Exclusive: former OPCW chief José Bustani defends the whistleblowers who challenged a cover-up of their Syria probe; reacts to the US and allies recently blocking his UN testimony; and reveals he was spied on before the Bush administration ousted him over the Iraq war.
In a Grayzone exclusive, José Bustani, the former head of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, speaks out in support of two veteran OPCW inspectors who challenged a US-backed cover-up of their investigation in Syria.
Bustani also reacts to the recent US-UK-France-led effort to prevent his testimony at the UN Security Council about the OPCW’s Syria cover-up scandal. And Bustani reveals new details of how he was targeted in the lead-up to the Iraq war, when the Bush administration engineered his ouster for impeding its plans to invade.
Bustani discloses for the first time that his office was bugged – and that the OPCW’s then-head of security, a U.S. citizen, vanished right after this was discovered. It’s a case of history repeating itself, with the world’s top superpower once again trying to silence a veteran diplomat from the Global South, whose courage and principle challenges a pro-war deception.
Guest: José Bustani, veteran Brazilian diplomat and the first Director-General of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
Welcome to Pushback, I’m Aaron Maté. The former head of the OPCW [Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons], José Bustani, is today speaking out over a new US-led effort to silence him—18 years after the US ousted him for standing in the way of the Iraq War. José Bustani is a veteran Brazilian diplomat who served as the OPCW’s first director-general. At the UN Security Council last week, the US, Britain, France and their allies voted to prevent Bustani from speaking.
He had come to the UN to defend two former OPCW inspectors who challenged a cover-up of their investigation in Syria. These inspectors found evidence that the Syrian government did not commit a chemical weapons attack in the city of Douma in April 2018. Their findings undermined the basis for the bombing of Syria by the US, UK, and France that same month. But the inspectors’ evidence was suppressed under US government pressure. In voting to block José Bustani’s testimony, the US and its allies are trying to silence him as well. While they may have succeeded at the UN, they have not silenced José Bustani completely. He recorded his UN statement, which we have published at The Grayzone.
José Bustani: At great risk to themselves, they have dared to speak out against possible irregular behaviour in your Organisation, and it is without doubt in your, in the Organisation’s and in the world’s interest that you hear them out. If the OPCW is confident in the robustness of its scientific work on Douma and in the integrity of the investigation, then it should have little to fear in hearing out its inspectors. If, however, the claims of evidence suppression, selective use of data and exclusion of key investigators, among other allegations, are not unfounded, then it’s even more imperative that the issue be dealt with openly and urgently.
This is also not the first time that José Bustani has been targeted for defending the OPCW from US efforts to justify war. In 2002, José Bustani was ousted at the OPCW under heavy US-led pressure. At the time, Bustani was trying to bring Iraq into the OPCW, which would have made it much more difficult—if not impossible—for the US to invade. John Bolton, then serving under George W. Bush, personally threatened Bustani. When Bustani refused to resign, the US then threatened the OPCW’s funding and pressured member states into voting for his removal.
They failed on the first attempt but pulled it off on a second try, even though more states did not vote yes but rather voted no or abstained. The International Labour Organization (ILO) later ruled that Bustani’s removal was unlawful. And now, 18 years later, José Bustani finds himself again being targeted for trying to defend the OPCW from political compromise.
Well, today in a Grayzone exclusive, Bustani speaks to me about his support for the OPCW whistleblowers—two veteran scientists who he worked with during his tenure as the OPCW’s first director-general. Bustani also reveals new details of how he was targeted when he stood in the way of the Iraq War—including breaking the news that his office was bugged while he was the OPCW chief. It’s a case of history repeating itself, with the world’s top superpower using bullying to justify war, and trying to silence a veteran, courageous diplomat from the Global South, whose courage and principle stands in the way of another pro-war deception.
AARON MATÉ: José Bustani, welcome to Pushback. It’s an honor to speak to you.
JOSÉ BUSTANI: Thank you very much for the invitation, Aaron.
AARON MATÉ: So, 18 years after the US engineered your ouster as the first director-general of the OPCW, because you stood in the way of the Iraq War, you now you find yourself entangled in a new OPCW controversy involving the US. This time it’s about Syria, where OPCW inspectors claim that their investigation was compromised, their evidence was censored, and they were sidelined. You came to the UN Security Council to speak in their defense, but the US, along with Britain, France and their allies blocked your testimony, refused to let you speak. Let me just first begin by asking you your response to the UN Security Council vote.
JOSÉ BUSTANI: I was surprised. I am very familiar with the United Nations. I was posted there for my government for seven years in the 70s and 80s, so I know how it works. I’d been following the Security Council when I was posted in New York many times, and I was sort of surprised for the following reasons. I’ve never seen such a veto given to the invitation by the chairman of the Council to have someone with some experience in the issue, being the first director-general of the OPCW to be vetoed by one member state, or at least to suggest that a vote be taken in order to allow me or not to take the floor. So, I was surprised, because I believe that I had a contribution, and fortunately my statement was read by the chairman, and I think these member states missed the point. They believed that I was there to defend Assad, to defend Syria, when my purpose was first and foremost to defend the OPCW, to defend the achievements of the OPCW and the OPCW presence, particularly because there are doubts about the efficiency and the honesty of the way inspections are being carried out. This is what was my intent; it still is. That’s why I address my remarks particularly to the present director-general of the OPCW, Ambassador Fernando Arias, from whom I expect some type of reply or at least the acceptance to meet with inspectors.
But then again, it was very surprising. But things happen. The world changes, and there are new rules in relation to international organizations, from the beginning of my career [to] the way they are managed today, the way the main contributors of the major powers influence the work of the organizations. And I myself was a victim of this new approach, and I believe that I will be the only example of what member states can do to a director-general. But we can discuss this later on as we proceed with the questions. But this is my first reaction to your question.
