Select Committee on Economic Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120 - 139)



  Q120  Chairman: Good afternoon and thank you very much for coming along to answer some of our questions, and also, if I may say so, for giving us some written evidence, which is valuable, and we are grateful to you. Is there anything you want to say at the beginning, or are you happy to go straight into the questions?

  Mr Ross: I am happy to straight into the questions. Thanks for having me. I would like to say that.

  Q121  Chairman: If I can start the questions, do you think the UK Government now has a clear and coherent policy on the use of economic sanctions and are the objectives of sanctions usually clearly stated, and is there the appropriate co-ordination with the EU and the US? I thought of paraphrasing that question by saying to you, with all you said in the written evidence, what is it you would really like us to take out of what you said, what do you think is the really important issue on the subject of sanctions?

  Mr Ross: The first thing to say, My Lord Chairman, is that I do not know a lot about current UK policy or EU or UN policy. I have not worked inside the British Government since mid—2002, when I left the UK Mission, so I am not particularly well acquainted with current sanctions policy. I know little bits about it but I am not an authority on it. I can speak much more authoritatively about the experience of sanctions on Iraq, in particular, but also on Libya, and the lessons that experience might have for a more general sanctions policy.

  Q122  Chairman: You tell us what you want to, in answer to the question. From your time when you did have detailed experience of it, was the policy coherent?

  Mr Ross: Was the policy coherent on sanctions against Iraq? That is a big question and there is a lot to be said about it. I hope that the written evidence I have given gives some indicators of the interpretation that I put on it. I think there are many things to be learned about it. Perhaps the biggest lesson about it is that sanctions, particularly generalised economic sanctions, of the kind that were placed on Iraq, are extremely difficult to administer and they are a very, very complicated piece of policy and they require a great deal of attention from the countries and the international agencies charged with their administration. I do not think we gave it that attention ourselves, when we took on that responsibility, during the Iraq sanctions years.

  Q123  Chairman: That is a very good summary of what you put in your written evidence, but the question was, in my mind, at the end of it: is that an argument for saying this was an exercise which, almost certainly, was going to fail, or is this an exercise which, with more care and consideration, reasonably could have been made to be successful?

  Mr Ross: It depends what your objectives were, and the trouble was the objectives, of those sanctions against Iraq, were very mixed. There were differing agendas in different governments and different organs, and I think, in some ways, for the UK and US Governments, sanctions against Iraq were effective in that they stopped Iraq rearming; that was our view inside the British and American Governments until I finished in mid-2002. It was emphatically our view, and that was based on very careful consideration of the intelligence evidence and the evidence that was gained from inspectors in UNSCOM and later UNMOVIC, that Iraq was not in any substantial way rearming with its weapons of mass destruction nor was it rearming in any substantial way, conventionally, with its conventional forces. In the four and a half years that I dealt with the subject, we would frequently sit down with the US Government, in the State Department or in the Foreign Office, in the quarterly bilateral exchanges we had with them on Iraq, and the beginning of that discussion was always—is containment working?—that was the framework of our policy, and the conclusion always was, until mid-2002,—I stress that date for a reason—that containment was working, that Iraq was not rearming to any significant extent. For our purposes, sanctions were effective, comprehensive economic sanctions were effective, and certainly in Washington I think they felt that they were an effective policy instrument for their purposes, which was the containment of the Saddam regime.

  Q124  Lord Skidelsky: What was it that was working? Was it the sanctions or was it the obtrusive inspections? If they were connected, how were they connected?

  Mr Ross: That is a very good question. There is no hard empirical evidence of this and no authoritative history has yet been written, but we felt that it was the sanctions, above all, that had denied Iraq the funds to rearm. As you all know, Iraq is an oil economy, the regime was dependent upon oil revenues for paying its army, for buying weapons, for supporting the regime, and sanctions effectively denied a very large proportion of that oil income,—not all of it, because Saddam was able to import and export some illegally—but a very large proportion of their oil revenues. Perhaps $60 billion, or more, was denied to them. We felt that money would have been enough to enable them to circumvent the weapons embargo that was also in place on Iraq; in other words, that they could bribe their way round it.

