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Disarmament Diplomacy No. 75, Cover design by Paul Aston

Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 75, January/February 2004

Building on the Experience: Lessons from UNSCOM and UNMOVIC

Terence Taylor

A variety of lessons need to be learnt from the two inspection commissions that operated in Iraq between 1991 and 1998, the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM), and from November 2002 to March 2003, the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC)1. The lessons are both political and technical and relate to all categories of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery.

One of the most important lessons is the need for coordination between the different areas of inspection (nuclear, biological, chemical and missile) to overcome the problem of parallel, and sometimes competing, hierarchies. If there is to be a role for the UN it should be, for special cases, to integrate the expertise required into a single structure, drawing on the skills of the single-issue organisations such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). It is particularly important now to ensure that the expertise gained through the planning and conduct of the inspections in Iraq is not lost. This valuable investment by UN Member States can be exploited to great benefit should UN become engaged in future investigations of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons programmes and their means of delivery.

To appreciate what role the UN can usefully play it is important to take full account of the international legal context. In this regard the relevant treaties are the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC) and the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC); as well as the standing organisations that have a role in compliance, the IAEA and the OPCW. There are no standing organisations that deal with biological weapons or missiles capable of delivering nuclear biological or chemical weapons.

The key role of the treaties in setting norms is undeniable. However, it is important to be realistic and pragmatic about their limits, which are both technical and political. The experience of the last decade and a half has exposed these limits and demonstrated the difficulties of extending the capability of standing inspection organisations in ways that will genuinely enhance efforts to assure compliance.2

All the three treaties concerned were a product of the political circumstances of the time they were negotiated. Set up in 1956 by an international statute, the IAEA was designed to promote peaceful uses of nuclear energy safely and securely. The 1968 NPT was also a product of the political and military-technical realities of the Cold War era. The nuclear safeguards system that developed since that time is in effect a series of bilateral agreements between the IAEA and individual states drawn up to a common format. This panoply of separate agreements was the most practical way of implementing a safeguards system during the Cold War era. The system has been enhanced by the introduction of the Additional Protocol,3 enlarging the powers of the IAEA in those countries that have accepted these provisions. The Additional Protocol is certainly an important instrument in exercising diplomatic leverage and garnering multilateral cooperation to deal with cases of suspected noncompliance. Nevertheless, because of the limits of diplomatic negotiation in a global context, even when all States Parties have accepted the enhanced inspection arrangements these measures may not be sufficient of themselves to deal with extraordinary cases such as Iraq, North Korea and, although it is a little too early to be sure, Iran.

Similar considerations apply to the CWC. The negotiation process for the CWC was protracted over more than twenty years before the final deal was struck in 1991 and 1992 in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. It is doubtful if this very elaborate treaty, with its strong inspection system, could be negotiated in the current political environment. It was a product of an extraordinary period when the political groupings in the various multilateral negotiating fora were disoriented in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact.

It was possible then to gain agreement for a complex central verification system that is a significant advance over the NPT and IAEA arrangement, without the need for a panoply of bilateral agreements. At the core of the CWC verification system are short notice (or challenge) inspections, albeit with a number of constraints. In particular, there are provisions that could allow a receiving state to delay access by inspectors for up to seven days. Nevertheless, the inspection provisions are much stronger than could have been negotiated before or since.

In the political climate of the late 1960s and early 1970s, an inspection protocol could not even be contemplated for the 1972 BWC. After the CWC was completed, attention turned to getting a verification protocol for the BWC, but already the window of political opportunity for a successful negotiation was closing, and by the end of 2001 BWC parties had to abandon the attempt. Because of the conflicting commercial and security interests and the very different scientific and technical challenges that inspection of biological activities present, negotiating a truly effective global system proved very difficult, some would argue impossible.