AARON MATÉ: Well, it was incredible to see not just this vote led by the US, Britain and France to prevent you from speaking, but also to hear the ambassadors from these countries describe you as unqualified and not an appropriate briefer.
Kelly Craft, US Ambassador to UN: We have no interest in allowing this Council to be used for propaganda, regardless of what Russia has said. The additional briefer that was proposed at the last minute for this afternoon’s discussion was removed from the OPCW in 2002, more than a decade before the issue of chemical weapons in Syria came before the Council. We would be happy to work with our colleagues on a sincere and deliberate basis to find appropriate briefers to most effectively inform the Security Council in future discussions on this matter.
Jonathan Allen, UK Ambassador to UN: While we agree that the presidency should have space for proposed briefers, these must be relevant and knowledgeable to the topic under discussion. Unfortunately, this is not the case of one of today’s briefers. Mr. Bustani is a distinguished diplomat. But given his departure from the OPCW many years before it considered the Syria chemical weapons file, he is not in a position to provide relevant knowledge or information.
AARON MATÉ: And it was just shocking to hear that for many reasons, including that you were the first OPCW’s director-general, you established the Organisation and brought in dozens of member states and were highly successful. I want to read you a quote from 2002 from the British writer George Monbiot, and this is just as the US was trying to oust you because you were standing in the way of the Iraq War by trying to facilitate Iraq’s entry to the Chemical Weapons Convention in the OPCW. And this is what Monbiot wrote:
“José Bustani has, arguably, done more in the past five years to promote world peace than anyone else on earth. His inspectors have overseen the destruction of two million chemical weapons and two-thirds of the world’s chemical weapons facilities. He has so successfully cajoled reluctant nations that the number of signatories has risen from 87 to 145 in the past five years: the fastest growth rate of any multilateral body in recent times. In May 2000, as a tribute to his extraordinary record, Bustani was re-elected unanimously by the member states for a second five-year term, even though he had yet to complete his first one. Last year [in 2001] then Secretary of State Colin Powell wrote to him to thank him for his ‘very impressive’ work.”
So, that was from 2002. Fast forward to 2020, and the picture we are getting from the western ambassadors is very different, calling you unqualified and not an appropriate briefer. What is your response to that?
JOSÉ BUSTANI: This is a misunderstanding on their part. First of all, the relevance comes from the fact that I was the first director-general, that I was there for five years, and that I initiated the working procedures of the Organisation. In fact, I’m very proud of the work that I have done. I have established the rules and procedures. I have in many ways created the culture of the Organisation. I taught the inspectors and the staff, whom I met frequently, how they should behave in terms of all the requirements of the Convention, in particular confidentiality issues which are very sensitive in an organization of this nature. So, yes, I believe that I am relevant because I have an experience. I have something to say about the way an organization should function. I was very successful during my tenure. Unfortunately, there was a development later on, which I can elaborate about later. And secondly, they thought that I was going to take a political stand in relation to the Syrian question, and in fact what I was trying to do, as I said, it was to defend the work of the OPCW, and through them request the OPCW, since the request made last year during the general conference was not taken into account by the present director-general, but to try and sensitize member states that the inspectors—the Douma inspectors—should be given a chance of explaining, presenting the report that they wrote about what happened there. So, I think it was so uncalled for for these two delegates to take the center they took.
AARON MATÉ: Another strange thing about these western states trying to portray you as unqualified or an inappropriate briefer is that these OPCW inspectors involved in the Douma scandal, they’re so experienced with the OPCW that their tenure actually coincides with your time as the OPCW’s first director-general. Because from what we know of them, both of them have served at the OPCW since the start, when you were there.
Inspector A, as he’s known in OPCW documents, has been identified. His name is Ian Henderson, and he spoke recently at a UN Security Council meeting a week before the one that you were prevented from speaking at. The other inspector, Inspector B, has not been publicly identified. There’s also someone referred to as Alex, who you actually heard a briefing from. But Alex’s identity has not been identified either. But because these inspectors were there back when you were at the OPCW, did you know them? And if so, what was your impression of them?
JOSÉ BUSTANI: Absolutely. Absolutely I know them very, very well. And I then, at that time they were, some of them were the team leaders, as we call the ones that lead a group of inspectors. They are extremely competent. All of them. In fact, they always impressed me because they were extremely professional and extremely reliable.
One of them in particular, Inspector B, was one that I assigned to a very sensitive area of the OPCW, which is the Confidentiality Office. I had some difficulties then with that particular office, with the stuff that was there, and I needed someone to put some order there, as someone that I could rely on because of the professionalism and the information and the reliability in particular. And this is one of the inspectors that we are referring to today. They went to Douma. Ian Anderson is a well-known name in the OPCW as well, and Alex is also another extremely efficient and competent inspector. So, these are people with whom I have worked from the very beginning, whom I trust, and that’s what made me accept to come to the fore, because I was allowed by them. And I got in touch with one of the inspectors who showed me important elements, original documents of the inspections that were carried out, and the text of the letter that was addressed to the then director-general. And I was impressed by the relevance, the arguments that were shown, and it did not match the way I remember inspections were carried out during my tenure. So, I felt that I should come and give them a hand. So, that because of their qualifications, they are an asset to the OPCW—or they were. They should be given a chance of bringing to the director-general the real results of their inspections, since the results were sort of manipulated, or parts of the report were not given to the member states. So, I believe that it was my duty as first director-general to come and help these inspectors, because they are an asset to the OPCW, and by helping them bring to the fore, to the director-general, their report, their honest report of what they found out, would give the OPCW also a chance of being more and more respected internationally.
Unfortunately, for some reason the mainstream media does not cover this issue, has not covered this issue except for important sites like yours or one other minor publication. This question does not appear to be known to the international community. Not a single newspaper that I know of, be it in France, in England, in the UK and United States. Nobody knows that there is such a precedent going on within the OPCW. And it’s a pity because if they are given the opportunity to set the record straight, I believe that the OPCW would win, would be good for the OPCW to, as I said before, to resurrect as the organization that it should always be, a very reliable and non-politicized organization. This is my point of view.
