United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM)

International Information

International Operation Name: United Nations Special Commission

International Mission Name: United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM)

Mandating Organization: United Nations

Region Name: Middle East

Location: Iraq

Mission Date: 3 April 1991 - 17 December 1999

Mission Mandate: Following the end of the Iraq War of 1990/91, the Security Council passed Resolution 687 on 3 April 1991 which included a call for the elimination of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Iraq was required to turn over all such weapons and allow inspections to ensure that it undertook no further such development. A UN Special Commission was to be established that would take possession of these weapons, destroy them, and verify compliance with the Resolution.

Mission/Operation Notes: In the 1980s Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programmes came into the international spotlight. During the Iran-Iraq War (22 September 1980 to 20 August 1988), Iraq used chemical weapons to halt an Iranian offensive and then used these weapons against Iraqi Kurds. The toxic agents employed included cyanide, mustard gas, sarin, tabun and VX - and some at least had been adapted to a variety of munitions including artillery and mortar shells, aerial bombs as well as missile and rocket warheads. Iraq was also suspected of developing biological weapons, among them anthrax, botulinum and aflatoxin, and producing them in quantity. 

It was against this backdrop that the Gulf War was waged in 1990/91. Accordingly, when Iraq surrendered in March 1991 and agreed to abide by UN Resolutions, these included provisions to prevent any subsequent production and use of chemical and biological agents. This was made clear in Security Council Resolution 687 of 3 April 1991, which created a UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) under Chapter VII to which Iraq had to declare all of its biological, chemical, and missile holdings and under whose supervision these would be destroyed. Iraq was also to undertake no further development of such weapons, with UNSCOM monitoring and verifying its compliance. Iraq accepted these terms and conditions on 18 April 1991. The destruction of Iraq’s nuclear weapons programme fell to the International Atomic Energy Agency, with UNSCOM’s assistance. Iraq also agreed to allow UNSCOM inspectors unrestricted access and egress to all sites, equipment and personnel, as well as other unrestricted rights in support of UNSCOM’s mandate. 

UNSCOM operations were planned and managed from UN headquarters in New York. An office in Bahrain served as a logistics and training point, while the office in Baghdad was responsible for the maintenance and operation of the monitoring system and was the base of operations for inspection teams. UNSCOM personnel in Baghdad not only undertook inspections of facilities and locations of interest but were also responsible for the supervision of the monitoring equipment installed at certain facilities. When required, UNSCOM could also call upon specialist personnel to assist in inspections and other UNSCOM operations. 

Iraq’s compliance with UN Resolution 687 was at best grudging and, at worst, non-existent. UNSCOM were hindered as they tried to conduct inspections, and at least twice, in March and November 1995, “Full Final and Complete Disclosures” provided by the Iraqi government to the UN proved to be total fabrications. Biological, chemical, and nuclear programmes all continued to exist - in part because the Iraqi government received advance warning of impending inspections and therefore dismantled sites before UNSCOM teams arrived. It is thought that spies and electronic eavesdropping provided such warnings. 

As the level of obstruction increased, coalition partners from the 1991 war began to gather forces together in the region with the seeming intent of launching non-UN-sanctioned air strikes on Iraq. The UN Secretary General managed to defuse tensions in February 1998, but only a few months later, in October, Iraq suspended all cooperation with UNSCOM. Although this order was rescinded a month later, UNSCOM evacuated its personnel from Iraq on 16 December and did not return. Shortly thereafter, American and British air forces conducted four days of air strikes on Iraqi facilities (Operation DESERT FOX). 

During its lifetime, UNSCOM conducted over 250 inspection missions, conducted by over 1000 individuals from 40 countries. It found and destroyed almost 40,000 chemical weapons munitions, 690 tonnes of chemical weapons agents, a biological weapons production facility and 48 SCUD missiles. But significant quantities of chemicals and delivery systems remained unaccounted for. 

In December 1999, the Security Council terminated UNSCOM and replaced it with the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC). Although UNMOVIC had the same mandate as UNSCOM, its method of operation would be radically different.

Canadian Forces (CF) Information (FORUM)


Date: 10 April 1991 - 30 April 2000

CF Mission/Operation Notes: Canada agreed to participate in UNSCOM on 10 April 1991, with personnel arriving in May under the name Operation FORUM. About 20 Canadian civilian and military experts were in Iraq in the first stages of UNSCOM’s operations, most working at the Al Muthanna facility near Baghdad, a site containing stockpiles of chemical munitions, Sarin being the most common agent found. This first visit identified the work required to ensure the destruction of the agents. A second visit in September destroyed those shells that had no harmful chemicals, while a third visit from October to December 1991 destroyed the remaining shells. This was not without its risks. One shell detonated of its own volition, spraying an Iraqi worker with toxic materials. Only the quick intervention of personnel on site, with the administration of large doses of atropine, saved his life. Canadians remained active at Al Muthanna into 1994. 

Other dangerous incidents did not involve weapons of mass destruction. In September 1991, five Canadians were part of a 44-member international inspection team that discovered documents relating to nuclear weapons production. They were taken hostage by Iraq, requiring four days of international negotiations before the team and the documents were allowed to leave. 

In October 1991 the decision was made that Canadian participation would consist of a maximum of 12 personnel at any given time. This participation would include permanent staff at UNSCOM headquarters, inspection and support staff, and specialists who would operate an incinerator provided by the Defence Research Establishment at Suffield, Alberta. They would be selected from across the Canadian Forces and Department of National Defence. 

One vital task was the disposal of explosives, and Canadian Explosives Ordnance Disposal personnel served on both UNSCOM inspection teams and the Chemical Destruction Group. Although the main responsibility of the EOD specialists was to offer advice on the safe destruction of particular weapons systems and substances - Iraq was to undertake the actual destruction, under UNSCOM supervision - from time to time CF personnel did destroy some weapons. For its part, the CDG concentrated on finding, identifying, and destroying chemical weapons and related production and storage sites. Canadian military and civilian personnel also served with UNSCOM’s Chemical Destruction Group (CDG), tasked with identifying weapons systems containing chemical weapons, identifying chemical weapons production and storage sites and destructing these weapons and sites. Tours generally ranged between three and six months, although some were deployed for as long as 18 months, and some for as little as two weeks. Some Canadians exceeded ten distinct deployments to UNSCOM. Meanwhile, a Canadian lieutenant-colonel set up the intelligence cell at UNSCOM headquarters, where good use was made of imagery provided by helicopters and American U-2 photographic reconnaissance aircraft. 

By the end of 1992, over 45 DND/CF military and civilian personnel had participated in UNSCOM. Canadian participation in Iraq itself ended in November 1998 with the withdrawal of UNSCOM from that country, but Canadians remained at UNSCOM’s New York headquarters until the end of the mission’s mandate on 17 December 1999. Canada continued to participate in inspections in Iraq under the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), but no military personnel have been involved.

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