Press Conference by Permanent Representative Vassily Nebenzia on the 20th anniversary of the US-led invasion of Iraq
Vassily Nebenzia: Good afternoon everyone. As you might have noticed, initially in today’s program of work we had briefing on 1591 Committee and briefing and consultations on UNITAMS. Then there came a request from Western delegations to schedule “given DPRK’s most recent and unambiguous ICBM launch…. a briefing Monday morning following 1591 and UNITAMS”. But as soon as they learned that we plan to raise the 20th anniversary of US aggression against Iraq at the AOB and the only possible way to do it would be in the course of UNITAMS consultations, they started dirty procedural maneuvering insisting that the Briefing on DPRK come first and only then the Briefing and consultations on 1591 and UNITAMS. By doing so, they clearly wanted to blur the effect of our AOB since under such scenario it would run well into the afternoon lunch break. They also wanted to secure afternoon’s US Arria meeting on LGBTQ which would have happened in parallel with the DPRK meeting if UNITAMS/our AOB had happened first. Of course, this item is very uncomfortable primarily for the US and their allies as well. So this clearly demonstrates that the US is not interested in exposing their crimes in Iraq and elsewhere and that the LGBTQ issues have much more significant place in their priorities than ensuring accountability for crimes in Iraq. So we will try to correct it now, at this press conference.
20 years ago, on 20 March 2003, the US Armed Forces and their allies started an invasion of Iraq on the pretext of searching for and destroying of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). It was done in violation of the Charter of the United Nations and international law, and it plunged the country into years of chaos, from which it has not fully recovered until today.
Before the invasion, the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) and later the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) had spent 12 years looking for biological, chemical and other types of WMDs in Iraq. The White House claimed that there were hidden stocks in Iraq. Baghdad denied it.
However, on 5 February 2003, US Secretary of State Colin Powell addressed the Security Council accusing the Iraqi leaders of producing weapons of mass destruction. He presented an infamous vial containing white powder as “evidence,” which was allegedly anthrax agent found in Iraq. As early as the following month, the United States and its allies launched an armed invasion in Iraq.
Eventually, they found no WMD in Iraq. The head of state, Saddam Hussein, was toppled and later executed, while the country delved into a years-long internal military and political conflict.
But it was not one of the internal conflicts, which happen for various reasons in other countries. It was a conflict that took place during the occupation of the territory in question by the United States and it was directly ignited and fueled by Western countries of the anti-Iraq coalition that had no common border with Iraq, which was thousands miles away from them, and which, as it turned out, posed no threat to the invaders.
According to Western sources, the invasion and the subsequent occupation of Iraq resulted in 100,000-205,000 civilian deaths, with indirect civilian losses amounting to about 650,000. This military operation also resulted in the destruction of Iraqi basic infrastructure, a disastrous decline in the national health system, and a surge in crime and later-terrorism. This has led to a profound, protracted socio-economic crisis. The number of Iraqi refugees (in Syria and Jordan) and internally displaced persons has reached 1.5 million and 2 million, respectively.
Such drastic losses among civilian population and untold protracted suffering of Iraqi citizens were literally calling for accountability. The International Criminal Court has had full jurisdiction over crimes committed by Western soldiers and those who gave them orders. However, it failed to do anything to bring those persons to justice. Year after year the sections in the ICC reports dedicated to investigation of Western crimes in Iraq were becoming shorter and more general. Until they completely disappeared – this was a result of an “innovative strategy” of a new ICC Prosecutor Karim Khan, who decided to “de-prioritize” investigations into this and other situations involving crimes committed by the West. This step perfectly illustrates the real priority of the ICC, which has nothing to do with justice.
At the same time, Washington consistently disregarded the International Committee of the Red Cross’s reports about cruel treatment of Iraqi prisoners and investigations conducted by Western NGOs, including Human Rights Watch, which implicated US service personnel in Iraq in systematic killings, torture and rapes of civilians. The US tried to hush up absolutely everything. They hushed up scandals caused by media leaks about torture at the Abu Ghraib and Camp Bucca prisons, including the Iraq War Logs published by WikiLeaks.
Washington also cynically covered up crimes committed by the personnel of US private military companies. In December 2020, US President Donald Trump pardoned four employees of Blackwater, an infamous private military company, despite condemnation by the UN Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries. The four individuals were found guilty of killing 14 civilians on Nisour Square in Baghdad in 2007.