  Q125  Lord Skidelsky: Circumvent the inspections as well?

  Mr Ross: Inspections were sporadic during the 1990s, as you know. There was a period of intensive inspections which lasted until the mid-nineties, when UNSCOM was given fairly wide-ranging access in Iraq and they destroyed almost all, if not all, of Iraq's existing stocks of weapons of mass destruction and missiles. There were periods of non-co-operation by Iraq up until 1998. From 1998 until 2002 there were no inspections at all. UNMOVIC was not permitted into the country by Iraq, and yet that was the period during which the UK and US Governments claimed later Iraq substantially had rearmed. This was not the case, in fact, and this was not our private view either. I want to stress that.

  Q126  Lord Paul: I have read your written evidence with great interest and a lot of your views I have heard from foreign countries' diplomats who have served in the Middle East, and we see agreement there with what you have to say. You do not have to answer this question if you do not want to, or part of it. Did you decide to resign from the Foreign Service because you disagreed with what was happening, in your view, or did you decide to resign anyway?

  Mr Ross: I decided to resign because of the Iraq War. I gave secret testimony to the inquiry led by Lord Butler, and after I had submitted my testimony I realised I could no longer go and work for the Government with a glad heart, so I quit.

  Q127  Lord Lawson of Blaby: Like Lord Paul, I would like to congratulate you on your cogent written evidence, which is extremely helpful, and I found myself in agreement with the vast bulk of it. There are one or two things I do not understand quite and I would like to ask, if I may, about those. The first is that—it is in your written evidence and you said it a moment ago—sanctions were effective to the extent, which is a very important extent, that they denied the resources to enable Saddam to rearm. Of course, in a totalitarian state, it is the regime which allocates the resources, and therefore there is no way you can deny them the resources to rearm without denying them also the resources for the hospitals and all the other humanitarian things, so you have to accept that these go together. You have to accept too that a totalitarian regime's first priority is likely to be the army and the secret police, and so on. So it seems to me that, at one and the same time, you can commend the use of sanctions, in order to deny them the resources to rearm, and yet deplore the consequences for the hospitals, the other social services and the general living standards of the ordinary people. There is no way, realistically, you can do that?

  Mr Ross: I think that is absolutely correct.

  Q128  Lord Lawson of Blaby: Which side of the fence are you on?

  Mr Ross: I have to say, my conclusion, after many years of working on it, is that one does not need to set up a choice of that nature. Personally, I do not think that comprehensive economic sanctions should ever be imposed, on any country, ever again, because of what they did to the Iraqi people.

  Q129  Lord Lawson of Blaby: Even though they did stop Saddam rearming?

  Mr Ross: I think there are other methods of doing that, and I think there are other methods to contain Iraq, without starving their people to death, basically, and I think we and the bulk of the Iraqi people will be paying the price for that policy for a very long time. We were very conscious of it, we designed the Oil for Food programme in an attempt to ameliorate it, but we did not design it well enough for that itself to avoid manipulation by the Saddam regime. The peculiarity of Iraq was that its massive dependence on oil, the fact that it was an oil economy, meant that, on the one hand, sanctions could be incredibly effective in denying resources to the Government, but also they were incredibly effective in causing vast humanitarian damage to the economy, because as soon as we got hold of the oil they could not import or export anything. Basically there was no economy left. There was very little economy in Iraq pre-sanctions. Sanctions destroyed what there was. There was no importing or exporting, actually that was forbidden by the terms of the embargo. The comprehensive embargo that we had on them was incredibly effective in destroying the economy very quickly, and that was, I think, something that we should have foreseen and guarded against.

