Richard Butler
Richard Butler; drawing by David Levine

Dictators and warlords, whether in Africa or the Balkans, increasingly tend to believe that if they steadfastly resist them, UN interventions will eventually fail; the international community will become divided, grow tired, and give up. Too often they are right.

The arbiter of international peace and security is supposedly the United Nations Security Council, which is responsible for securing the peaceful settlement of international disputes and, if that fails, for taking action to deal with threats to the peace and acts of aggression. The Council is also the guarantor of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and other treaties relating to weapons of mass destruction.

Sometimes the Council’s action is blocked by the veto, or threatened veto, of one of the five permanent members, or simply by a general wish not to get involved too closely in a violent crisis. The secretary-general is constantly engaged in efforts to resolve all kinds of problems between states peacefully. If the Council does agree to take action against aggression, it proceeds in stages—first with demands to halt the aggression, then with a series of sanctions, and finally, if none of this has worked, with the use of force. Getting Iraq out of Kuwait was a rare example of the entire sequence being carried out. For most problems, however, non-forceful methods of peacekeeping are used.

Very few problems can be effectively resolved in a single action, but governments have come to dislike open-ended international commitments. There has therefore been pressure on the UN to withdraw from many of its recent interventions at the earliest possible moment, sometimes leaving behind an unresolved problem that continues to fester, and even reemerges once again as a threat to the peace. Angola, Haiti, and Cambodia are examples of this tendency, but potentially the most serious of all is Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The UN won the war to get Iraq out of Kuwait, but Saddam Hussein’s regime, with all its unpleasant habits, remains more or less intact.


The connection between the particular and the general, between trying to disarm an aggressor state and the validity of arms control treaties is vividly illustrated in a concluding passage from Richard Butler’s book, The Greatest Threat. Butler, a former Australian diplomat, has spent much of his professional life in the negotiation of treaties to control weapons of mass destruction; he explains that the deepest anxiety of states who have been unwilling to sign these treaties is that

the treaties could be cheated on from within and that the means of verification would neither deter nor detect such cheating.

Saddam Hussein’s dubious gift to this world has been to constitute the outstanding case for the possibility of cheating from within; in particular, having joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, he then proceeded to create atomic weapons clandestinely.

In July 1997, Butler succeeded Rolf Ekeus of Sweden as executive chairman of the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM), the group set up by the Security Council in 1991 to monitor the elimination of all Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction—nuclear, biological, and chemical. There had never been anything like it before. Butler, who had been Australia’s ambassador to the United Nations, arrived at UNSCOM exactly at the time when Russia, France, and China had concluded that the active effort to disarm Saddam Hussein should end and a diplomatic accommodation sought. Lifting sanctions on Iraq would, among other things, allow the regime to repay the enormous debts owed to these countries for the armaments and other services they supplied before 1990. Thus only two of the permanent members of the Security Council, Britain and the United States, were still prepared to maintain the pressure on Iraq, including the use of force if necessary, that had made UNSCOM’s inspections and other work possible.

The collapse of the Security Council’s unanimity on Iraq was a disaster for Butler. It allowed the Iraqis to drive a wedge between the Council and UNSCOM and to give the impression that UNSCOM was the problem, not Saddam Hussein’s determination to continue to develop weapons of mass destruction. It also gave currency to the constantly repeated Iraqi allegation that UNSCOM was deliberately blocking the repeal of sanctions that were causing great misery to the people of Iraq—although certainly not to Saddam Hussein and his cronies.

Another event at this time may well have seriously affected UNSCOM’s work. In March 1997, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright announced that the United States would not support lifting sanctions even if Iraq fulfilled its obligations to get rid of weapons of mass destruction. For Saddam Hussein this meant that there was little to gain from cooperating in the work of UNSCOM.

From the very beginning Iraq had played cat and mouse with UNSCOM—concealing, denying, confessing, obfuscating, and blocking. This had meant that UNSCOM investigations had had to be far more intrusive than was originally intended. By 1997, buoyed by the knowledge that three permanent members of the Security Council had broken ranks, Iraq, in the person of Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, was in a virtually continuous dispute with Butler over UNSCOM’s inspections, its tactics, and its insistence on inspecting eight allegedly sensitive “presidential sites.” These were places that the Iraqis claimed were harmless personal residences of Saddam Hussein, and therefore should be off limits. UNSCOM suspected they were being used to house biological and other weapons or records concerning them.