AARON MATÉ: It was reported last year, and later on confirmed by Ian Henderson when he spoke to the UN Security Council, that a US delegation visited The Hague and met with the Douma inspectors directly, very early on in their investigation. This was after the team had submitted their report and had their report doctored and key evidence removed. And just days before a new report—a compromise interim report—was issued, the inspectors were told to meet with a US delegation who tried to lobby them to convince them that a chlorine attack had occurred, which is what months later the OPCW’s final report would indeed conclude. Does this strike you as unusual? If this had happened under your watch, if a US delegation had met with an OPCW inspection team and tried to lobby them into concluding something, what would have been your reaction?
JOSÉ BUSTANI: This would have never happened if I were director-general. The inspectors know themselves that they cannot. They cannot. They are not supposed to meet with delegations on issues like inspections. I don’t know how it happened. Maybe they were forced to, or they were lied to by… I don’t know how it in practice happened, because if I were director-general this would never happen, never.
AARON MATÉ: And given that these inspectors are supposed to be protected, supposed to remain anonymous, given that they came face-to-face with a delegation of US officials, do you think that that could have jeopardized these OPCW inspectors’ security?
JOSÉ BUSTANI: Well, not only the west, but any state should not be meddling with the inspectors, in particular during a crisis like the Syrian crisis was. It was, in fact, the first alleged use of chemical weapons that I remember being an issue in the history of the OPCW, so it is a very sensitive issue. It required the total discretion on the part of the inspectors and on the part of delegations, on the part of the direction of the OPCW. So, I felt it very, very uncomfortable. Really, it surprised me enormously that such an event took place. I would not have allowed that to happen.
AARON MATÉ: There was an OPCW inquiry that was conducted into these inspectors, and its results were released earlier this year. Neither inspector was accused of leaking anything to the media, but they did come under heavy criticism. The inquiry was used to portray them as rogue actors with incomplete information, and it also included some identifying information about both the inspectors. It included their years of service which would have made it pretty easy for people to identify them and figure out who they are. With Ian Henderson, it was already known who he was because his name was on one of the first leaked reports. But the other inspector, Inspector B, no one had known who he was until this identifying information from the OPCW was said to the public. Do you think that was appropriate for the OPCW to include identifying information about Inspector B?
JOSÉ BUSTANI: Listen, Aaron, I don’t know how the OPCW behaves these days. And I hope that he’s not endangered, in any kind of danger. I don’t know how they are dealing with such issues. I have no information, particularly information on how they are being treated as of recent days. But I hope that… It would be a loss for the OPCW if such inspectors were considered redundant, because we are talking about a very serious group of professionals. So, they are an asset to the Organisation. But then I go, “Who am I to interfere with the present direction of the Organisation?” The director must know what he’s doing.
AARON MATÉ: But the fact that this identifying information, Inspector B’s exact years of service at the OPCW, the fact that that was included publicly, do you think that was necessary for the OPCW to reveal?
JOSÉ BUSTANI: Absolutely. Why? What difference does it make? I don’t understand why this information was made public; it doesn’t change anything. What would change is to hear them, to get together and let them speak.
AARON MATÉ: When Ian Henderson testified recently at the UN Security Council, he said that there’s been an impenetrable wall of silence inside the OPCW when it comes to weighing the evidence that was suppressed in the Douma investigation, that it’s just been impossible for these inspectors to be heard. You mentioned earlier that the media also has not covered this story at all, which has been for me pretty extraordinary, seeing that a case where whistleblowers are claiming that their own investigation was compromised and that the evidence that they found undermined the basis for US-led military strikes on a foreign country. But yet, this has not been covered at all. Do you think that if the media covered this story that that could make a difference in pressuring the OPCW to hear the inspectors and let them air the evidence that was suppressed?
JOSÉ BUSTANI: I would hope so. I would hope so, yeah. I would hope so. From my past experience, political experience, it does cause an impact. It has a weight. The main media has a weight, of course. I believe that if The New York Times or one of the British papers, Le Figaro in France or Le Monde, they would take this issue, write about this issue, I think that this would really help the cause for those inspectors. And the OPCW would be more, I hope, morally constrained to take action in relation to their request. They are not requesting much. You want to be heard and to be given a chance to show their own report, and in particular this director now is not the same director that received the first report, so he’s sort of fresh in the area. So, it would be much easier for him to deal with this request.
AARON MATÉ: Yes, as far as we know the current director-general, Fernando Arias, and his predecessor have never met, not just with the two dissenting inspectors that we know about, but with the entire Douma team, the investigators who actually went to Syria for the investigation. And on that front, let me ask you, it’s been revealed that after the initial report from the OPCW inspectors was censored, that they and the other inspectors were essentially sidelined from the investigation and they were replaced by a core team of people who had never set foot in Douma except for one paramedic, but everybody else was not there. Does that strike you as unusual? Would that have ever happened under your watch?
JOSÉ BUSTANI: Absolutely not. It would have never happened to me, unless there was a serious violation of the code of conduct on the part of the inspectors, which, fortunately, never, never happened.
AARON MATÉ: So, let’s talk about the significance of this vote to prevent you from testifying. In light of your own history at the OPCW, of being targeted by the US for standing in the way of another military campaign, the Iraq War back in 2002. This vote at the UN Security Council, I believe, was the first time that a former head of an international organization like the OPCW has ever been prevented from speaking. And when you were the head of the OPCW, I believe that you were the first official to head an international body like this to be removed during your term in office. And it came even though your tenure had just been renewed for a second term, unanimously. You had received wide acclaim, you had brought dozens of countries into the Chemical Weapons Convention at a record pace, Colin Powell had written you a glowing letter thanking you for your service, but something changed with the Iraq War as your effort to bring Iraq into the Chemical Weapons Convention interfered with the Bush administration’s plans. Take us back to that period.
