For the UN Security Council, the year is beginning much like the last one ended, with the permanent council members divided on the subject of Iraqi arms inspections. In December, the council reached a difficult agreement on a new weapons monitoring commission. About one month later, the council's five permanent members are at an impasse over who should lead the commission. UN Correspondent Robert McMahon reports on yesterday's discussions.
United Nations, 19 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The Security Council is deadlocked over the nomination of Swedish diplomat Rolf Ekeus, who was proposed by Secretary-General Kofi Annan after he had considered nearly 25 candidates.
Iraq was quick to denounce the nomination, with Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz saying Ekeus represented "old wine in a new bottle." Ekeus served as the head of the UN's first Iraqi weapons inspection agency and Aziz accused him of deliberately prolonging UN trade sanctions imposed on Iraq. France, Russia and China have also expressed their opposition to Ekeus in part because they believe there is little chance Iraq would cooperate with any commission led by him. In general, France, China and Russia favor a milder approach to pursuing Iraqi inspections than the Security Council's other two permanent members -- Britain and the United States. After a two-hour closed-door meeting yesterday, the council took no action on the Ekeus nomination and his candidacy looked doubtful.
Russian Ambassador Sergei Lavrov told reporters after the session that Ekeus, who served as head of the former UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) from 1991-1997, would not be able to implement Resolution 1284. That resolution created the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) and set criteria for a suspension of stringent trade sanctions, which were imposed after Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait in August 1990.
"The majority of the [Security Council] members are interested in seeing the resolution implemented, and it was very clear today that under the circumstances, this proposal cannot guarantee the implementation. On the contrary, it would guarantee a deadlock. And I'm saying this with all respect to Ambassador Ekeus, whom I personally respect as a diplomat and as a person. It just so happens that we all decided some months ago to have a new beginning and we don't want associations with UNSCOM which discredit it itself."
Lavrov said the naming of the inspections chief is just the first part of a long process that will ultimately lead to the resumption of an arms monitoring mission in Iraq. He said it is crucial that there be consensus before UNMOVIC moves ahead.
"This is a resolution, not a direct action. It provides for a few steps to be taken before we can actually see whether Iraq is going to cooperate or not." UN arms inspectors have been barred from Iraq for more than one year. Toward the end of the last inspections, the UN had come under criticism for allowing some inspection guidelines to be softened. Arms experts familiar with the inspections have said some of the most important tasks awaiting a new mission include learning more about the extent of Iraq's biological weapons program and its ability to produce chemical nerve agents.
UNMOVIC is to be charged with pressing Iraq to complete dismantlement work in these areas, as well as begin monitoring facilities to assure they are not used for weapons development activities in the future. This is in line with UNMOVIC's intention to ultimately switch its emphasis from investigating past mass destruction weapons programs to preventing future ones.
U.S. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, this month's council president, expressed concern yesterday that Iraq was becoming too influential in the inspections process. Holbrooke told reporters that the purpose of the process was to bring Iraq's attempts to acquire weapons of mass destruction under control.
Holbrooke said it would be a setback to regional and global stability if Baghdad had "co-equal power to choose the inspection regime" with the Security Council's permanent members.
The U.S. ambassador stressed that the Ekeus nomination was still open for discussion in the council but he did not rule out that new candidates would now be added to the discussion. He also said the issue was being actively discussed in the capitals of the permanent council states. In response to a reporter's question, Holbrooke declined to characterize the impasse as evidence of a growing rift between Moscow and Washington.
"We have our differences, we have our areas of commonality. We're working through here a difficult problem but one that is not insurmountable, and the sanctions do remain in place."
If Baghdad agrees to work with UNMOVIC, the cooperation can lead to the easing of nearly 10 years of sanctions. Under the UN oil-for-food program, Iraq is allowed to sell almost unlimited quantities of oil to buy food, medicine and other items to ease the impact on Iraqi citizens.
But the Security Council's sanctions committee has to approve many of the contracts and has repeatedly agreed to less than Iraq has requested. A team of UN experts is currently in Iraq assessing the country's needs for spare parts and equipment and inspecting the condition of its pipelines, refineries and offshore loading platforms.