Apart from completely demolishing Iraqi statehood and the country’s military, economic and social foundations, the aggression against Iraq irreparably damaged its cultural and historical legacy.
After US forces seized Baghdad on 9 April 2003, rampant looting and robberies swept the city. The National Museum and other cultural sites in the capital also badly suffered. These crimes later spread to major Iraqi archaeological sites.
US service personnel smuggled ancient artifacts out of Iraq. During the entire period of occupation, planeloads of items were smuggled out using special aircraft. According to the management of the National Museum alone, 15,000 exhibits are reported missing. No more than 6,000 have been returned to date.
Consequently, the US have failed to fulfill their promise to establish the so-called prosperity in Iraq. However, they destroyed a lifestyle that had evolved over centuries, and thus undermined the fragile inter-denominational balance. The country turned into a hotbed of regional instability for many years, which subsequently gave rise to ISIS, which consisted also of many former Iraqi military. In fact, US is a godfather of ISIS which it later had to fight. Same happened in Afghanistan where US supported Al-Qaida against the Soviets who later turned against their former sponsors. It’s hard even to calculate how many lives those US adventures claimed.
Later the leaders of the countries involved in the invasion attempted to justify their criminal actions by claiming that they had been given inaccurate information by their own intelligence services. But no one was punished for this and many continue to serve now.
On the contrary many of those who exposed US crimes were punished and prosecuted or persecuted. One of them was Julian Assange who was set up under a bogus claim and now awaits extradition to the US from the UK. Another one to be persecuted was former UN inspector Scott Ritter who exposed US claims on WMDs in Iraq. He also was set up and accused of a crime that he always denied. And now the US who tarnished his name bar him from participation in Security Council meetings.
After 20 years the lessons from US aggression in Iraq are still not learned. US hasn’t officially apologized or acknowledged the devastating consequences of its fabricated aggression. Many of those who warmongered then continue to warmonger now advocating for more weapons to be sent to Ukraine to fuel NATO proxy war with Russia in Ukraine until the last Ukrainian. And claiming that before 24 February 2022 the world hadn’t seen anything more terrible, as if the world started only on that date.
We all must not forget and forgive those terrible US crimes and remember the names who still await accountability for their role in triggering this hoax Iraq crisis. Among the living US architects of the Iraqi war are, inter alia, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Runsfeld, John Bolton, Condeleezza Rice and, last by not least, Joe Biden himself who then headed Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee.
We must also stand up to the criminal methods used by the US in the case of Iraq. The Iraqi scenario was followed in Syria with ISIS nearly seizing the country and it was only Russia’s military interference that prevented this scenario from happening.
While addressing you, I would like to remind you of the role that the media can play in drumming up the political warmongering campaign. That is exactly what happened in Iraq and such names as David Frum, Jeffrey Goldberg, Jonathan Chait, Fareed Zakaria, Anne Applebaum, Christian Amanpour as well as some others, will always be associated with the way Iraqi war was presented. Some of them, as you may see, have drawn no conclusions and today continue to serve the interests of the US establishment spreading lies in the Ukrainian context.
Iraq has been a prologue, a precursor, a prodrome, to what happened later in the Middle East. Even more – to geopolitical events that we’ve been witnessing and are witnessing today.
So today is a good opportunity to reflect on what kind of world we are having today and where we are all heading if we let the US draw us into another reckless adventure, this time in Europe.
Q: Some of us were here and at UN Headquarters on that day 20 years ago. But today we are watching another war unfold in Europe between Russia and Ukraine. And I think all of us would like to know your thoughts on this day of the 20th anniversary and on a day when the President of China is in Moscow on how the current war can end and what are the prospects, since we hear all sorts of news about possible offensives in the spring. And the spring starts tonight.
A: First of all, the geneses of these two events are absolutely different. Iraq is thousands of miles away from the territory where the aggression came from and it posed no threat to the US, which was later discovered and in fact proved. With what we are witnessing in Europe, we had all legitimate reasons to believe that what had been happening before it all started was a threat to Russian national security. That's where it all came from and why the special military operation began. The goals of the SMO were clearly stated – to defend the people of Donbas who were threatened by the Ukrainian nationalists. I said many times, had the Minsk Agreements been implemented nothing that we are witnessing today would be happening. On the spring offensive, I think you are addressing a wrong person. I'm not a military strategist and I'm not a privy to plans that the military are having. Perhaps the Ministry of Defense would be better placed to tell it to you, but I'm not sure it will.