  Q130  Lord Sheldon: Can I follow the question that Lord Lawson put forward, because I am asking you if you consider that the humanitarian aspect of sanctions should be carefully considered, that this is an essential part of sanctions, and the humanitarian cost of sanctions was largely ignored, in the instance, as you have mentioned, of Iraq, of course. Is the Government giving sufficient attention to the potential humanitarian cost of sanctions, in your view?

  Mr Ross: Today, I am afraid, Your Lordship, I do not know, because I do not know about policy-making inside the Foreign Office.

  Q131  Lord Sheldon: In the recent past then?

  Mr Ross: It is certainly my view that we did not, on Iraq, and, frankly, on Libya too it was very low down the list of considerations. There is a way of thinking in the Foreign Office, and I dare say in most foreign offices, including in the State Department, with which we worked very closely, that security is the primary concern of foreign policy, that is the priority from which everything else follows. I think there was a slight cultural sense, in policy-making, certainly on Iraq, that those who cared about the humanitarian consequences of sanctions, or indeed of any policy, were somehow to be taken slightly less seriously. It was a slightly softer end of the policy spectrum than the hard considerations of security, and suchlike. I think that was a mistake, not only in terms of the pure moral effect of sanctions but also in terms of sustaining support for a necessary policy to contain a dangerous regime. The fact that sanctions caused such humanitarian damage from an early stage undermined the political legitimacy of those who supported sanctions. We were seen in the Security Council very much, by the time I worked in it, as being on a moral par with Saddam Hussein, which, in many ways, of course, is absurd, but the evidence of humanitarian suffering in Iraq was so great by that time and our indifference to it was so evident that I think many otherwise impartial members of the Security Council, or indeed of the UN membership, felt that we had dug ourselves into the same pit that he was in.

  Q132  Lord Sheldon: How do you think the two aspects could have been reconciled?

  Mr Ross: The easy catch-phrase, of course, which trips off everybody's lips in sanctions policy-making these days, is targeted or smart sanctions. This is obviously the answer, but that is not an easy option, it is highly complicated. In the case of Iraq, I think that would have been the right way to go, somehow to target the revenues and finances of the regime itself rather than the civilian economy of the country. We put a lot of effort into thinking about this, in the British Government. But I have to say it was not something that was ever taken seriously by senior officials or ministers, and the reason for that was that it is a very complicated chunk of cheese, if I can put it like that. Designing measures that affect individuals or members of a government, or the behaviour of a government, which actually harms them and causes them discomfort in a way which will change their behaviour, is very difficult, it requires a lot of technical work. I think those technical resources were available to us, in the US and British Governments, but we failed to use them at the time.

  Q133  Lord Lawson of Blaby: May I put it to you that really this is pie in the sky? Secondly, if you have targeted sanctions, it may look better, it may be that you do not incur the odium of the rest of the world, or a large section of the rest of the world, as we did in the case of Iraq, and that may be something which is a worthwhile consideration. In fact, again, in a totalitarian regime, and on the whole we are more likely to be thinking of sanctions on a totalitarian regime or a dictatorship, rather than a democracy, in those cases they have the resources of the country at their disposal. If you manage to target Saddam's private accounts in London, if they are in London (I have no idea), certainly you will make sure that dubious characters will never bank in London again, but it will not stop Saddam enriching himself at the expense of the Iraqi people. What have you achieved, except a cosmetic? It will have done less harm, but what have you actually achieved?

