‘The Bush administration feared that chemical weapons inspections in Iraq would neutralise their plans for invading it as there were no chemicals weapons. By December 2001, I knew that the Americans were serious about getting rid of me.’
José Maurício Bustani could have prevented the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But the first director general of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was shown the door at a special session of the then 145-nation watchdog in 2002. It’s an open secret that the Brazilian diplomat was fired by the OPCW under pressure from the U.S. administration of George W. Bush, which saw Bustani as a major obstacle in its plans to attack Iraq. After leaving the global organisation, Bustani quietly returned to Brazilian diplomatic service. As the OPCW was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last Friday, the world suddenly remembered the first chief of the organisation and his controversial exit.
In an exclusive interview with The Hindu’s Shobhan Saxena in Sao Paulo, Bustani, who is now Brazil’s ambassador to France, told his side of the story: the real reasons behind his removal from the OPCW, how he could have stopped the Iraq war and how shocked he was by India’s vote against him.
What was your first reaction when you heard that the OPCW has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize?
I felt happy because it’s the recognition of all the good work done by the organisation in the past 15 years. They certainly deserved it for all their efforts in making the world safe from chemical weapons. It’s also a recognition and acceptance of the OPCW as an instrument of diplomacy in peace processes. It’s playing a very important role in such processes, and not just in Syria.
But it’s not just a coincidence that the prize has been announced as chemical weapons inspectors are working in Syria...
Yes, that is definitely a factor but the present situation in Syria is very different from what it was 11 years ago in Iraq. At that time, the U.S. was determined to oppose Iraq joining the convention against the weapons, which it did not even have. But right now inspectors from the organisation are cataloguing the Syrian government’s stockpiles of chemical weapons as a step forward in Syria’s civil war. So, the OPCW is a part of the peace plan this time. In 2002, it was seen as an obstacle to U.S. plans to invade Iraq.
What exactly happened in 2002? When were you forced to leave? There is a lot of speculation about it but what’s your side of the story?
As the first director general of the watchdog, I had a huge task of building it into a good organisation. In the beginning, we had just 87 members but we created a code of conduct and made a programme of technical assistance for member nations and we got many more countries — almost double the number — to sign the charter. I got re-elected for a second term in 2001 and later that year, things begin to turn bad after Iraq and Libya expressed their desire to join the Chemical Weapons Convention, the international treaty. As to become a member a country has to provide a list of stockpiles and agree to the inspection and destruction of weapons, our inspectors were planning to visit Iraq in January 2002. That caused a major uproar in Washington and I began to get warnings from American and other diplomats. The Bush administration feared that chemical weapons inspections in Iraq would neutralise their plans for invading it as there were no chemicals weapons. By December 2001, I knew that the Americans were serious about getting rid of me. I fought hard till the end. But the western countries all came together and the developing nations failed to back me.
So, they basically removed you because you were an obstacle in their plan to invade Iraq?
Yes. If our plan about chemical weapons inspection in Iraq had been accepted, there would be no war. In those months, Washington was claiming that Saddam Hussein had chemical weapons, but our experts believed that those weapons were destroyed in the 1990s after the war with Iran. An inspection would make it obvious there were no weapons to destroy. This would have made it impossible for the Americans to invade Iraq. So, they accused me of going beyond my mandate without consulting with the member nations. They used this as a justification to call a special session and vote me out.
In 2002, Brazil was a developing country and yet you couldn’t get support from other developing nations...
I didn’t even get enough support from my own government. Our government (of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso) was pressured by Washington. Initially, the Americans failed to get a no-confidence motion against me from the OPCW’s executive council. But then they threatened to cut off its financing. They were supported by Japan and then the U.K. With the U.S. and Japan, which provided almost half the funds, threatening to stop financing, the organisation faced the risk of collapsing. And Washington pressured other major developing countries to vote against me. Even India voted against me. That was quite shocking.
But India has quite a good record of chemical weapons elimination...
Yes, but the Indian government was pressured by Washington to vote against me. I was banking on India to support me as that would have mobilised other developing countries as well. But India’s vote came as a big shock.