Blix talks to Boston Review, will hold Global Justice workshop

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Boston Review
Hans Blix, the U.N.'s chief weapons inspector from 2000-03, led the inspections in Iraq prior to the U.S. invasion. On the five-year anniversary of the invasion, Dr. Blix spoke with Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow, associate editor of Boston Review Books, about what makes a good diplomat, the Iraq inspections, and his new book from Boston Review Books calling for new, global disarmament efforts. He will discuss his book, Why Nuclear Disarmament Matters, at a special Program on Global Justice workshop Friday, April 4.

How did you get involved in diplomacy and inspection work?

I had originally intended to become a professor. I took a PhD at Cambridge and I also studied at Columbia University for two years. Then as I got back to Stockholm and did some teaching, I was asked to come in as a consultant to the Foreign Ministry, and gradually I got gobbled up by the ministry.

Can you describe the experience of doing inspections in Iraq?

My job was mainly to make sure that our inspectors had all their rights to do what they needed to do, that they were not stopped. Remember that in the '90s, Iraq frequently stopped inspectors and we suspected that they had something to hide. But in 2002-2003, we were never stopped for any inspection, not even the so-called palaces of Saddam Hussein. I thought that in the '90s sometimes the inspectors from New York had been a bit too Rambo-like, and of course inspectors from the teams often had people from the intelligence side, both from the U.S. and the U.K. We were determined to be completely independent. And I think we were. We were in nobody's pocket.

There were moments which were thrilling. At one point our inspectors found some munitions which had been for chemical weapons. There was no chemical in them, but they had not been declared. For a moment we thought maybe this is the tip of an iceberg, but gradually came to the conclusion that it was floes from an iceberg that had been there.

Preemption is where you see an attack coming, where an attack is imminent... You can take action when the airplanes or the missiles are approaching your territory. Another matter, however, is to attack a foreign country saying that we suspect that they will attack us.

From the beginning, like most people, our gut feelings were that there were weapons of mass destruction, although when we were asked about it we said, we are not here to tell you gut feelings, but to inspect. But as we inspected more and more cases, and did not find any weapons of mass destruction, the gut feeling changed, naturally.

There's a sad feeling about the whole thing that we were not able to have a greater impact. I was sometimes told, or it was assumed, that my phone had been bugged. And my reflection on that is simply that I wish that they had listened better to what I had to say.

There were also things that were amusing.

Do you have any amusing anecdotes you want to share?

Well, I remember that before we were admitted, Kofi Annan tried to bring me into discussions with Iraqis in the spring of 2002, and the Iraqis would have nothing to do with me, because they were negative to inspections, and they called me a spy. Before that they said I was a nonentity. Eventually when they accepted inspection, I was addressed as Your Excellency. So I thought when I became a spy I'd at least been promoted from a nonentity, and then when I was addressed as Your Excellency I'd really arrived.

What do you think is the key to being an effective diplomat?

You have to know your mandate first. In our case that was set by the resolutions, 1284 and 1441. As a lawyer I knew them very well. Our role was to inspect and report to the Security Council. We were not there to tell the Council what it should do. We were, as it were, the police investigation and they were the judges.

The second is that you must know your dossier. The facts. We spent lots of time going through what had happened in the '90s.

The third point I think is to exercise critical thinking, as police investigations do. They have a hypothesis, but you must collect and examine all the evidence. If you do not have the right diagnosis, how can [the] Security Council find the right therapy? This was the error, the big error, in the U.S. and the U.K. They did not have critical minds. They came, and they relied far too much on defectors. And the defectors were not interested in inspection, they were interested in invasion.

It also has to do something with--this is the fourth point--how inspectors behave. As I said I thought sometimes in the '90s the animosity and difficulty that they had in Iraq was due to the conduct of the inspectors--Rambo-style. I said when I took over that we intended to use all the rights that we had under the Security Council resolutions, but we were not there in order to provoke or harass or humiliate the Iraqis. When you ask what is important in diplomacy, I think that one of the most important things is always to avoid humiliation.

You say in your book that the climate for arms control has deteriorated, even as international cooperation has increased in some other areas like health and the environment. Why do you think that is?

The interdependence that results from more communication and transport and increased trade forces the world into a great deal of agreements, because it wouldn't function otherwise. SARS or avian flu or what have you--all this requires cooperation. The body of international law has increased tremendously, and most of it functions without any courts or any threats of sanctions.