  Mr Ross: Surely, the first principle of policy should be, first, do no harm, rather than think about what harm you can do. Personally, I think it is very difficult to generalise about these things. I wish you luck in your deliberations in this Committee because I think it is very difficult to come up with general principles. I think each case is different. I do not think comprehensive sanctions on Iraq were particularly successful, in political terms. I do not think they secured us a great political objective. They may have contained the Iraqi threat for 10 years, but that objective could have been delivered by other means, perhaps by military containment. There was no evidence that Iraq was actually intending to use its weapons on its neighbours or to invade other countries. What exactly was it we were trying to achieve? And, in fact, the real policy objective was a secret one, which was regime change of the Saddam regime, and, to that extent, that was not successful either, and that took an invasion, at enormous cost, both in blood and treasure, to be successful. I do not think comprehensive sanctions, in any event, are a particularly effective tool, whatever your objectives. In terms of stopping totalitarian dictators abusing or robbing their people, I do not think you can stop that through sanctions. I agree with you, it is pie in the sky; targeted sanctions, freezing their assets, in London or anywhere else, will not achieve that. Sanctions, it must be remembered, are not primarily tools of regime change; regime change, in international law, is not a legitimate objective. What is a legitimate objective is trying to stop a state which has breached international law from continuing to breach it, or breaching it once more, punishing them in some way for a past egregious breach, like invading a country or murdering large numbers of people, like the Lockerbie case, or something like that. It is not regarded in the Security Council, or more generally, in any part of international law, that regime change is legitimate. I do not think you are ever going to get international support for sanctions where that is the objective. You have to be very clear about your objective; you have to state that objective as unambiguously and politically neutrally as possible, if it is going to be supported in any way by others in the international community. It has to be legitimate, if you are going to have the support of others. The reason I stress that point is that, with any country, whether it is Iraq or North Korea or Zimbabwe or Libya or Sudan, you have to get the support, above all, of the neighbours of that country and of the broader international community if you are going to have any chance of success with whatever measure you agree.

  Q134  Lord Layard: Eventually, the UN moved towards targeted sanctions. Why did it take so long to do that?

  Mr Ross: That is a very uncomfortable question to answer. The reason it took so long was because the British and the American Governments did not, and quite deliberately, pay attention to the humanitarian consequences of sanctions. We raised it frequently as a topic in the bilateral exchanges we had with the US. There was growing pressure in this country, in the late nineties, over the humanitarian consequences of sanctions, caused by television documentaries and press articles. I remember us saying to the State Department, "Look, we are very uncomfortable about the amount of pressure we are under on the humanitarian consequences of sanctions," and I remember the American head of delegation literally putting up his hands, like that, and saying "Doesn't bother us; we hear nothing about it here in Washington." That was the pattern for several years, until the bombing at the end of 1998, Desert Fox, that really turned everything over. The consensus that we had in the Security Council up until then was destroyed by what many felt was the illegitimate military action on our part, and the pressure for change to the sanctions regime became overwhelming; so we sat back and began to develop a policy response. This was mainly because we felt that we were going to lose the necessary votes in the Security Council to maintain any sanctions on Iraq. We thought that the French or Russians or Chinese were going to push for a sanctions suspension or lift resolution in the Council and that we could not guarantee that they would not get the votes to force such a measure, thus forcing us to veto it, and we realised that the moment that happened sanctions would be seen as illegitimate, if we had to veto a sanction, lift resolution. Just to explain, sanctions were imposed by Resolution 661 back in 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, and it would have required a positive resolution of the Security Council to lift those sanctions; in other words, they would have to have nine positive votes, with no vetoes from any of the permanent five. Technically, we could have stopped a lift resolution with a veto, but we needed to maintain the political capital of having nine positive votes in our favour, not in favour of lift, and we realised that this vote count was in danger if sanctions continued the way they were, in the late nineties. That was what triggered us to invent the smart sanctions concept.

  Q135  Lord Vallance of Tummel: You mentioned earlier on that there was a multiplicity of objectives behind the sanctions against Iraq; obviously, different countries had different agenda. I wonder if you could flesh that out a bit and let us know a little bit about what those different agenda might be? Also, would it not be fair to say that it is almost inevitable, if we are talking about UN sanctions, that there would be a multiplicity of objectives, and, if I am right, are there any general conclusions we can draw from that?