JOSÉ BUSTANI: I remember when it was given…the Organisation received the Nobel Prize in 2013. I felt very proud because I remember that the terms of the Prize referred to the work carried out by the OPCW from its very beginning. So, I felt included in that prize in many ways, although not recognized by the then director-general. And the funny thing about this, and this in certain ways matches what was suggested by or raised by the delegate of the UK in Security Council. In 2013, which means nine years after I left the OPCW, the only director-general that was interviewed in relation to the Nobel Prize by The New York Times first page was me. So, there must be some reason for even The New York Times to come all the way to interview me in Brazil in 2013.
AARON MATÉ: Well, yes, I’m sure part of that was the fact that you were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, ironically, one year after you were ousted under US government pressure. And I imagine that that nomination had to do with the same efforts that led the US to try to remove you from office.
JOSÉ BUSTANI: It brings me back to the question that you raised about the Monbiot article.
Yes, Monbiot was very generous when he referred to me in those terms. Yes, it’s true that when I became the director-general—and this is part of the rules of the Convention: you need 87 members for the Convention to enter into force, and then the director-general is elected and then the work starts really, for real. Of course, one of my main tasks was to transform this organization into a really multilateral to international organization. It’s there, it’s a requirement by the Convention. So, I worked a lot. I visited a number of countries in trying to convince them to the importance of this organization. Why? Because this is what seduced me to accept the post of director-general. The CWC, the Chemical Weapons Convention, is a non-discriminatory convention. It applies to all member states on an equal footing, unlike other disarmament conferences like the NPT, for example. So that fascinated me…
AARON MATÉ: The non-proliferation treaty, yeah. [Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons]
JOSÉ BUSTANI: …to be given a chance to lead an organization and implement a convention that is non-discriminatory. I was very enthusiastic about that mission. I was on leave of absence from my foreign service, and this was a challenge that really made me extremely happy. And I, in fact, yes, I did manage to get the member state number up to 146 or something like that by the end of my tenure.
And, yes, under my tenure a lot was done in terms of destruction of chemical weapons, which is one of the three tasks of the Organisation. The first one being the destruction of the chemical arsenals as they were declared and existed. So, destruction of arsenals in Russia, in the United States, in India, in Iran, in South Korea, they had all started during my period.
And then the second part was the inspections of chemical industries in general, to make sure that no parts of those chemical industries would be used for other purposes than peaceful. This was very sensitive because some countries were very touchy about the way we had to carry out investigations. And we had a number of problems in carrying out those investigations, particularly the US. But then we overcame such difficulties. I used to call frequently when the team leader would let me know from the inspection site that there were problems, that you’re not being allowed to visit the facility in its entirety. But we managed to resolve those questions in the five years that I was there.
And the third aspect of the Organisation, which is a very important one, although most of the developed countries don’t really pay attention to it, it’s the one on technical cooperation. What is this program? It’s a program that would help developing countries to develop an incipient chemical industry for their own survival. You know, dying a tissue to sell the product they use is the precursor of chemical weapons; a Bic ballpoint contains the precursor of chemical weapons. So, things like that are very important. And for you to attract those countries to the Organisation, you have to give them something, you have to send people that were capable of teaching them how to develop safely their small industries that were very important for their own economic survival.
But it was always difficult for me to get the necessary budget for this part of the Convention, for these programs of international cooperation [International Cooperation and Assistance Division]. But they were very relevant programs, and this explains why so many countries also joined the Convention in such a short period of time, because they saw a chance of getting a support for development of their own industries. Unfortunately, I was not able to convince some of the states of the most susceptible area in the world [at] that moment—the Middle East in particular—because then we had a major political question, which was the relationship with Israel and the Arab states. Nevertheless, I managed to get Sudan into the fore. Iran was already a member. And what was very impressive is that not only I got Sudan into the fore, but Sudan eventually became the chairman of the council, as Iran also became a chairman of one of the councils. So, the working atmosphere was, I must say, extremely positive and friendly and mature during that period.
AARON MATÉ: So, you have a widely celebrated tenure as the OPCW’s first director-general. Your mandate is renewed unanimously, you are receiving praise from even the US government. When do you notice that things begin to change?
JOSÉ BUSTANI: Things started falling apart as there was a change of administration in the United States. Although the first message that I got when the new administration took action was the letter that you referred to by Colin Powell. That was January, the first year of the Bush administration. And he sent me a letter praising the work that I had been carrying out at the Organisation. So, I thought, well, things are okay. The new administration is not going to change substantially the approach. That was very important for me, to have countries like the United States in particular to cooperate, not very easily, but to cooperate with the Organisation. But then again things later on started to fall apart. And I then realized that later on in 2001 that September 11 may have raised an issue there. It took me some time to understand how the Americans would react to that, and later on it sort of became obvious that they had chosen a particular country to retaliate for that attack. And I was in the middle of that, of this situation. I was working very hard through different channels because this is part of your job in such an organization, to try and bring into the Organisation particularly Iraq and Libya, which were very important countries. And they would perhaps open the door for other countries of the region to join in, like Syria, Egypt and others.
What happened was that by the fourth year of my mandate…let me explain something. I was elected in 1997 by acclamation with a four-year mandate. By the end of my third year, middle of my third year, both the Americans and the Russians and others came to me and said, “We are very happy with your work. Would you be prepared to accept the second term by the next conference,” which was the end of the year, “one year before the end of your first mandate?” Well, I consulted my government. I was given an extra period of leave from my foreign service, and I was elected again unanimously before the end of my fourth year, my first term, for another four years. And the funny thing is that by the end of the fifth year, which was the first year of the second term, I was voted out.
