time round.
Terry Lane: As you say, he is in a difficult position.
Richard Butler: Oh, very difficult, very difficult. He has my complete sympathy.
Terry Lane: He almost now holds the starter's gun for a war, which must be an appalling position to be in.
Richard Butler: Well I hope he doesn't think that. That was what was said of me in 1998 and I refused to accept that, I kept saying to people 'I will report on Iraq's weapons status, don't lumber me with this business about war, I don't have any control over that, and I wouldn't want it; I'm a disarmament person, not a war person'. And I told the Security Council the truth then, that Iraq still had weapons unaccounted for and 24 hours later, or 48 hours later, Operation Desert Fox started where the Americans and British bombed Iraq for a few days. And I tell you honestly, Terry, I was sitting in the Security Council when news came that that operation had started, and I swear to God, may God strike me down, you know, I thought, Oh my God, they've done it. I never really believed they necessarily would, you know.
Terry Lane: One thing that's come to light in the past week is that Iraq has rockets that can deliver chemical weapons, or biological weapons, and these rockets exceed the permitted range. Now I wasn't aware of this concept that they could have rockets of a permitted range.
Richard Butler: Oh no, absolutely.
Terry Lane: Well given that Saddam's crimes have mainly been against his own people, why should he be permitted any rockets at all, or any bullets for that matter?
Richard Butler: It's quite simply, and I think this is really important for people to understand. When it was decided to impose both sanctions and the requirement that weapons of mass destruction be removed from Iraq, it was never the intention of the Security Council to deprive Iraq of its basic right as a country under the Charter of the UN to self-defence, and that is a right that every country has. It's Article 51 of the Charter of the UN, and so as a consequence Iraq is entirely permitted to maintain a conventional armed force for national self-defence. There's never been any attempt to remove that. Under sanctions, there has been a restriction upon military imports, but no attempt to deny Iraq the right to self-defence. The disarmament process relates only to its weapons of mass destruction and they are defined as nuclear, chemical, biological and the means to make them, plus any missile that can go longer than 150 kilometres. And that was a figure that was struck in 1991, I think partly as a consequence of the flight path that was used by Iraq when it fired 39 SCUD missiles at Israel during the Gulf War, when Israel was a non-combatant, and it fired some at Saudi Arabia and some in Bahrain as well, and so a calculation was made of what range would bring those countries within sight, given the characteristics of certain missiles and so on. It was a calculation that was made and it came out at 150 kilometres.
Terry Lane: I see you mention nuclear weapons, I see that part of the report that Dr Blix presented to the United Nations says that as far as they can determine there is no nuclear weapons program going on at the moment. Does that accord with your observations?
Richard Butler: Yes, it does. And that was Dr. Mohamed El Baradei, the Head of the International Atomic Energy Agency. The work is split: Blix does missile, chemical and biological, and Dr El Baradei, the International Atomic Energy Agency Director-General, he does nuclear. El Baradei's words were quite carefully chosen, and I know exactly why they were. He said, 'We can detect no signs of a program at present', OK? What he was skirting around was this: it is well-known that Iraq has striven for over ten years to make a nuclear explosive device and it's known exactly how it was trying to do it. You know, under my watch we saw bits of it, and took bits of it away but Iraq always refused to yield its bomb design to us and some key components. But its main problem was always to make the core material for a nuclear weapon, either highly enriched uranium or plutonium, and what it was working on. And what Dr Blix is saying is that the current inspectors have seen no evidence of further work on fabricating a bomb or in particular, seeking to enrich uranium. But he's said it very carefully because there is still some checking that needs to be done on a possible clandestine uranium enrichment program, possibly using the aluminium tubing that Iraq tried to import illegally just recently and which was interdicted. And there are also some credible intelligence reports that Iraq was trying to buy the uranium outside Iraq and smuggle it in. So Blix is saying, 'We don't see it today, but we need to continue to investigate', is what he was saying.
Terry Lane: There were some pointed criticisms of Colin Powell's evidence presented to the United Nations in Dr Blix's report. That surprised me, that he singled them out specifically and said that this was a misinterpretation of intelligence photographs.