One of Aziz’s constant complaints was the predominance of United States inspectors in UNSCOM. To Butler, Iraq’s criticism seemed part of a campaign to sabotage UNSCOM, and he fought back gamely. He was particularly concerned that UNSCOM had not been able to establish whether Iraq had given up its biological weapons program. All this led to increasing tensions between Iraq and the United States and Britain, both of which began to build up their forces in the Gulf.

Renewed military action against Iraq in the form of US and British bombing seemed likely. In mid-February 1998, however, an inept televised presentation at Ohio State University by senior US officials, including Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, failed to persuade the audience that United States objectives in the Gulf were worth fighting for. Washington’s interest in a negotiated outcome was then revived, and the US, along with other Security Council members, agreed that Secretary-General Kofi Annan should try to negotiate with Baghdad. Butler appears to believe that this was a surrender to the Iraqis.

According to the Canadian analyst David Malone, Annan set off for Baghdad “fortified (and seriously constrained) by detailed guidance” from the permanent member ambassadors in New York on the main elements of “an acceptable agreement (the bottom line being defined by the US and UK positions).”1 Annan and the Iraqi president agreed on a “Memorandum of Understanding” that included several face-saving provisions for Saddam Hussein, among them an arrangement by which UNSCOM, on its inspections of the “presidential sites,” would be accompanied by “senior diplomats appointed by the secretary-general.” In the final paragraph the secretary-general undertook to bring to the attention of the Security Council the “paramount importance” to Iraq of the lifting of sanctions. But the memorandum also included Iraqi concessions that met all essential US and UK objectives, particularly a promise that UNSCOMcould inspect the “presidential sites.”

UNSCOM officials, accompanied by diplomats, visited the sites, and Butler, who at the time publicly supported the agreement, even said that “a new spirit of cooperation between the two sides” had emerged. But the Iraqis soon went back to their old ways, barring UNSCOM from places it wanted to investigate and proclaiming that only a single visit to the “presidential sites” would be allowed. This further discredited Annan in Washington, where the usual hawks had denounced his mission to Baghdad in the first place. Annan was particularly criticized for remarking about Saddam Hussein, “I think I can do business with him.”

Butler was also increasingly at odds with Annan, or, less precisely, with what he constantly refers to as Annan’s “senior staff.” He later criticized Annan’s Baghdad negotiations as giving the Iraqis what they wanted and weakening UNSCOM.2 After he retired in 1999 Butler even spoke of Annan’s “deeply alarming” behavior.3 In his book, however, he concentrates most of his disapproval on Annan’s “senior staff,” who, he believes, resented his independence.4

Over the summer of 1998 UNSCOM’s relations with Iraq steadily deteriorated. In August Saddam Hussein announced that both UNSCOM and the International Atomic Energy Agency had to stop inspections in Iraq and demanded changes in the commission’s makeup—fewer American and British members, and administration—presumably Butler himself.

An additional scourge for Butler at this time was the resignation of Scott Ritter, a former US Marine who was head of UNSCOM’s Concealment Unit, the team responsible for penetrating Iraq’s concealment tactics and detecting hidden weapons production facilities. Ritter did not go quietly. He claimed that ineffectual action on disarmament was worse than no action,5 that Butler took direction from the US government, and, worse still, that he had allowed UNSCOM to become the conduit for US intelligence-gathering in Iraq.

For a UN arms control mission, the accusation that Washington had been exploiting UNSCOM’s electronic eavesdropping for its own intelligence purposes could hardly have been more damaging, either to the integrity of UNSCOM itself or to the standing and acceptance of future UN arms control missions. Butler rejects Ritter’s accusations, but on the question of intelligence his response is far from reassuring. He writes defensively, and at some length, that UNSCOM relied on some forty member states, including the US, for intelligence assistance. “Is it possible,” he asks,


that some member state could have somehow taken advantage of UNSCOM personnel or facilities for its own intelligence gathering purposes? I can’t know for certain.

In the light of subsequent, well-documented investigative reporting on the matter,6 this sounds less than candid.