But this was the funny thing. I had cooperated very discreetly with the United Nations, with UNSCOM, when there was this crisis of going back to Iraq to collect some of the samples that were left there. And the Iraqi government would not allow UN inspectors, UNSCOM inspectors, into Baghdad for that very important task because some samples of chemical weapons were left behind. Unless the inspectors came from the OPCW. Which was very interesting, because by then I realized that the OPCW had made a name for itself. So, they realized that the way I taught the inspectors and I taught the staff to behave was one that should be completely apolitical, completely loyal to the Organisation, loyal to the member states that paid their salaries, not the countries of origin, because this was the uniqueness of the Organisation. We had 211 inspectors paid by the Organisation, by the budget of the Organisation, which means by all member states. So, their loyalty should be to the Organisation and to member states, not the countries of origin. And I insisted on this. I was always present during the…when an inspector team came back from inspection, I was present myself for the debriefing, even before it was distributed to the different areas of the Organisation who would evaluate. And then I would insist on the fact that it should be objectivity, and that the inspection should not only be carried out honestly, seriously, with professionalism, and with respect for the country that was being visited. And I think that this culture worked. And I believe that this, at least the majority of my staff and the inspectors in particular were very reliable during that period.
AARON MATÉ: And meanwhile the US was caught using UN weapons inspectors (UNSCOM) to spy on Iraq, which I believe is why Saddam Hussein then became so adamant that the only inspections he would allow would be from the OPCW.
JOSÉ BUSTANI: Yeah, apparently, in his view, UNSCOM inspectors, because they were not part of the organization like ours. They came from different countries, they were on loan for particular inspections, they were not reliable. So, because of that he would not accept again UN inspectors. But he would accept, and he did, accepted the four inspectors that I sent from the OPCW, under the aegis of UNSCOM, of course.
But that indicated, and I realized that I was getting very near a moment where I could perhaps seduce those two countries, particularly Iraq, to join us, to come to join the OPCW. Which happened in November 2001, when I received a message from both Iraq and Libya that they were prepared to join in, and I would be receiving a letter of accession to the Convention in the following weeks. And that meant, of course, the moment you receive a letter of accession you have 30 days in the Organisation to launch the first inspection. I felt such an important development should be brought to the attention of the member states in particular, member states of the Security Council, the permanent members and others. But when I brought this to the attention of the American delegation, I was very surprised, very shocked, because their reaction was, “Who gave you the order to do such a thing?” I said, “The Convention gave me the order.” This is part of my mandate according to the Convention. I don’t need authorization from any member states. I am responsible for making this conviction, totally multilateral to international, to bring all member states into the fold.
And then I realized that was something going on, and history explains what happened later on. They immediately launched a campaign to get me out of the Organisation. Rumors started coming to me, staff members would inform me that there was a campaign, as many delegations also came to me saying that the Americans were mobilizing a group of states to get me out of the Organisation, which they did. They tried using the normal instrument foreseen by the Convention, which is the executive council, except that they lost the vote. The executive council of the Organisation supported me. So, I was not voted out by the council.
In desperation, what they did was to convene a conference that was never foreseen by the Convention. There is a normal early conference of states’ parties for a number of issues, but they sort of illegally convened the Convention at general conference for the purpose of deciding on the position of the director-general, and they succeeded through political pressure, of course, to mobilize a number of countries for such a conference that took place just a month after the executive council decided on my permanent stay as director-general.
Then there were a number of political issues at that time. The government of Brazil then did not support me as I expected; in fact, did nothing in support. Which meant that I’d lost the vote by abstentions, because Latin American countries abstained, African countries abstained, Asian countries abstained, so it was only the western vote that voted me out. Except France. France abstained.
AARON MATÉ: So, to be clear here, the decision was taken with 48 votes in favor, six against, and 43 abstentions, which means that more people did not vote to remove you than voted to remove you. But, yet, because of the abstentions the US effort to oust you still won.
JOSÉ BUSTANI: Yes, and that was…what could I do? I knew that they wanted me to resign and I said, “No, I cannot resign. I have no reason whatsoever to resign.” And they started…their campaign was saying that I was managing the Organisation in an unacceptable way, suggesting a number of things that never happened.
But then, as I was saying, I came to realize then that perhaps my bringing Iraq into the fold and launching inspections immediately—most probably would have been January 2002—that would stand in the way for a possible military action by the United States, eventually. But, although I had difficulties in accepting that Iraq would be the choice, having nothing to do with Bin Laden, but it was later on I realized that a momentum was created for Iraq to become the target. And it just happened. So, in many ways, my frustration in relation to that particular period of mine is that, had this not happened, if the Americans had taken a different stand, we might have avoided the Iraq War and all the consequences that are still with us 20 years later. We might have avoided that, the dissolution of a country, and not the birth of another country to these days, from my point of view. This frustrates me because that could have been avoided. So, in many ways I think that what Monbiot had in mind was the fact that, yes, I could have contributed to avoid such a war, and maybe I could, and I wish I could have been given the chance of doing so.
AARON MATÉ: It’s public knowledge now, and you’ve talked about the fact that John Bolton was the US official who drove the effort to oust you—and even personally threatened you. What did John Bolton say to you?
JOSÉ BUSTANI: When I raised the question of Iraq and Libya becoming members of the Organisation, I received the request from Mr. Bolton to come to The Hague to have a word with me, and it was a very unfortunate experience. He came to my office and he stayed there for 15 minutes or more, and said, “I’m here to tell you that you have 24 hours to resign. This is what instruction I got from Vice President Cheney, and this is it.” And I said, “Well, I don’t see any reasons for me to resign. My record is impeccable from my point of view and the point of view of most delegations, and I don’t see why I should resign.” And he said, “Well, this is your call. We know where your kids are, so, you have to think serious about that.” To which I said, “I know, my kids know, and I’m prepared to whatever comes.” And he left. That was it.
AARON MATÉ: Did you take that as a physical threat against your children?