Q: What about my question about seeing how this current war is going to end?
A: When Ukrainians realize the reality and stop coming forth with absolutely impotent plans, what they call “peace plans”, that provide for Russia to surrender. That will not happen. When they become realistic and I think they will become more and more realistic with the situation on the battlefield, then they will be perhaps more ready for negotiating seriously.
Q: On the point of international law, you said as so many Russian officials have said, Ambassador Churkin before you said that 2003 was a violation of the Charter and of international law. I get that. Why is Russia's invasion of Ukraine also not a violation of the Charter and international law and therefore illegal? And if I may ask one other question. As the Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the United Nations, you know obviously that your leader is now not just the President of the Russian Federation, he's also a wanted man under the International Criminal Court. How will this affect his travel and in particular can he now visit as world leaders do the United Nations in Geneva or New York or is that now impossible for him?
A: First of all, the decision of the ICC is absolutely null and void for us. ICC simply demonstrated that it went to new lows for which it had been heading already for a long time. You know that we are not statutory member of the ICC. So for us, effectively, that means nothing.
Q: Practically, does it mean he can't come here, for example, can he?
A: Well, the world is not focused on New York. There are other places where he can travel.
Q: 123 countries he can't go to. 123 countries are signatories to the Rome Statute that governs the ICC. He can't go to any of those, can he?
A: That only proves that the decision was purely political and it was made for the purpose of ostracizing. It doesn't bring us anywhere closer to meaningful negotiations, which Western countries have not demonstrated the will for anyway. I'm not sure I will be able to answer in legal terms how this will affect travel. I'm not an expert in these issues. This decision is being studied in Moscow, but there has been a comment already that for us it will effectively mean nothing.
Q: And in terms of legality comparison, the point that Russian officials have made every single time since 2003 about the violation of the charter in international law, why isn't what you've done exactly the same?
A: We did not do exactly the same. I already answered this question partly when saying that the geneses of both crises are absolutely different. While Iraq was a hoax, Ukrainian threat and later the proxy war of the West against Russia is a reality.
Q: On Friday you mentioned that Russia will be holding an Aria meeting in early April. Is that meeting intended as some sort of a rebuttal to the indictment of President Putin by the ICC?
A: Not at all. We planned that meeting long before, and that meeting will be on the issue which is so often raised today about the Ukrainian children in Russia. We would like to brief our fellow Security Council members and the rest of the UN membership on what the real situation with them in Russia is.
Q: And then just a quick follow-up to this morning's meeting, which ended with a bit of back-and-forth between yourselves, China, the US and the UK. Are you engaging at all with the US on the PRST for North Korea?
A: We are engaging on any document that the Security Council is discussing or negotiating. But I don't know what will come out of this PRST yet.
Q: Do you think there should be one?
A: I think that we should demonstrate restraint in these issues because while accusing DPRK of all misdeeds that they are doing, the US and its allies forget that they make actions which DPRK consider extremely hostile. For right or for wrong, that's another question, but that's another example of a security dilemma. What seems offensive for one seems defensive for another.
Q: I believe you said something to the effect that the Ukrainians are not realistic about what their demands are for ending the war and that to end the war they have to become more realistic. My question is, can you expand in terms of what you see or what Russia sees in terms of being realistic, Ukraine's being realistic in terms of peace talks?
A: We put forward the objectives of our special military operations. They are very well-known: demilitarization, denazification, and the neutral status of Ukraine. When they are ready to discuss it again, we will engage. We never objected or rejected negotiating these things with them. In fact, this was negotiated in March and April 2022, and there was a draft agreement already prepared to which Ukrainians gave their draft consent, I would put it that way. But then in the middle of April they simply withdrew on the orders of their sponsors. And that's it.
Q: The President of China, Xi Jinping is in Moscow. Mr. Xi has proposed a twelve-point peace plan that the US and Ukraine reject. Ukraine and the US reject. Is there any possibility that there would be a new peace plan proposed during or after? Do you see anything in that front? Do you expect your President to continue to travel to South Africa, a member of the ICC?