Whatever the exact truth about American use of UNSCOM’s eavesdropping, Ritter’s claims concerning American use of UNSCOM intelligence contributed to increasingly nasty criticism of UNSCOM in the Security Council. “Ritter,” Butler writes, “poured petrol on this fire, and Iraq gratefully warmed its hands over it.” On October 31, 1998, Iraq shut down all monitoring by UNSCOM as well as its disarmament work, and declared that there would be no more cooperation until the UN lifted the sanctions. The Security Council, divided as it was, condemned this action.

On November 10, on the advice of the US, Butler evacuated the UNSCOM group from Iraq. On November 14, in response to an appeal from Kofi Annan, Iraq more or less backed down on its demand that UNSCOM be expelled, but with many conditions. These included resolving “the question of Butler and the composition of the Special Commission and its practices….” After a somewhat farcical debate in the Security Council, during which the Iraqis and Russians cooperated in drafting further letters assuring future cooperation with UNSCOM, President Clinton reluctantly called off the bombers, which were already on their way to the Gulf, saying that if Iraq again reneged on its promise to cooperate with UNSCOM, there would be an immediate military response without any further discussion or warning.

Butler brought back the inspectors to test Iraq’s latest promises, but was again obstructed by the Iraqi authorities. He was obliged to report this fact to the Security Council and must have known that his report would unleash the US and British bombers. On December 11, he told the US national security advisor, Sandy Berger, that he would be unable to assure the Security Council of Iraq’s cooperation with UNSCOM. Butler’s report was released to the council on December 15. Later that day he received a warning from Washington to evacuate UNSCOM personnel from Iraq again. In fact, the bombing, Operation Desert Fox, actually started while the Security Council was discussing Butler’s report on December 16. This time UNSCOM really was finished. (Desert Fox is still going on in diminished form, and Saddam Hussein seems to be more firmly entrenched than ever.)

Butler makes a point of telling us how tough and forceful he is, and certainly he was right, and courageous, in doing whatever he could to outwit the Iraqis on a matter of vital importance—stopping their production of weapons of mass destruction. In retrospect it seems probable that the dissolution of the Desert Storm coalition in the Security Council made it impossible to achieve that essential objective solely through UNSCOM.

Early in his book Butler tells us grandly that “UNSCOM was simply the last battle of the Gulf War. And for Iraq to cement its ‘victory’ in that war, they had to defeat UNSCOM and, in the last phase, Richard Butler personally.” The publisher’s note to reviewers about the book, for which, of course, the author is not responsible, informs us that “as chairman of UNSCOM, Richard Butler was the world’s ‘sheriff’—the one person with the authority to shut the Iraqis down. But that authority was undermined behind his back.” Unfortunately it was the other way round. Butler never had “the authority to shut the Iraqis down,” unless the Security Council decided to do so by force; and Iraq could, and did, shut UNSCOM down. This personalized view of international politics and the representation of differences of opinion as betrayal weaken the important case that Butler is trying to make.

Nor does his persistent complaint that the secretary-general and his “senior staff” undercut UNSCOM—he criticizes them as frequently as he does France and Russia—do much to strengthen that case. In early 1998, when UNSCOM was completely blocked by the Iraqis, the available courses of action were American and British air strikes, which were unlikely to succeed in reviving UNSCOM’s operations, or an effort to get UNSCOM back on track by diplomatic means. The secretary-general was the obvious, perhaps the only, feasible candidate for the latter, unpalatable task. Annan was under no illusions about either the difficulty or the potential risks to his own reputation of undertaking it. He knew well that in going to Baghdad he was setting himself up as the scapegoat for future problems with Iraq. He was aware that any results achieved would probably be transitory. But since there seemed to be no better alternative, he felt that it was his duty as secretary-general to give it a try. His success in getting an agreement with Saddam Hussein did not last very long, but it is worth considering that in UNSCOM’s next crisis, the other alternative, bombing, was tried, and UNSCOM went out of business for good. A third possibility, the use of ground forces against Iraq, was never in the cards.