We also have basic rules about how states conduct against each other, like diplomatic relations and the interpretation of treaties and consular relations, but also, nowadays, on the use of force. And that's an area, as I say in my book, where law is much less reliable. It's relatively new. Such rules did not exist before the U.N. Charter. The League of Nations did not prohibit states to go to war. It obliged them to try first with peaceful means. It's only in 1945 that people in San Francisco laid down the rule that states must not use armed force against each other unless they do it in self-defense against an armed attack or unless they do it under authorization of the Security Council. So that was a leap forward in 1945. Now, during the Cold War there were many violations of this. But what was new in 2002 was that the U.S. National Security Strategy declared that the rules of the Charter were too narrow for them, and they declared that they would take armed action regardless of these limitations in the Charter.

And this is no small point. This is a question of preventive war. Preemption is where you see an attack coming, where an attack is imminent. It is generally recognized that you can take action before the bombs fall. You can take action when the airplanes or the missiles are approaching your territory. Another matter, however, is to attack a foreign country saying that we suspect that they will attack us. In the case of Iran, that's taking armed action already at the sight of a few grams of uranium enriched to 4 percent. Now that's not an armed attack.

What do you think about the current prospects for disarmament?

I'm delighted to see that there's a strong body of American opinion, non-partisan, and led by former Secretary of State Shultz, and Kissinger, and Sam Nunn and Bill Perry. Many, including Colin Powell, side with them. They say, yes, the arsenal of nuclear weapons was needed during the Cold War, but no longer, and it can only damage and give ideas to other people; if the great powers need nuclear weapons maybe we also need them. So they urge the United States to take the initiative vis-a-vis Russia to move toward nuclear disarmament. They're not starry-eyed idealists. They know this is going to take time, but there are plenty of things that can be undertaken now.

And what are the most important steps to be taken now?

I have no hesitation that the most important signal would be a ratification and entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. This was rejected by the U.S. Senate during the Clinton administration. Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have said that they would want to have that treaty ratified. And I think the chances are that if the US ratifies it then China will, if China will, India will, if India does I think Pakistan will, then we will get the whole bunch. So this is at the top of the agenda. But taking nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert--which really is a relic from the cold war--I think is also very high up on the agenda.

What do you think is the most worrisome development in terms of nuclear weapons today?

I think the most acute questions are the negotiations with North Korea and with Iran. I'm favorable to the approach that's been taken lately by the U.S. in relation to North Korea. I don't think that threatening the North Koreans with any military action is a defensible policy. Military pressure is more likely to be counterproductive and lead them to a hardening of their positions; that's what we have seen in the past. However, the six-power talks in Beijing have been looking much more for carrots, and including, notably, a guarantee against attack, and also a guarantee of diplomatic relations with the U.S. and with Japan, if the North Koreans go along with a nuclear settlement. I think this is much more likely to yield results.

In the case of Iran, I think that while the Europeans have a number of carrots on the table, they say that these carrots are only available to Iran if, first, Iran does its part. There's a precondition that Iran should suspend enrichment. I don't know any negotiations in which one party says, yes, I will do my part and then we'll discuss what you'll give me for it. But the two elements I mentioned in the case of North Korea are not, to my knowledge, on the table in the case of Iran. Namely, a guarantee against attack, and talk about diplomatic relations. So I think that playing these two cards would be enormously valuable.

What about the possibility of nuclear weapons falling into terrorist hands?

One can hardly exclude any risk, but most experts deem it highly unlikely that non-state actors would be able to master this. They have to put together the weapons; they also have to find some means of delivery. And we also know from the case of terrorists in Tokyo a number of years ago that they chose rather the chemical weapons in their attack in the subway. There's some talk about what they call dirty bombs, a way of using radioactive material and exploding it and contaminating an area. That would be a terror weapon, but can by no means be compared to a nuclear weapon.

What's your advice to U.S. voters who are concerned about nuclear weapons?

I certainly think that McCain is a respectable, upright person with integrity. But from the point of view of disarmament, and the need for a new wind in international relations, I think that both Hillary and Obama are far better placed.

What are you up to these days?

I give a lot of lectures around the world. I travel much too much.

Actually, what I would want to do and what I'm starting to do is write a book about the development of international law and disarmament. How can we move the world slowly towards more peaceful relations? Well, you'll find beginnings of my thinking in Why Disarmament Matters. This is something I should do, but all these engagements to speak at various conferences take a lot of my time.

Aside from the former U.S. statesmen who support disarmament, are there any other causes for optimism you can see?

We need, as I said, a new wind. And I think a change of leaders, perhaps, could give a chance to that. In Russia you have a change of leaders even though Putin hovers over the scene. In Washington you will have a new leader. In France it's new, in Germany relatively new, and in the U.K., the new government is much more pro-disarmament. So there are some glimmers of hope.