To have any degree of effectiveness an inspection system would have to be more intrusive than the current CWC arrangements, given the ease with which biological activities can be hidden. What was being proposed under the auspices of the BWC was less than that the CWC arrangements and with a smaller organisation.4

There is something in the argument that there is a political benefit in having some sort of inspection system, even if flawed, as by accepting it States Parties demonstrate a commitment to the Convention. It also might provide a mechanism for governments to demonstrate compliance if doubts were raised. For the difficult cases however, such a system would be at best a finger-pointing mechanism to raise questions about compliance and, at worst, enable a government to receive inspections and yet still evade its obligations.

To strengthen compliance with the BWC it is necessary to look outside the treaty regime itself. For example, ideas such as codes of conduct for individual scientists and similar measures that could be taken collectively in academia and the private sector could bring important security benefits.

Given the limits of the treaties in being able to address special cases through their provisions, there is merit in the idea of establishing a permanent organisation, at least in embryonic form, under the auspices of the UN Secretary-General, to help deal with these situations. To be truly effective it should encompass all the three categories of weapons of mass destruction, nuclear, biological and chemical, and their delivery means. The UN Secretary-General should have under his hand a small organisation, such as UNMOVIC is at present, with a roster of experts in all the fields of expertise needed.

There is a real challenge in maintaining a standing organisation that is up to date in the developments in the relevant sciences and their commercial applications. This is a particular challenge in the life sciences and related biotechnology. It would be important to draw on people working in areas of, for example, biotechnology in private industry or academia, so that they can be brought into the small standing organisation when needed.

If the UN is to maintain an embryo inspection organisation it should be designed to bring all the expertise under a central direction. A future UN inspection system, under a mandate to deal with special cases, would operate better from both a technical and a political point of view under one head, drawing on the agencies, the IAEA and the OPCW and any others that might be extant in future.

It would be relatively inexpensive for the UN to maintain rosters of expertise, databases, procedures and logistic arrangements such as that currently held by UNMOVIC (which also holds the archives from the UNSCOM era). Particularly valuable is information and data not held by the current standing organisations for the nuclear and chemical areas (IAEA and OPCW), that is to say for biological, missiles and other kinds of delivery means. It would, however, be a mistake to view such an arrangement as a surrogate inspection system in the absence, for example, of an inspection protocol for the BWC, or in connection with the proliferation of missile technology.

The proposed arrangement is suitable only for special cases for which the Security Council gives a mandate. The structure should not be elaborate, as the technical, geographic, political and other circumstances could vary significantly from case to case. Only a small permanent staff would be needed with experts from governments, academia and private industry being called in for seminar and training sessions to keep the rosters of individuals with the appropriate skills up to date and to assess scientific and technical developments in the relevant sciences and technological developments in the military and private industrial sectors.

This extra-mural expertise would need to be changed as the sciences and technologies evolve. While a corporate memory is valuable to understanding the necessary bureaucratic procedures and the political dynamics of inspection activities (and best handled by permanent UN staff), the scientific and technical expertise would need to be turned over to ensure a proper understanding of the implications of such developments for prohibited weapons programmes.

A modest proposal on these lines stands the best chance of political acceptance and would be less of a strain on limited financial resources. If the invaluable archived material from both the UNSCOM and UNMOVIC experiences are retained and an ability to deploy quickly a multidisciplinary and properly coordinated inspection group is put in place, this would be an important achievement.


1. At the time of writing UNMOVIC was still in existence. The dates indicated are those for the period of inspections in the field in Iraq.

2. Some important and substantive ways to enhance compliance can be achieved by other measures, designed to support the norms, but outside the direct competence of the treaties. This aspect merits an essay in itself and will not be explored further here.

3. The protocol referred to is as set out in the model agreement in INFCIRC540 (Corrected) and is designed to complement NPT members' existing safeguards agreements with the IAEA.

4. The draft version of this document is the Protocol to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention as it appears in BWC/Ad Hoc Group/CRP 8 of 3 April 2001.

Terence Taylor is President and Executive Director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in the United States. He was a Commissioner for UNSCOM from 1993 to 1995 and one of the Chief Inspectors in the period 1993 to 1997. This article is based on a talk given at UN Headquarters, New York at a panel discussion sponsored by the NGO Committee on Disarmament, Peace and Security on October 23, 2003.

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