Butler believes that some international issues are “of such gravity that they compel exceptional action and agreement. The need to control the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and ultimately to eliminate them, is the outstanding exception.” In practice this would mean absolutely assured enforcement of the obligations imposed on governments by the treaties concerning these weapons. And that would require two principal commitments from the permanent members of the Security Council: first, that they agree always to act together to remedy any situation involving a violation of any of these treaties; second, that they will undertake never to use, or threaten to use, their veto in such circumstances. In other words, weapons of mass destruction, because of their vast destructive capacity, must not be subject to “politics as usual.”

It will be interesting to see whether the experience with Iraq will be enough to bring about such commitment, or whether the five permanent members of the Security Council will prefer to wait for the more compelling argument of a catastrophe resulting from the actual use of biological, nuclear, or chemical weapons.


After World War I some political leaders hailed sanctions as the alternative to war. This contention could not be tested at the time, because the League of Nations did not impose sanctions on Japan or Nazi Germany, and, as a result of Anglo-French timidity and duplicity, soon lifted the limited sanctions imposed on Italy during the invasion of Abyssinia in 1935. Sixty-five years later the usefulness of sanctions is still a matter of debate, and, in specific instances like that of Iraq, of heated controversy. In The Sanctions Decade, David Cortright and George A. Lopez analyze the effect of UN sanctions in twelve cases in the 1990s.

During its first forty-five years the UNimposed sanctions only twice—on Rhodesia and South Africa. In the 1990s sanctions in one form or another were imposed on Iraq, Yugoslavia, Haiti, Libya, Sudan, Afghanistan, the Khmer Rouge area of Cambodia, on UNITA in Angola, and on the AFRC junta and the RUF in Sierra Leone. Arms embargos were imposed on Somalia, Liberia, and Rwanda. As the Canadian foreign minister, Lloyd Axworthy, points out in his foreword to The Sanctions Decade, “The increased use of sanctions could be seen as a welcome sign of greater [Security] Council responsiveness to global security challenges, but too often sanctions have been a substitute for more resolute action and sustainable solutions.”

Despite more than nine years of comprehensive sanctions, the UN has been unable to complete its mission in Iraq, and so far Iraq shows no sign of accepting UNSCOM’s successor, the new UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission. Recent reports that the commission has assembled a new team of arms inspectors hold out little promise that Iraq will be willing to receive them.7 From the record of other efforts to impose sanctions, several conclusions seem clear. If economic sanctions work, this does not necessarily ensure the desired political result.8 Iraq’s economy and standard of living have withered while Saddam Hussein seems to be more intractable than ever. Sanctions can have unexpected consequences, such as the enriching and strengthening of repressive, dictatorial regimes—for example in Serbia, where Milosevic and his associates have made fortunes from their control over illegal trade.9 The UN’s capacity for administering sanctions, moreover, is extremely limited. The Security Council still has, in each case, to improvise a system to impose, administer, and monitor sanctions. Because of the UN’s financial constraints, it lacks the resources to evaluate which sanctions will work and to monitor them effectively.

For the members of the Security Council, sanctions can be a relatively inexpensive way of appearing to take action; but the Council’s actions can also be harmful to the many innocent states that are affected by sanctions. Sanctions are sometimes the alternative, and sometimes the prelude, to war.

Certainly economic sanctions against South Africa had an effect on ending apartheid. In assessing the relative success and failure of other sanctions, Cortright and Lopez find, somewhatsurprisingly, that the sanctions on Iraq were fairly successful—at least in discouraging further aggression, facilitating the early work of UNSCOM, and reducing Iraq’s military threat to the region. They draw similar conclusions about Yugoslavia and Libya. As the case of South Africa suggests, comprehensive and enforced sanctions are on the whole more successful than targeted and selective sanctions. The authors point out that imagination in conceiving sanctions and hard work in carrying them out make all the difference. In 1999, for example, the chairman of the Angola sanctions committee, Robert Fowler of Canada, traveled extensively in southern Africa and Europe to secure tighter interdiction of the diamond traffic that finances UNITA, the Angola rebel group. His work has given new vitality to the sanctions regime in Angola and provided a model for making other sanctions more effective.10

The book ends with a series of specific recommendations. Sanctions, the authors write, should be directed against decision-making elites and should avoid creating unintended humanitarian hardships or adversely affecting opposition groups. They propose special measures to compensate innocent states whose trade is adversely affected by sanctions. They suggest the establishment of a special department in the UN secretariat to make the administration of sanctions more professional and effective. These and other recommendations should prove extremely valuable to governments, although many of them will meet with resistance.


