In justifying her decision to commit the UK to joining the US and France in the unilateral air strikes on Syria on 14 April, PM Theresa May said in Parliament on 16 April that a requirement for UN authorisation would effectively give Russia a veto on British foreign policy. Opposition Leader Jeremy Corbyn called for a new War Powers Act to force the government to get parliamentary approval before launching military action instead of going along with the ‘whims’ of the US president. ‘There is no more serious issue than the life and death matters of military action’, he said. Australia’s Labor Party should take note.
May’s unilateralism would cause complete anarchy in world affairs. Most US newspapers headlined their reports on the strikes with phrases such as ‘US leads West’s attacks on Syria in retaliation for Assad’s use of chemical weapons’. The exact equivalent would be that Russia fired missiles at selected targets in Riyadh and Russian media reported it as ‘Putin punishes King Salman for war crimes in Yemen’.
The key missing ingredient is impartial investigations by an independent agency. However, as became evident in the effort by the UN Security Council (UNSC) on 13 April to authorise inspection by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) – the verification secretariat of the Chemical Weapons Convention – the decision to order a probe and set the terms of reference is never free of UNSC politics as the geopolitical cockpit of world politics. Imagine if in domestic affairs the executive had the discretion to order criminal investigations with regard to choice of crimes and alleged criminals. In world affairs the stakes are much greater, the clash of interests more severe and the passions involved more powerful.
Moreover, for those set on war, an independent investigation is an impediment, firstly on timing: they must await the findings before acting; and secondly on the risk of the ‘wrong conclusion’. Before the Iraq war in 2003 UN inspectors were deliberately not allowed to complete their task because facts and intelligence were fixed to suit the warmongers’ agenda. The latest strikes on Syria were ordered before OPCW inspectors could arrive on the spot.
There was a lesser known but very telling incident involving the OPCW in Iraq. The US contributes almost one-quarter of its €67mn annual budget. Its first Director-General (1997–2002) was Brazilian diplomat José Bustani. His tenure ended abruptly after an ugly and far from subtle use of US financial muscle, at the height of its unipolar hubris, because his effort to place OPCW inspectors in Iraq to certify the absence of chemical weapons would have hampered the US determination to eliminate Saddam Hussein.
Bustani and other officials involved in the events confirmed this for a New York Times story on 13 October 2013:
Washington acted because it believed that the organization under Mr. Bustani threatened to become an obstacle to the administration’s plans to invade Iraq. As justification, Washington was claiming that Saddam Hussein… possessed chemical weapons, but Mr. Bustani said… ‘An inspection would make it obvious there were no weapons to destroy’.
The US filed a no confidence motion against Bustani that failed at the session of the Executive Council on 21 March 2002. His removal required a two-thirds majority but the vote was 17 (yes)-5 (no)-18 (abstention). Washington then lobbied for a special session of the Conference of States Parties, threatened to cut off contributions to the OPCW, and on 22 April the Conference terminated Bustani’s appointment by a 48-7-43 vote. Yet he had been renewed by acclamation that included strong US support, with Secretary of State Colin Powell praising his leadership.
The Administrative Tribunal of the International Labour Organisation subsequently held Bustani’s removal to have been ‘unlawful’ and awarded him his salary for the remaining three years of his term, legal costs, and €50,000 in moral damages. The Tribunal’s judgment, delivered in Geneva on 16 July 2003, observed that such an ‘unacceptable violation’ of the principles governing the tenure of international civil servants would render them ‘vulnerable to pressures and to political change’.
The campaign against Bustani was orchestrated by John Bolton as the US Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. Bustani told The Intercept this March that ‘Bolton is a bully’. At a tense meeting in his office at The Hague in March 2002, Bustani was told by Bolton: ‘You have 24 hours to leave the organization, and if you don’t comply with this decision by Washington, we have ways to retaliate against you’. Pause. ‘We know where your kids live. You have two sons in New York’. Mehdi Hasan, writing for The Intercept, had this account confirmed independently by British politician Stewart Wood, adviser to PM Gordon Brown and Bustani’s son-in-law; plus Bob Rigg and Mikhail Berdennikov, Bustani’s former colleagues at the OPCW.
The State Department’s former intelligence chief Carl Ford, in an interview with the Washington Post in 2005, called Bolton ‘a quintessential kiss-up, kick-down kind of guy’. The best known case remains that of Melody Townsel, an American businesswoman who had the memorable experience in 1994 of Bolton chasing her through the halls of a Russian hotel, hurling a file folder and tape dispenser at her, disparaging her weight and shame-calling her a lesbian, in an attempt to get her to withdraw criticism of a foreign-aid project.
Today Bolton is Donald Trump’s National Security Adviser. History tells us that appeasement of bullies only encourages them. The most effective type of appeasement is preemptive: individuals and institutions anticipate what the powerful bully wants and adjust their behaviour accordingly. Given this background and the known personality traits of Bolton and his boss, their contempt for the UN system and their power of the purse in bending the UN to their will, how much confidence can we have in the autonomy, institutional integrity and professional impartiality of OPCW investigations?
All governments lie, albeit some more than others. Big powers pass information to international agencies selectively, being generous with evidence that supports their narrative and suppressing contradictory facts. I don’t believe their sense of public morality would permit the US or UK governments to stage a false flag chemical weapon attack. But they are not immune to being duped by such an attack executed by jihadists fighting Assad. Nor to dissembling in order to shift the blame from ‘our’ to ‘their’ proxies. As Scott Burchill reminds us, this is exactly what Washington did thirty years ago when Saddam attacked Iran with chemical weapons in Halabja.
On 17 April US Senator Rand Paul and British Admiral Lord West, in separate interviews with the CNN and BBC, noted that on strategic logic the Syrian rebels stood much to gain and Assad had everything to lose by faking or using chemical weapons respectively. The burden of proof for the evidence of regime use justifying allied military strikes is correspondingly higher.
In its judgment in 1946, the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal described aggression as ‘the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole’. The only body with the power to punish aggressors is the UNSC. The US, UK and France are three of its five permanent members. Should the OPCW investigation fail to prove Syrian government culpability, or worse, prove rebel culpability, there is a snowflake’s chance in hell of holding the three aggressors to international criminal accountability for the supreme international crime.
Ramesh Thakur is a former UN Assistant Secretary-General and is emeritus professor at the Australian National University.