  Mr Ross: The first part of the question, the different agendas on Iraq sanctions, the objectives were stated in Resolution 687, the resolution which followed the Gulf War: "the mother of all resolutions." This resolution stated, that Iraq had to verifiably disarm all of its weapons of mass destruction, and that meant chemical, biological and nuclear weapons and missiles, of up to 150 kilometres range, and agree to accept ongoing monitoring, measurement and verification, OMV, i.e., continual and perpetual inspection of its potential weapon sites, and those conditions, we felt, were relatively clear. In practice, however, they turned out to be not clear, because after many years of work the inspectors were turning up less and less, in terms of hard evidence of actual holdings of weapons. By the mid nineties, and certainly by the late nineties, they were not finding any significant material of any kind, bombs, evidence of development of weapons, dismantled missiles, anything. That begged the question, at what point had Iraq verifiably disarmed? And UNSCOM became rather inventive, under the leadership of Richard Butler, coming up with ever more things that Iraq had to do in order to fulfil that condition, thus provoking some in the Security Council to claim that UNSCOM, at the behest of the Americans and the British, was constantly moving the goalposts. There was that whole debate going on, in a sense, the changing nature of the conditions of 687, over the decade of the 1990s, but also there was a private discourse inside the British and American Governments of what we thought sanctions were really about, and that was containment. Containment is a word which is bandied around a lot in the Iraq debate. We did not use it that often, but it was very much the thrust of our policy, which was to stop Saddam rearming and to stop him threatening his neighbours or otherwise being difficult in the Middle East, and to that extent we felt sanctions were successful. The Americans had a third agenda, which was regime change, which was rather weakly held under the Democratic Administration: it was imposed upon them by a Congressional vote that they should have a regime change policy, and that objective thus was grafted onto the containment objective in a rather uncomfortable way. We did not have a regime change objective; in fact, we were emphatically against regime change for all the years that I worked on the subject, until mid 2002, because we felt, and this will come out, no doubt, in the telegrams when they are released in 30 years' time, that if Saddam was overthrown and Iraq was invaded there would be chaos as a consequence, and that was the view that we put in our talks with the Americans on many occasions. For the others in the Security Council, the objective of sanctions, I think, was rather complicated, and I think you would have to ask them really what their objectives were. We always claimed that the Russians and French just wanted lift as quickly as possible, in order to resume their fruitful commercial links with Iraq. I am not sure that was so clearly the case, certainly in France. As you can see, there was a big mêlée, a big kind of smorgasbord of differing objectives, which served to complicate the debate a lot. All of that led me to the conclusion in my written evidence that it would help if we had very clear objectives, stated unambiguously where possible, for any future sanctions regime. I think this is very difficult, and these resolutions in the Security Council are put together at very short notice, in situations of great political pressure. Resolution 687 was written in a great hurry and it was never envisaged that sanctions would last as long as they did. I talked to the person who drafted 687 and he told me that they thought sanctions would last 18 months when 687 was drafted, and they thought that Iraq would comply with the conditions of 687 within a year, because they were so straightforward; it was so straightforward for them to disarm and allow inspectors in, why would they not do that, and then get lift, and it would all be over. I do not think it was ever realised that the ambiguities inherent in 687 would become so problematic, as they did, over the decade that followed. I do not think it is easy to draft these conditions when you are working under the pressures that diplomats on the Security Council are working under, but I hope that one of the instructive things emerging from your examinations will be clear guidance to Government that they should take the greatest of care, at that particular moment, to craft and draft those objectives as clearly as possible.

  Q136  Lord Vallance of Tummel: Just coming back to my general point, if I may, for a moment, you do not think, therefore, that it is almost inevitable, with UN sanctions, that there is going to be a multiplicity of different objectives from the different clients?

