The farce of the UN weapons inspections

Three decades on, here’s what we’ve learned about the effectiveness of UN weapons inspections in Iraq

Tue, 30 March 2021, 7:03 am

After the end of the first Gulf War in April 1991, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) set up processes to oversee the elimination of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Over the next decade, weapons inspectors demonstrated that – while difficult – internationally verified disarmament is technically possible.

The ceasefire agreement, UNSC Resolution 687, stipulated that Iraq must declare and destroy its chemical and biological weapons and related programmes, as well as missiles with a range of more than 150km. It also required Iraq to give “anytime, anywhere” access to international inspectors and accept long-term monitoring of its territory.

This was not a negotiated agreement – it was a condition for ending hostilities. Until the UNSC agreed that Iraq had complied with the ceasefire agreement, Iraq would be subject to international sanctions.

Resolution 687 also mandated the UNSC to create a special commission (Unscom) to oversee and verify the destruction of Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons and designated missiles. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was tasked with verifying the elimination of Iraq’s nuclear weapons capability and set up an Action Team for this. Despite covering separate weapons categories, the two organisations worked closely, with Unscom maintaining overall responsibility for coordinating inspections of undeclared sites in Iraq.

On paper, the ceasefire agreement gave weapons inspectors unprecedented scope and access. In reality, the inspectors met with a high degree of obfuscation. It was immediately obvious that Iraq’s initial declarations were far from complete. There were multiple stand-offs in which the inspectors were refused access to sites, threatened and abused. When they did get access, they frequently found that Iraq had removed key equipment and documentation to avoid detection.

The inspections: technical successes 

Despite Iraqi intransigence, the inspectors successfully uncovered significant biological and chemical weapons programmes, as well as a nuclear weapons programme that had been undetected by the IAEA safeguards system which checked compliance with the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

They did this by pioneering new techniques, tailoring different approaches to specific detection challenges. Unscom developed a new approach based on assessing the amount of relevant material in Iraq, which involved painstakingly collecting information about weapons and components the country had imported and produced, and comparing it with information on what had been used and eliminated. This helped the inspectors understand what else they needed to find and destroy.

The weapons inspectors were also pioneers in new technologies and applications. They used overflights to track equipment movements and environmental sampling to analyse trace remains of suspected weapons production sites. Weapons inspectors found it useful to be able to compare information about different types of weapons, unlike international treaties which tend to treat different weapons categories separately. At the same time, the inspectors demonstrated the limits of information from defectors and national intelligence agencies.


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