JOSÉ BUSTANI: Well, you can read that sentence in many ways. So, I read it as a threat. You can interpret in many ways. My kids lived, two of them in New York and one in London. So, I did not expect him to mention that fact because it wasn’t called for. We are discussing my position at the OPCW, not where my family was, so it made me very worried and sad, I must confess. But, then again, fortunately nothing happened. And I was voted out and the Americans were happy with that.
AARON MATÉ: So, the US first tries to oust you with a vote at the OPCW executive council, which just a year prior had voted unanimously to renew your term. They lose this vote, the executive council does not go along with the US, so then the US tries to bring the vote to all the member states of the OPCW, and they also threatened to cut the OPCW’s funding, which is huge because US accounts for a major percentage of the OPCW’s budget.
JOSÉ BUSTANI: Yeah, that was common on the part of the Americans and other countries, to flatten the budget. It’s interesting to point out that one of the western countries that was extremely helpful, always, had always been extremely helpful in terms of helping me manage the Organisation, helped me with the budget, in particular with the budget for developing countries, was the UK. So, my relationship with the UK delegation was perfect, and I cannot forget the embarrassment of the UK ambassador when he came to me saying that he was under severe instructions to vote against me, because our relationship had been extremely productive.
AARON MATÉ: And that’s critical because the UK goes on to become the key US ally for the invasion of Iraq.
JOSÉ BUSTANI: Exactly. Yeah.
AARON MATÉ: So, the ambassador told you pers…
JOSÉ BUSTANI: Ironically after one year, with no position in my government, the new president of Brazil then sent me as ambassador to London.
AARON MATÉ: So, Lula [da Silva] sent you to the UK. But the UK ambassador during this attempt to oust you at the OPCW, he apologizes to you for the fact that his government is refusing to stand up to the US and is going along with their attempt to oust you.
JOSÉ BUSTANI: Absolutely, because we had contact every week. Now, it was the most fluid relationship that I had among the western countries, was with the UK and France. Of course, with other countries it was much easier, with the Chinese, the Japanese, and the Russians in particular. It was very fluid. But among the western countries the UK was number one.
AARON MATÉ: So, John Bolton threatened you personally. The US government also threatens the budget of the OPCW in order to oust you. The UK ambassador apologizes to you for not standing up to the US. Was there anything else going on during this period that was suspicious?
JOSÉ BUSTANI: You know, I monitored things very closely when I was director-general, as I said. I was present everywhere in the building, everywhere in that particular building. And I learned many things during that period.
And just to give a funny example to show how things can happen in such a system, when I was made director-general in ’97 there was already a prep con, a preparatory commission, launching the basis of what would become the future OPCW, with a small staff. And that was the period when the building for the stage of the OPCW was being constructed. So, when I became director-general I came to The Hague; the building was almost ready. So, after one year, I think, we moved to the main OPCW building. So, I never really followed what was the way it was conceived, the way it was organized. It was okay, apparently from the point of view of the work of the Organisation, the way it was imagined and designed by the architect. It was okay. That said, after my third year as director-general I started to identify some leaks that would come out of some of my discussions with staff members, some of my phone calls, and there was one particular example that made me worry about that situation.
I then decided to, over the weekend, to send for someone outside the Organisation, someone I could trust, someone who was working in Europe, an expert in security issues. I sent for him to come to the OPCW on a Saturday—the Organisation was closed, of course—to come and check what was going on in my office because there were some leaks that apparently were going on and I couldn’t realize what was happening, in fact. And this person came to the OPCW, and the fact was that the wall behind my desk, the wall behind the desk of the director-general, was full of equipment—listening equipment. He broke the hole and removed everything. And there were bugs in the drawer of my desk, phone. I was shocked, I must say. But he did it immediately. It took him the whole of Saturday, half of the Sunday, and he took it, removed everything, and nobody realized except me and my driver. On Monday when people came to my office, they were shocked with the way the wall was. It was a big hole.
AARON MATÉ: So, you were being spied on.
JOSÉ BUSTANI: I was. And the interesting thing, I never said that before, is that I had then an office…a person that was the head of the security of the Organisation. He used to be an American, and he had a large office full of equipment. I called him on the Monday after that happened. I called him to my office, to check with him, how come he didn’t know? He was in charge of the security of the building. How come he didn’t know that there was a bunch of equipment behind me? And he wasn’t there. And I was told he was traveling to Germany, and I asked, who allowed him to go to Germany? I am his direct boss. He was my subordinate, directly subordinate to me. Nobody could say anything. So, I said, as soon as he returns tell him that I want to have a word with him. This was a Monday. You will not believe that, Aaron, but on Tuesday as I get to the OPCW, I am told that I should go up to the head of security office, and when I got there the office was empty, and this person disappeared and never showed up again. Never showed up again.
AARON MATÉ: So, this US official who was the head of security at the OPCW, or he’s an American citizen, he vanishes after bugs are discovered in your office. Did you ever find out who he was working for?
JOSÉ BUSTANI: I don’t know. I don’t know. You have to make your own conclusions on that. But the coincidences; it happened as I was finding out about the equipment. I call him on Monday; he disappears. He’s not there on Tuesday; he disappears. And all the equipment of the OPCW disappears. The office, which is a huge office, was totally empty. And I had never got any explanation on the part of any delegation. And I did raise this with a number of them.
AARON MATÉ: And what year was this again?
JOSÉ BUSTANI: I think this was 2001.
AARON MATÉ: So, this was under George W. Bush then?
JOSÉ BUSTANI: Yeah.
AARON MATÉ: And all this is coinciding with your efforts to bring Iraq into the Chemical Weapons Convention and the increased hostility you faced from the US government as a result?
JOSÉ BUSTANI: You know, the one question after the other. And at that moment, issues raised during inspections were becoming more frequent and difficulties for the inspectors to carry out their tasks. And so, things were changing.
AARON MATÉ: Does this include carrying out inspections inside the US?