  Mr Ross: I do not think necessarily it is going to be a multiplicity of different objectives. Of course, the whole problem with the Security Council is you are trying to bring together 15, and in reality five, different views of the world and agree on one piece of law, and that is always going to be very difficult and it is a great challenge of diplomacy to do that. I think it has become much more difficult to do it now than it was in my day, when I was on the Security Council. I think the degree of consensus we had then, in the late nineties and early part of this century, has now fragmented, perhaps for ever, and that is evident in the work on Darfur, North Korea and elsewhere, that Western Wishes, western desiderata, to punish the Khartoum regime, or PyongYang, or whoever, are not shared in the rest of the P5, particularly by China and Russia, and they are quite firm in saying so. In my day, the Russians were much weaker and the Chinese were much more willing to go along with the P4 consensus, where it existed. They were not very active. That seems to have changed. I do not think, in any way, that undermines the requirement for the objectives of sanctions to be unambiguous; in fact, I think it makes it all the stronger. If you do not craft that correctly at the beginning, you will hit that problem sooner rather than later in any case and you will fail in your objective of achieving the political end from sanctions. I think it is very important to get sanctions right. I am very troubled by the seeming dichotomy in many people's minds between sanctions or military force, that either we have sanctions or we have military force, and in the US, in particular, sanctions have been very much discredited by the Oil for Food experience and the Volcker Report, and all the rest of it. The UN is just routinely decried as a kind of useless and ineffective organ. I think it is terribly important that Governments like Britain, which is amongst the most influential on the Security Council, should be at the forefront of those trying to develop sophisticated sanctions responses to egregious international problems, be it weapons proliferating countries, or terrorism, or whatever. I think it requires a great deal of technical resources. I am not at all convinced that the British or any other Government has taken that challenge as seriously as they should have done. I think also it requires the international institutions concerned, like the UN or the EU, to develop bodies of international expertise that can be drawn on when necessary. I do not see why that work cannot be done in preparation for those dramatic moments when we need to turn to them.

  Q137  Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay: You have told us already how heavily Saddam relied on illegal oil exports, so why did the American and British Governments turn a blind eye to them?

  Mr Ross: I will try to make it short; it is a long answer though. It is all in the written evidence that I have given, so if you turn particularly to the article.

  Chairman: If it is in the written evidence, we can find it from there.

  Q138  Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay: Have you anything to add to your written evidence on this topic? It has been very interesting hearing you so far.

  Mr Ross: Basically, it is two things. The first was that many of the countries doing the smuggling were "allies" of the West in the containment of Iraq: Turkey and the Gulf countries, in particular, Jordan was the other particular example. We had a lot of difficulty in bringing ourselves to put pressure on them, Turkey in particular, which was one of the most egregious sanctions busters; there were always other things higher on the agenda. In the way that foreign policy works, the immediate priority always pushed the important but less immediate priority down the list, so Cyprus, NATO enlargement, you name it, whatever our problem was with Turkey, we had great difficulty getting our Embassy in Turkey ever to raise the subject. I am sure the then Ambassadors in Turkey would complain vociferously that I have made that claim, but we felt that, in New York. The second problem I have alluded to already, which was that the policy was really complicated. It required a lot of boning-up of complicated statistics, a complicated and long history of measures, law, exchanges. It required a comprehensive policy that was consistent for all the neighbours and yet took account of all their different circumstances. That is quite a complicated thing to do and I think that modern foreign policy institutions have been swamped by the complexity of foreign policy and they are not able to develop comprehensive, sophisticated policy solutions in situations like that. Certainly they were not able to when I was working on it.

  Q139  Lord Paul: My question is equally difficult, where a lot of companies and individuals have been involved in illegal dealings, etc., and the Volcker Report has spent a lot of money and a lot of time. Has any action been taken, is there any desire for action to be taken, and if action has been taken it is to what extent?

  Mr Ross: It varies. Some countries have taken a lot of action, the Australian Government, for example, have vigorously prosecuted and pursued various companies and individuals involved. Volcker shared the evidence that he collected with Member States that wished to have it, and I understand that the British Government has taken evidence from Volcker concerning British individuals and companies which may have breached sanctions. I understand that the bits of the Government concerned are conducting preliminary investigations as to whether they will actually enact prosecutions for those people.

previous page contents next page

House of Lords home page Parliament home page House of Commons home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2007