WASHINGTON – John R. Bolton (search) flew to Europe in 2002 to confront the head of a global arms-control agency and demand he resign, then orchestrated the firing of the unwilling diplomat in a move a U.N. tribunal has since judged unlawful, according to officials involved.
A former Bolton deputy says the U.S. undersecretary of state felt Jose Bustani (search) "had to go," particularly because the Brazilian was trying to send chemical weapons inspectors to Baghdad. That might have helped defuse the crisis over alleged Iraqi weapons and undermined a U.S. rationale for war.
Bustani, who says he got a "menacing" phone call from Bolton at one point, was removed by a vote of just one-third of member nations at an unusual special session of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (search), at which the United States cited alleged mismanagement in calling for his ouster.
The United Nations' highest administrative tribunal later condemned the action as an "unacceptable violation" of principles protecting international civil servants. The OPCW session's Swiss chairman now calls it an "unfortunate precedent" and Bustani a "man with merit."
"Many believed the U.S. delegation didn't want meddling from outside in the Iraq business," said the retired Swiss diplomat, Heinrich Reimann. "That could be the case."
Bolton's handling of the multilateral showdown takes on added significance now as he looks for U.S. Senate confirmation as early as this week as U.N. ambassador, a key role on the international stage, and as more details have emerged in Associated Press interviews about what happened in 2002.
A spokeswoman told AP Bolton, keeping a low profile during his confirmation process, would have no comment for this article.
Bolton has been criticized for supposed bullying of junior U.S. officials and for efforts to get them fired. Bustani, a senior official under the U.N. umbrella, says Bolton used a threatening tone with him and "tried to order me around."
The Iraq connection to the OPCW affair comes as fresh evidence surfaces that the Bush administration was intent from early on to pursue military and not diplomatic action against Saddam Hussein's regime.
An official British document, disclosed last month, said Prime Minister Tony Blair agreed in April 2002 to join in an eventual U.S. attack on Iraq. Two weeks later, Bustani was ousted, with British help.
In 1997, the Brazilian arms-control specialist became founding director-general of the OPCW, whose inspectors oversee destruction of U.S., Russian and other chemical weapons under a 168-nation treaty banning such arms. The agency, based in The Hague, Netherlands, also inspects chemical plants worldwide to ensure they're not put to military use.
In May 2000, one year ahead of time and with strong U.S. support, Bustani was unanimously re-elected OPCW chief for a 2001-2005 term. Colin Powell, the new secretary of state, praised his leadership qualities in a personal letter in 2001.
But Ralph Earle, a veteran U.S. arms negotiator, told AP that he and others in Bolton's arms-control bureau grew unhappy with what they considered Bustani's mismanagement. The agency chief also "had a big ego. He did things on his own," and wasn't responsive to U.S. and other countries' positions, said Earle, now retired.
Both Earle and career diplomat Avis Bohlen, who retired in June 2002 as a top Bolton deputy, said the idea to remove Bustani did not originate with the undersecretary. But Bolton "leaped on it enthusiastically," Bohlen recalled. "He was very much in charge of the whole campaign," she said, and Bustani's initiative on Iraq seemed the "coup de grace."
"It was that that made Bolton decide he had to go," Bohlen said.
After U.N. arms inspectors had withdrawn from Iraq in 1998 in a dispute with the Baghdad government, Bustani stepped up his initiative, seeking to bring Iraq — and other Arab states — into the chemical weapons treaty.
Bustani's inspectors would have found nothing, because Iraq's chemical weapons were destroyed in the early 1990s. That would have undercut the U.S. rationale for war because the Bush administration by early 2002 was claiming, without hard evidence, that Baghdad still had such an arms program.
In a March 2002 "white paper," Bolton's office said Bustani was seeking an "inappropriate role" in Iraq, and the matter should be left to the U.N. Security Council — where Washington has a veto.
Bolton said in a 2003 AP interview that Iraq was "completely irrelevant" to Bustani's responsibilities. Earle and Bohlen disagree. Enlisting new treaty members was part of the OPCW chief's job, they said, although they thought he should have consulted with Washington.
Former Bustani aide Bob Rigg, a New Zealander, sees a clear U.S. motivation: "Why did they not want OPCW involved in Iraq? They felt they couldn't rely on OPCW to come up with the findings the U.S. wanted."
Bustani and his aides believe friction with Washington over OPCW inspections of U.S. chemical-industry sites also contributed to the showdown, which went on for months.
In June 2001, Bolton "telephoned me to try to interfere, in a menacing tone, in decisions that are the exclusive responsibility of the director-general," Bustani wrote in 2002 in a Brazilian academic journal.
He elaborated in an interview with the French newspaper Le Monde in mid-2002, saying Bolton "tried to order me around," and sought to have some U.S. inspection results overlooked and certain Americans hired to OPCW positions. The agency head said he refused.
Bustani, now in a sensitive position as Brazil's London ambassador, indicated to the AP through an intermediary that he would have no additional comment.
The United States went public with the campaign in March 2002, moving to terminate Bustani's tenure. On the eve of an OPCW Executive Council meeting to consider the U.S. no-confidence motion, Bolton met Bustani in The Hague to seek his resignation, U.S. and OPCW officials said.
When Bustani refused, "Bolton said something like, `Now we'll do it the other way,' and walked out," Rigg recounted.
In the Executive Council, the Americans failed to win majority support among the 41 nations. A month later, on April 21, at U.S. insistence, an unprecedented special session of the full treaty conference was called.
Addressing the delegates, Bustani said the conference must decide whether genuine multilateralism "will be replaced by unilateralism in a multilateral disguise."
Only 113 nations were represented, 15 without voting rights because their dues were far in arrears. The U.S. delegation had suggested it would withhold U.S. dues — 22 percent of the budget — if Bustani stayed in office, stirring fears of an OPCW collapse.
This time the Americans, with British help, got the required two-thirds vote of those present and voting. But that amounted to only 48 in favor of removing Bustani — and seven opposed and 43 abstaining — in an organization then with 145 member states.
Bustani appealed the decision to the Administrative Tribunal of the International Labor Organization in Geneva, a judicial body to which agencies in the U.N. family submit personnel cases. The OPCW, meanwhile, named a new director-general, Rogelio Pfirter of Argentina.
In a stern rebuke issued in July 2003, the three-member U.N. tribunal said the U.S. allegations were "extremely vague" and the dismissal "unlawful." It said international civil servants must not be made "vulnerable to pressures and to political change."
Noting that Bustani did not seek reinstatement, it awarded him unpaid salary and 50,000 euros, or $61,500, in damages. He said he would donate the damages to an OPCW technical aid fund for poorer countries.
Reimann, the former OPCW conference chairman, says he looks back with sadness at what was done.
"I think there's no doubt Bustani wanted to serve the organization, to get wider membership and all these things," the Swiss diplomat said. "He was fighting very bravely to make it work."