JOSÉ BUSTANI: That’s what I’m saying. Things were becoming more difficult for the inspectors. Every single time the inspector group was sent to the UK, to the United States, I got calls and complaints, and I had to explain, I had…really, it was a huge negotiation to be able to get the inspectors to finalize the job. But anyway, I got along with this problem quite well, I believe, in spite of being stressful. Sometimes it was very stressful.
AARON MATÉ: Well, I can imagine that finding out that you are being spied on by your organization’s chief of security, who also happens to come from the same country that is threatening your job, because you stand in the way of the Iraq War. I imagine that that was pretty stressful.
JOSÉ BUSTANI: Yeah, but this is just an example of things that happen in such an organization. So, in fact, it’s very difficult for a director-general, no matter which director-general I’m referring to, to become completely independent in an international organization. Because you have the money question. The main contributors. And the main contributors are the US, Japan, etc., and so, they believe that they have a say in the future of the Organisation. And in fact, the threat that they were making to me was that they would stop paying the budget of the OPCW, along with the Japanese, their allies, if I did not resign. So, that would be 40% less of the budget of the Organisation, and I could not risk destroying the Organisation because of that. So, I had then decided, really, to go, except that I didn’t want to be voted out. I wanted to win this vote and then resign, but not resign for no reason whatsoever.
AARON MATÉ: So, that’s incredible. Even if you had won the vote, even if the US had not managed to oust you, you’re saying that you still would have resigned anyway.
JOSÉ BUSTANI: I would have resigned, of course. Otherwise they would not pay 40% of the budget of the Organisation. It would be impossible to carry out the work of the Organisation. It costs an enormous amount of money on inspections of this nature. You cannot imagine. It’s very, very expensive. You’re dealing with 511 staff members, inspectors and other staff members, and traveling all over the world. And it was, it is a very expensive organization, as others are, like the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency]. So, I could not risk the future of the OPCW because of that. So, I had to take in the decision that I would go, but I would like to go having won the vote, which never happened.
AARON MATÉ: Well, technically you didn’t lose the vote, because more states still voted not to remove you than states that voted to remove you. But the US still won out because there were so many abstentions.
JOSÉ BUSTANI: Yes, this is what happened. And, then again, I was vindicated by the ILO tribunal later on, because I decided to…my worry was that I didn’t want to become a precedent for other directors-general that could be ousted on the whim of a certain member state. So, I decided to bring my case to the International Labour Organization tribunal, ILO tribunal. And the decision of the tribunal was that I was really deprived of due process, and the decision was a null and void, and that valid legal basis that the Organisation could only take decisions to elect the director-general and to extend the mandate, but never to vote out the director-general. So, I won this, and in my quest, it was a huge case that I took a lawyer, and I requested for—how do you say—compensation.
AARON MATÉ: Well, is it true that this money that you were awarded by the International Labour Organization, that you actually donated it back to the OPCW?
JOSÉ BUSTANI: This was…they didn’t know that. I asked for material and moral compensation, and I added to the request an affidavit, a sealed affidavit, and it was a letter saying to the members of the tribunal, whatever you decide about this case, in case you decide that I deserve compensation, financial compensation as in terms of moral damage, I want this money to be returned to the OPCW, to be applied to the program of cooperation with developing countries, that particular program that I told you was always lacking support from member states. The rich countries. And this is what happened. I won the case. And, when they opened the envelope they found out that the money that had been allocated to me, I was returning it to the OPCW to be applied to the program of taking cooperation, which it was. So, for a certain period of time the program of international cooperation could count on some money that I left behind for them.
AARON MATÉ: In your statement to the UN Security Council, the one that the US and its allies blocked you from delivering, you stressed the importance of the egalitarian treatment of member states at the OPCW under your watch. You said this: “I took immense pride in the independence, impartiality and professionalism of the OPCW’s inspectors and wider staff, in implementing the Chemical Weapons Convention. No State Party was to be considered above the rest, and the hallmark of the Organisation’s work was the even-handedness with which all member states were treated, regardless of size, political might, or economic clout.” Why was this so important to you?
JOSÉ BUSTANI: Because it is. Because I believe that all states are equal, like all human beings are equal. So, if you join an organization, you have to respect the rights of all states and put them on the same footing. Why treat a state in a particular way? I treated the United States as I would treat Fiji or Kiribati or whoever, only because I think they should not be given any special treatment. If you do that you demoralize the staff and the inspectors and the Organisation itself. So, I believe that this culture, this approach, this philosophy that I taught them, that I insisted on a daily basis with my staff, was very positive for the Organisation. They got used to this. They got used to the fact that they had to be absolutely loyal to the Organisation. They have to respect the rules and they have to treat every single state on the same footing.
So, they learned how to do this. So, this was part of their culture. I’m not saying that 100 percent of them were doing that, because I didn’t have this control to this point. But I must say that the large majority of the staff members were doing this, this job, very, very honestly. And as I told you, I used to visit the Organisation almost every day. I would leave my office and I would go to the Office of Confidentiality, I would go to the inspectors, I would go to those who were analyzing, I would go to the communications, I would go to everywhere in that administration center. I wanted to know in person, one by one of my staff. That became sort of a family for me. So, I felt responsible for them. So, I created a very friendly working environment, also, which perhaps is one of the reasons those inspectors in question today came to me, because they knew me from then. And, but then again, everyone has its own way of looking at things, and I’m not competing with any other director-general. I’m just explaining the way I saw my job there.
AARON MATÉ: So, now that you are caught up in this new OPCW scandal, tangentially because the UN Security Council, under the pressure of the US, Britain and France, voted to block you from delivering some comments on it. I’m just curious, your thoughts on the connections between your own ordeal back in 2002 and that of these inspectors today. Both of you are being targeted because you are standing in the way of a justification for a US military campaign. Iraq in 2002; the US-led military strikes on Syria in April 2018. Because they bombed Syria based on allegations of a chemical weapons attack, an allegation that the inspectors say, according to the evidence that they found, is without merit, that the evidence they collected actually pointed to this not being the Syrian government that committed a chemical attack, but in fact that this incident was staged on the ground. Wondering your thoughts on the connection between the two and whether you felt a certain responsibility to speak out, not just given your own experience having been targeted by the US government, but also because you worked with these inspectors when you were the head of the OPCW.