Richard Butler: Yes I was very surprised at that too. I want to be very careful in what I say about Hans, I've known him for years and he's a man of integrity, and I think he's been doing a good job under very difficult circumstances, probably more difficult than even those I encountered, and lord knows I know hard that was in '98, being summoned to Moscow and threatened by the Russians as I was, and so on. But you know, I think Hans has been doing a pretty sterling job. Having said that, (sounds like a long preface doesn't it, but I really mean that sincerely) but I was surprised that he did that. I don't know why he chose that example, and then didn't comment on some of the other things. I watched Powell's testimony very, very carefully and I commented on American television on a couple of bits that I thought were a bit weak. But on the other hand, much of it was very strong, and accorded completely with the intelligence materials I'd seen in the past, and sometimes only in a darkened room behind lock and key. And there he was bringing this stuff out for all the world to see. A lot of it was very accurate and very good. I'm just a bit surprised that Hans Blix chose the example he did to throw into question the Powell testimony when actually I thought it was a very poor choice. And then remaining silent throughout his report on mobile biological laboratories was really a surprising thing. There's very good intelligence evidence that Iraq has been maintaining such laboratories. If so, it's outrageous, it's a serious violation and he's remained silent on that.
Terry Lane: Didn't Dr Blix say in his report that he was concerned that there was still a lot of chemical and biological material unaccounted for. So he wasn't giving them a clean bill.
Richard Butler: No, no, I'm not saying that, but of all the things to choose out of Colin Powell's evidence, he chose one that I thought was contentious. On the point you've just made, this is why I'm a bit astonished that people continue to say 'We need more evidence on Iraq's weapon status'. We actually don't. There are quite significant numbers of chemical weapons that have been unaccounted for since they threw us out four years ago. And the amount of materials imported by Iraq to make biological weapons is just staggering. And they will not give an account of what they've done with those materials. And that's what Hans Blix was referring to, and he's absolutely right to refer to those things. They are serious concerns.
Terry Lane: Now I see that in another place, you have written on a couple of occasions that you believe that Saddam is a criminal who should be tried before the International Court as Milosevic has been tried, but also you're not in favour of regime change or enforced regime change from outside. So how do you get him?
Richard Butler: With difficulty, but my position I suppose at root is this: that the law is important. International law is important here, and we mustn't commit the terrible mistake and folly in our pursuit of a criminal, by ourselves breaking the law. Because then it brings the whole system into disrepute and that is what I fear we face if the Americans go it alone here. We will trash 50 years of post World War II international law and replace it with the rule that might is right, and that's what we've been trying to get away from. Now there is no doubt, no doubt, that Saddam Hussein is highly indictable for crimes against humanity. UN estimates are that his actions have probably caused the deaths of a million people. But even just restricting it to Halabja, which is the village in the north of Iraq which he attacked with chemical weapons in 1988, killing thousands of people, some of the survivors of which still have genetic and mutational type deficiencies. And there's a whole record of this. My point is, rather than have a billion-dollar-a-day war with incalculable consequences, why can't the Security Council use its great power and address international law properly and say, 'We are of the view that this man should be indicted for crimes against humanity, and we demand that he be transported to The Hague, given the best lawyer we can find, and be put on trial for those crimes.' I think it's a terrible failure of the international system that solutions to problems like those posed by Saddam aren't taken in a way that's more highly consistent with international law, rather than turning towards the gun. That's what I propose. Why don't the Americans go back next week after the beating they took in the Security Council two days ago and say, 'OK, OK, we get the point. You guys don't like the idea of war. The French have proposed an extension for a further month, so why don't we discuss this right now in that month, that we stand together and the leaders of the world stand together and make clear to whoever they can make it clear to in Iraq, that you won't go through all of this any further if you hand this man up for trial under international law for the crimes that he has committed.' What would be wrong with that?...
Terry Lane: Well I don't think there'd be anything wrong with it, but of course if the United Nations was going to play that policing role, it would have to have the military force to do it. Can I say, for what it's worth, I'll just tell you what I think about the idea of regime change and you comment on it. I'm not averse to the idea of regime change at all, because if I said that I was, I would be a hypocrite because I welcomed it in Cambodia. Because if you think back to what the Khmer Rouge might have accomplished.