A: On travel I already answered. On new peace plans, we hear and we have heard a lot of offers for mediation, but frankly, they were quite empty. Except for the willingness to mediate, there was nothing substantive behind them. I don't know about any forthcoming peace plans, but if any such plan appears, of course we will study it first.
Q: On the Arria meeting in April on children. That was obviously the topic of the background for the reason for the arrest warrant issued by the ICC. The deportation of children was the subject of the arrest warrant, one of them. I know we will all hear more about it in April. But what is your short answer to why those children have been removed from Ukraine to either Russian occupied territories or Russia? Thank you.
A: Simply because we wanted to spare them of the danger that military activities may bring. That's it. The issue of children brought to Russia forcefully is totally overblown. That's why we want to show it at an Arria meeting.
Q: And is the intention to return them?
A: When conditions are safe, of course. Why not?
Q: Just a quick question, because everybody seems to link the Iraqi war with the current ongoing special operation in Ukraine. Just before you came here, I asked the Spokesperson of the Secretary-General whether the current Secretary-General thinks if Iraqi war was illegal or not. He said the focus of the current Secretary-General is on peace, promoting peace, development and rebuilding. He didn't really answer my question whether it's illegal or against the UN Charter. But it's very obvious that the United Nations’ stand on this Ukrainian conflict is that Russia is the invader, that it's against the UN Charter, and that it's illegal. What's your response?
A: Secretary-General is sometimes very shy on many issues while vocal on others, and, I will put it very mildly, it's not always balanced. I'd like to draw your attention to an article in The Guardian today (perhaps many of you already read it) titled “Two decades later, it feels as if the US is trying to forget the Iraq war ever happened”. That's what is happening now. Yes, they try to pretend that it is an event of a bygone time which we have already passed and should not remember.
I will give you just two quotes out of this article, which I recommend you read. President Biden. After delivering his remarks, Biden declared, “the idea that over 200,000 forces would invade another country… since World War II, nothing like that has happened”. And the second quote from the article, Biden was thinking only of Europe, but neglected to say so, in which case he treated the West's history as synonymous with the world’s. And that is the problem. While they focus on events of today, they forget about events of the past for which they never apologized.
Q: I am just asking about the position from the UN, not US. But Interestingly, I also asked this question to the Spokesperson. I said, do you think that UN has been misused as a political means of the United States? And he said, “obviously not”. So your opinion?
A: I will say obviously yes.
Q: I don't know if you can answer as an ambassador, but maybe as a scholar of international relations. Do you think that if the United States and the UK didn't break the Charter 20 years ago, maybe your President will not have invaded Ukraine and maybe will have tried to resolve the problem in a different way?
A: I think that history doesn't have a subjunctive mood. We live in the history that happened and we cannot change it. What would have happened if the US and UK had not invaded Iraq? As I said, Iraq was a precursor to later events in the Middle East, and also to events that happened geopolitically. I will give you one quote perhaps that is exactly the right time to do so. It's a short one, be patient with me. “American exceptionalism turned especially destructive after the end of the Cold War. Since 1992, the United States has fought several devastating wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere without achieving the political outcomes it sought. The link between these wars and the end of the Cold War is not incidental. Former NATO commander Wesley Clark spelled out the linkage in several books and interviews. After the first Gulf War in 1991, general Clark dropped into Pentagon to see Paul Wolfowitz, the Undersecretary of Defense for policy at that time. Wolfowitz told Clark, “we did learn one thing that's very important from the Gulf War. With the end of the Cold War, we can now use our military with impunity. The Soviets won't come in to block us, and we've got five, maybe ten years to clean up these old Soviet surrogate regimes like Iraq and Syria before the next superpower emerges to challenge us. We could have a little more time, but no one really knows”. That’s perhaps an answer to your question whether the US could or not could not invade Iraq.
Q: I think that for [President] Putin or Russia it probably would have been much more difficult to take the decision to invade Ukraine because he would have been the first one to break the Charter in such a way, not having the example done 20 years before.
My second question is on the Nord Stream. Since the last Security Council meeting dedicated to that, a few things happened. I mean we saw the German investigations, there was something coming out from there and the New York Times article, so it's not only Hersh article and your President also talked about it. So question is what do you think about the last events, about the investigation? You are still asking the UN, you say that you trust Secretary-General on this investigation. So what's happening about that? Are they coming to investigate or not? And what do you predict will happen if Russia, maybe within the Security Council, is able to prove the United States was behind this terrorist attack?