JOSÉ BUSTANI: In many ways there are similarities with the two cases. I was voted out, I was excluded from the OPCW environment because of a particular group of states led by one. And in this particular case now, these inspectors are being punished, if they are not being relieved from their functions. Also, because they were complying with the Convention. I was complying with the Convention, and I was ironically voted out because of my compliance, and they are being punished because they complied with the rules of the inspections for alleged use of chemical weapons. So, it’s an equivalent thing for me, so I felt that I should be in solidarity with who should prevail. I’d like to help them.
AARON MATÉ: Another parallel or through-line here is John Bolton. John Bolton who personally threatened you and drove your ouster at the OPCW because you stood in the way of the Iraq War. Now, fast forward to this current issue, the Syria OPCW scandal, and John Bolton is very much involved once again. Because it was John Bolton, as he recounts in his recent memoir, who oversaw the US bombing of Syria, based on the allegation of the chemical weapons attack in Douma. And a few months later it was under John Bolton’s watch that a US delegation visited the OPCW and tried to pressure the inspectors into reaching a conclusion that justified the basis for the US bombing, that there was a chlorine attack in Douma. And it’s John Bolton’s first day on the job when he begins overseeing the US government response to the alleged chemical attack in Douma.
JOSÉ BUSTANI: Yes, I realized that, but this is Mr. Bolton, you know. He’s a difficult person. I have never met a person like him. It’s unique, it’s a unique style.
AARON MATÉ: I wonder if we can say then that there’s, in a dark way, that there’s been some progress, and the fact that whereas John Bolton personally threatens you in 2002 with harm, fast forward to 2018 where at least as far as we know, when the US delegation visited the OPCW and tried to influence them into reaching a conclusion, as far as we know there were no threats to anyone’s children.
JOSÉ BUSTANI: I don’t know. I got no idea. No, nobody told me anything.
AARON MATÉ: José Bustani, we are going to wrap. So let me ask you finally, for people who are just learning about this OPCW controversy now, if you could comment on why you think it is so important for these OPCW inspectors to be heard, for their story to be covered, and for the OPCW to let them air the evidence that was suppressed, to let the facts be weighed in a transparent manner, why this is important, not just for the OPCW, but for the world.
JOSÉ BUSTANI: First of all, because of the science. Secondly, because the inspectors are competent, and they normally do their job very honestly and very seriously, very professionally. And second, because it’s important for the OPCW itself. If doubts are being raised in different quarters of the world by persons like you and others, it respects themselves. Why not allow them to tell the truth? And if they are wrong, it should be told to the international community that the inspectors were wrong. And if they’re right, let’s go back, reopen the case and see what went wrong during that particular inspection. As simple as that. And that would help the Organisation.
Why maintain this doubt in the air? Why? What’s the use of that? The only reason I can see is that they are afraid of the truth, of the real report, written by the inspectors. Otherwise they would not be against that. They would not be against that. And I believe the director-general himself has a very important role to play. He is the director-general. He has committed to listen to the inspectors. He has to listen to them, to any of the staff members, particularly in cases like that. Why is it that he refused to? He doesn’t want to know the truth. Why?
I think it would be wonderful, for if I were director-general I would definitely listen to the inspectors and then decide what to do. And in case they are wrong, let the membership know that they’re wrong. In case they’re right, raise the issue again. Revisit the whole question of these inspections, and that would be wonderful for the Organisation, to show that the Organisation can undo something that was wrongly done. But, as I said, every director-general has his own view of the issue and some way of managing the Organisation. I would have given these inspectors a chance, absolutely. Absolutely.
AARON MATÉ: You are a trained classical pianist who has performed all over the world. I’m wondering if during those times of stress, when John Bolton was threatening you, when the US was engineering your ouster because you were standing in the way of a war, whether or not your piano brought you comfort during those times.
JOSÉ BUSTANI: Absolutely. And I had to practice after hours, of course, because I was always busy. But from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m., I was sometimes very busy with my piano. But I performed very…not in many countries. In some, but a number of a few countries only. I didn’t have the time to carry on with a career that’s much more complicated than one can imagine. But then again, now that I’m retired, incredibly, I only performed once last year, with an orchestra. Retirement is difficult. It’s very tiresome.
AARON MATÉ: Well, Mr. Bustani, I really appreciate your time. I think the fact that you are speaking out and the fact that the US and its allies were so committed to preventing you from being heard, I think that speaks volumes. And I hope that it will make a difference in finally lifting the curtain of silence that has surrounded this critical story.
JOSÉ BUSTANI: I hope so. And thank you very much for your program last week where you showed my statement to the Security Council. And I hope this would, little by little, reach the mainstream press. They could help the OPCW inspectors; they could do something. I hope George Monbiot comes again and writes something about this.
AARON MATÉ: Well, it’s funny. He had many stories about you back in 2002, defending you and praising you for your efforts, saying that you had done more for global peace than arguably anybody else on earth. But he’s one of many people who have been silent now on this OPCW story. And given the gravity of this issue, inspectors at the OPCW saying that their investigation was compromised under US government pressure, and given the fact that someone like yourself, the OPCW’s first director-general, is not only speaking out but having his testimony blocked by the same states, the US, Britain and France, that bombed Syria based on the allegations that these inspectors’ findings challenged. I hope that will finally break the sound barrier.
JOSÉ BUSTANI: So do I. Thank you, then, thank you very much for this occasion.
AARON MATÉ: José Bustani, veteran diplomat, the OPCW’s first director-general, thank you very much.