Richard Butler: Terry, I was the lead negotiator for Australia in situ on the Cambodian Peace Agreement, Gareth Evans wrote it, but I was his Ambassador to Thailand then. And I became the first Australian Ambassador to Cambodia as soon as he had that Peace Agreement signed. I know those people intimately and I'm very well aware of that circumstance, and I agree with you completely. It is essential that we have a regime change, and it's essential that we do in Baghdad. But to answer your other question: can that be done by Western intervention into an Arab country to remove an offending head of government? I say, with the greatest of possible danger, and bear in mind that it is absolutely contrary to international law. The international law says Thou shalt not interfere in the domestic affairs of another country. So another means has to be found to enable the Iraqi people to get rid of a man who has so thoroughly oppressed them. It won't solve the problem to move in from outside, it will cause uproar in the world on the principle of 'who is next?' Who will be next that the Americans object to, and then suffer removal by external intervention?
Terry Lane: Well that's the problem, isn't it? Misgivings about American motivations. You can think of many regimes, which ideally should be changed, but because the Americans seem to be so selective in their indignation and so selective in their determination to change regimes, you doubt their motives.
Richard Butler: Well I agree. And it's so important to stick to principles. Let me give you a little example. In the last two weeks, this comes right back to home, in the last two weeks the United States Ambassador to Australia has intervened in the domestic political debate in Australia as a consequence of some very rough things that members of the Labor Party have said about America's intentions and indeed about President Bush. OK? Simon Crean the Leader of the Opposition quite properly called the American Ambassador to his office to tell him that he thought that his intervention was not right. What I want to know is this: Where was the Foreign Minister of Australia? International law and practice with regard to diplomacy expressly forbids actions like those the American Ambassador took. He interfered in our domestic political debate in a way that is simply against the rules, and it was the duty of the Foreign Minister of Australia to summon the American Ambassador and say to him, 'You have done the wrong thing, you must not do it again. If you do, I'll have to consider asking your government to recall you and send us someone else who will behave properly.' But Alexander Downer didn't do that. Why? Because he liked what the American Ambassador said.
Terry Lane: Well it could be because the Prime Minister had already intervened.
Richard Butler: How?
Terry Lane: Well he had criticised, I don't know whether criticised is probably not the right word, but he had certainly expressed grave reservations about the intervention of the American Ambassador.
Richard Butler: Oh right, sorry, I read a newspaper report where John Howard said that he defended the American Ambassador's utterances.
Terry Lane: Well my newspaper report is different.
Richard Butler: Well then, I agree, we should always deal with the facts. If John Howard has done that, I withdraw and apologise, really.
Terry Lane: No, he did. He did quite plainly and forcefully. There wasn't even any vacillating or beating about the bush, he did say that it's not right for an Ambassador to interfere in the domestic politics. I was rather surprised in fact at the forcefulness of his intervention.
Richard Butler: Oh well, then I withdraw and apologise if I'm factually incorrect. I did that in good faith on the basis of a report that I saw where he was supporting the substance of the American Ambassador's comments.
Terry Lane: I'm sure he agreed.
Richard Butler: Well if they have behaved properly, that's fine, but you know, you can hear the point I was going to make. It's important that the rules be upheld, even if sometimes it may not be exactly in your interests of what you want to achieve. But the rules are important, there's a circle of civility through which we should conduct our relations.
Terry Lane: Look, I must let you go so that you can get off to the rally, but I should ask you one last thing: what do you think of the French-German-Russian proposal for permanent weapons inspectors, backed by some UN military force?
Richard Butler: I think that there are good and bad things about it. The military force thing is a slightly bad idea because you'd then have a war between UN guards and Iraqi guards on the ground in certain circumstances. There's no substitute for the country concerned offering proper co-operation. There's a very simple logic there. If Iraq is telling the truth when it says it has no weapons of mass destruction, which I have to record with you, it is not, but if it were telling the truth, then what on earth would be wrong with allowing inspectors open access to manufacturing sites and so on? I think a strengthened inspectorate is a good idea. I don't know that UN guards would change the situation much, or be the answer. But yes, the idea of countries being regularly inspected, this is another thing that people don't understand, or don't know. It's not new. I used to say in Baghdad to the Iraqis, 'for God's sake, you're not being absolutely singled out, there are 160 countries, members of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and they all get regularly inspected'. Inspection to see that people are keeping their obligations is just a normal part of international life now, it just happens all the time. And it really only hurts when you're doing something wrong.
Terry Lane: Mr Butler, thank you very much for your time.
Richard Butler: OK, thanks. Bye.
Terry Lane: Richard Butler, who was formerly the Head of the United Nations Weapons Inspection Team in Iraq. Now I recorded that conversation earlier this morning, and when I say earlier this morning, I mean earlier on Sunday, because Mr Butler was off to the peace rally in Sydney.