Most of the international efforts to deal with the underlying causes of conflict and widespread human misery are not often in the news. Arms control and disarmament, economic and social development, environmental conservation, relief of poverty, the protection of human rights, and many other long-term programs are intended, among other things, to remove some of the causes of conflict. Some in fact do. A magisterial survey of such activities is to be found in Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s report to the Millennium Summit meeting of the UN General Assembly in September of this year.

The report provides a considerable contrast to most UN documents. It is readable and forthright, and tends to favor specific statements and examples over generalizations. His report, Annan writes,

recommends several immediate steps we can take at the Summit itself, to lift people’s spirits and improve their lives…. Globalization offers great opportunities, but at present its benefits are very unevenly distributed while its costs are borne by all. Thus the central challenge we face today is to ensure that globalization becomes a positive force for all the world’s people, instead of leaving billions of them behind in squalor….

Annan points out that the post- World War II international system has become antiquated as a result of globalization. His report sets specific goals for the Assembly in dealing with such subjects as AIDS, the digital world, the growth of megacities, and debt relief for poor nations. Since nearly 40 percent of the world’s population is below the age of twenty, and education is clearly the key to participating in the new global economy, Annan strongly deplores the widespread failure to provide primary and secondary education, particularly for girls. By 2015, he writes, all children should complete a full course of primary education.

As for the weaknesses in UN peace operations, Annan writes,

Our system for launching operations has sometimes been compared to a volunteer fire department, but that description is too generous. Every time there is a fire, we must first find fire engines and the funds to run them before we can start dousing any flames.

But here—perhaps concerned not to preempt the forthcoming conclusions of an independent UN panel on peace operations—he has little new to suggest. He implies that a UN rapid reaction force would be helpful but doesn’t explicitly endorse it.

On arms control, he stresses the devastating effect the diffusion of small arms can have in exacerbating conflicts and giving power to lawless elements, terrorists, and organized crime. The death toll from small arms, he writes, “in most years greatly exceeds the toll of the atomic bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”

About nuclear weapons he comments,

The objective of nuclear non-proliferation is not helped by the fact that the nuclear weapons states continue to insist that those weapons in their hands enhance security, while in the hands of others they are a threat to world peace.

Annan points out that at present no steady progress is being made either in the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks, or in dealing with the many thousands of so-called tactical nuclear weapons in existence, or with the weapons of any nuclear power other than those of the Russian Federation and the United States. He proposes a major international meeting to consider this alarming situation and find ways of eliminating nuclear dangers.

These are only some of the many specific ideas Annan puts forward in We the Peoples. It would be a pity if the belief that UN documents are bureaucratic and sleep-inducing were to discourage people, and particularly government officials, from reading the secretary-general’s important and stimulating report.

The three works under review describe three of the ways in which peace, stability, and decency can be pursued. More often than not, the undeclared enemies of such activities are general indifference and the belief that they threaten national sovereignty. Reason and common sense tell us that Saddam Hussein must be restrained; that nuclear weapons still threaten our very existence; that small arms infest our society with appalling results. Even the most complacent and incurious person must, by now, have some inkling that we are busily destroying essential parts of our environment, or that the AIDS epidemic is spreading, or that enormous groups of human beings still live in disease, poverty, and hopelessness.

However, for most people in the fortunate countries that are in a position to do something about such matters, the United Nations, Human Rights Watch, environmental organizations, and scores of other national and international agencies are remote from their lives and from what they believe to be their interests. After suffering two world wars, the fortunate nations reacted by creating major new international institutions. As peace and prosperity returned, the will to support them weakened, and now, in some quarters, particularly the USCongress, they are viewed with hostility and contempt.

As Kofi Annan and Richard Butler both make clear, indifference, ignorance, and myopic self-interest are the most insidious enemies of essential action to safeguard the future. As peace, stability, and decency are not luxuries or the fads of a few idealists. They are essential to human survival in reasonable conditions. They have to be pursued with courage and determination—and, above all, with far more public support than they have had so far, or seem likely to have in the years just ahead.

This Issue

September 21, 2000