A: On your first question, the decision to start a special military operation was not based on the example of the Iraqi war. It was justified by other reasons, by other geopolitical context and by things that were happening around Russia for a long time. Since President Putin’s Munich Speech in 2007, we've been warning our Western then-friends that the way they were treating Russia would not lead us anywhere. They never listened. They just shrugged it off and pretended that we were saying something which they never envisaged or thought about. But after these things happened, it transpired that they actually had envisaged this and had planned this, so they eagerly jumped on that train. I'm not talking about sanctions, but even the way sanctions were introduced demonstrates that they had been preparing for it. Some of them leaked that they had planned on these sanctions a long time before and so once it all started, they introduced sanctions swiftly. So I wouldn't link the two events directly because again, they have different context and different geneses.
On the Nord Stream, Russia was sidelined from the investigation, although we have the full right to partake as the owner of the pipeline. The three countries are conducting an investigation, but whatever revelations they produce they do not share with us. We requested Denmark, Sweden and Germany to let us participate in that investigation, but were denied. What comes out now is that it clearly was an act of sabotage. The question is who did it? There is various evidence, there is this Hersh article. He said recently that he had more evidence, which he hesitates to betray because he would like to compromise the sources that provided him with that evidence. That's why we turned to the UN for an independent investigation to involve us as well, so we can do it through different means, because we cannot find any way out through the regular means that should be used in the normal circumstances. That's why we produced a resolution that we are still negotiating. I think we will introduce it sometime soon in the Security Council and we'll see how our partners react. Their reaction will also be very telling.
Q: What's the resolution?
A: On the Nord Stream investigation.
Q: Will you put that to a vote before the end of March?
Q: Do you think you have the numbers?
A: It's not the even a matter of the numbers. It is a matter of seeing who votes how.
Q: But what will happen if you can prove that, for example, United States is behind this?
A: I don't want even to speculate on that issue. These are still allegations, which were not yet proved although the evidence is, perhaps, if not overwhelming, then very convincing. Indeed this could only have been done by those who can afford such an operation which is extremely technologically difficult.
Q: I witnessed some of what you have just said, especially about the museum and other crimes – those were committed in Iraq in front of my eyes. And I also thank you for the analogy between the illegal war in Iraq claiming that it's a threat to the US national security 5,000 miles away and what's happening in Ukraine. But I also want to raise my voice against the Russian policy. They are too soft on the crimes committed against the Palestinian people. They don't call things bluntly and clearly that what Israel is doing is crimes against humanity and war crimes. I also see that you are too soft in your relation with Israel seeing what Israel is doing as an apartheid state, which has been confirmed by four international reports that it is an apartheid state. Can you draw some analogy between the crimes Israel committed and how Western countries treat those crimes and the events in Ukraine that Western countries call the resistance of Ukrainian heroism. They call crimes committed by Russians war crimes, but they are silent on those crimes committed by Israel.
A: First, I would not agree that we are too soft on the Israeli policies on Palestine. Read my statements on that issue. Tell me who is harder than us on Israelis? I'm not sure that you will give me the names even of the usual suspects these days. This conflict is perhaps the longest in the history of the United Nations, which started practically from day when the UN was established. We always have been with the Palestinians on these issues and we always called for a fair resolution. We always called spade a spade, and we never tried to justify what Israel is doing in Palestine. The question is that unfortunately the Palestinian question issue went somewhat off the radar for many countries for various reasons. We always said that whatever rapprochement we see in the Middle East should not overshadow the primary issue of the Middle Eastern settlement, of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So I will not fully agree with the assessment of Russia’s take on Palestine. We are trying our best to mediate in particular between the Palestinian factions which you know, are not on very good terms within themselves and that's a big issue as well. It allows to make this case hang in the air, because Israelis are claiming they have no one to deal with, because there is no unity in the Palestinian ranks, which is a prerequisite for negotiating seriously, meaningfully, and with an orientation to a result. We never approved of any peace plans that came out during the Trump Administration or today, when the Biden Administration offers economic opportunities instead of a political settlement. We say it clearly everywhere, including in the Security Council.