On Sunday, the US government will launch an international coup. It has been planned for a month. It will be executed quietly, and most of us won't know what is happening until it's too late. It is seeking to overthrow 60 years of multilateralism, in favour of a global regime built on force.
The coup begins with its attempt, in five days' time, to unseat the man in charge of ridding the world of chemical weapons. If it succeeds, this will be the first time that the head of a multilateral agency will have been deposed in this manner. Every other international body will then become vulnerable to attack. The coup will also shut down the peaceful options for dealing with the chemical weapons Iraq may possess, helping to ensure that war then becomes the only means of destroying them.
The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) enforces the Chemical Weapons Convention. It inspects labs and factories and arsenals and oversees the destruction of the weapons they contain. Its director-general is a workaholic Brazilian diplomat called Jose Bustani. He 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 weapon 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 Colin Powell wrote to him to thank him for his "very impressive" work. But now everything has changed. The man celebrated for his remarkable achievements has been denounced as an enemy of the people.
In January, with no prior warning or explanation, the US State Department asked the Brazilian government to recall him, on the grounds that it did not like his "management style". This request directly contravenes the Chemical Weapons Convention, which states "the Director-General ... shall not seek or receive instructions from any government." Brazil refused. In March, the US government accused Bustani of "financial mismanagement", "demoralization" of his staff, "bias" and "ill-considered initiatives". It warned that if he wanted to avoid damage to his reputation, he must resign.
Again, the US was trampling the convention, which insists that member states shall "not seek to influence" the staff. He refused to go. On March 19th, the US proposed a vote of no-confidence in Mr Bustani. It lost. So it then did something unprecedented in the history of multilateral diplomacy. It called a "special session" of the member states to oust him. The session begins on Sunday. And this time the US is likely to get what it wants.
Since losing the vote last month, the United States, which is supposed to be the organisation's biggest donor, has been twisting the arms of weaker nations, refusing to pay its dues unless they support it, with the result that the OPCW could go under. Last week Bustani told me, "the Europeans are so afraid that the US will abandon the convention that they are prepared to sacrifice my post to keep it on board." His last hope is that the United Kingdom, whose record of support for the organisation has so far been exemplary, will make a stand. The meeting on Sunday will present Blair's government with one of the clearest choices it has yet faced between multilateralism and the "special relationship".
The US has not sought to substantiate the charges it has made against Bustani. The OPCW is certainly suffering from a financial crisis, but that is largely because the United States first unilaterally capped its budget and then failed to pay what it owed. The organisation's accounts have just been audited and found to be perfectly sound. Staff morale is higher than any organisation as underfunded as the OPCW could reasonably expect. Bustani's real crimes are contained in the last two charges, of "bias" and "ill-considered initiatives".
The charge of bias arises precisely because the OPCW is not biased. It has sought to examine facilities in the United States with the same rigour with which it examines facilities anywhere else. But, just like Iraq, the US has refused to accept weapons inspectors from countries it regards as hostile to its interests, and has told those who have been allowed in which parts of a site they may and may not inspect. It has also passed special legislation permitting the president to block unannounced inspections, and banning inspectors from removing samples of its chemicals.
"Ill-considered initiatives" is code for the attempts Bustani has made, in line with his mandate, to persuade Saddam Hussein to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention. If Iraq agrees, it will then be subject to the same inspections -- both routine and unannounced -- as any other member state (with the exception, of course, of the United States). Bustani has so far been unsuccessful, but only because, he believes, he has not yet received the backing of the UN Security Council, with the result that Saddam knows he would have little to gain from signing.
Bustani has suggested that if the Security Council were to support the OPCW's bid to persuade Iraq to sign, this would provide the US with an alternative to war. It is hard to see why Saddam Hussein would accept weapons inspectors from UNMOVIC -- the organisation backed by the Security Council -- after its predecessor UNSCOM was found to be stuffed with spies planted by the US government. It is much easier to see why he might accept inspectors from an organisation which has remained scrupulously even-handed. Indeed, when UNSCOM was thrown out of Iraq in 1998, the OPCW was allowed in to complete the destruction of the weapons it had found. Bustani has to go because he has proposed the solution to a problem the US does not want solved.
"What the Americans are doing," Bustani says, "is a coup d'etat. They are using brute force to amend the convention and unseat the director-general." As the Chemical Weapons Convention has no provisions permitting these measures, the US is simply ripping up the rules. If it wins, then the OPCW, like UNSCOM, will be fatally compromised. Success for the United States on Sunday would threaten the independence of every multilateral body.
This is, then, one of those rare occasions on which our government could make a massive difference to the way the world is run. It could choose to support its closest ally, wrecking multilateralism and shutting down the alternatives to war. Or it could defy the United States in defence of world peace and international law. It will take that principled stand only if we, the people from whom it draws its power, make so much noise that it must listen. We have five days in which to stop the US from bullying its way to war.