The United States scored an unprecedented diplomatic coup here on Monday evening, ousting the head of the organization policing an international chemical weapons ban who had tried to bring Iraq into the group.
It marked the first time that the director general of a United Nations agency had been fired in midterm. His removal, following the dismissal of a UN scientist last week who disagreed with the US position on global warming, is prompting concern among some countries about the way Washington is able to influence the fate of international officials who fall foul of its policies.
Jose Bustani, the Brazilian head of the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Warfare (OPCW) was dismissed immediately, following a vote in the 145 member body called by the United States. US officials had accused him of mismanagement and "ill conceived initiatives."
Forty-eight countries, mainly from Europe, voted against Mr. Bustani. Seven, including Russia, China, Cuba, Mexico, and Iran, voted for him, while 43 abstained.
A senior US official says he was "gratified" by the vote, which he says "clearly demonstrates the breadth of understanding in the organization that the kinds of things we were talking about were indeed life threatening" to the OPCW.
Bustani, however, attributed the result to US pressure on developing countries to abstain. "My independence and my refusal to take orders" were behind the US bid to sack him, he claimed in an interview hours before his dismissal.
The OPCW was set up in 1997 to oversee the implementation of the Chemical Weapons Convention, a treaty banning such weapons and providing for the destruction of stockpiles. The organization runs inspections of military and industrial facilities to guard against proliferation.
The United States, which voted for Bustani's reelection in May 2000, began campaigning openly for his dismissal last February, accusing him of budgetary mismanagement, taking on tasks outside the convention, and of what the senior US official called "impetuous and arbitrary" decisions.
Several OPCW officials and delegates to this week's special session at OPCW headquarters here agreed that Bustani had displayed a secretive and abrasive management style, offending a number of key governments in the organization.
The United States was also angered by Bustani's attempts to persuade Iraq to join the OPCW, which Washington argued would undermine the UN Security Council resolutions demanding that Iraq submit to inspection by the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, (UNMOVIC) of any nuclear, biological and chemical weapons facilities it might still possess.
Critics of US policy have suggested that hardliners in Washington feared Iraq's membership in the OPCW, which would subject it to the organization's own chemical weapons inspections, might undercut their plans to topple Saddam Hussein on the grounds that he was keeping international weapons inspectors out.
President Hussein has refused to allow UNMOVIC weapons inspectors into Iraq since they were withdrawn in 1998.
The senior US official dismissed such arguments as "an atrocious red herring," saying Washington would welcome Iraq's membership of the OPCW so long as it also accepted UNMOVIC inspections.
But the US campaign against Bustani, which turned into an ugly row involving allegations of slander and the publication of private diplomatic correspondence, has raised fears in some quarters about the future of the multilateral system in the face of US determination to pursue its own interests.
Bustani's dismissal marks the second time in less than a week that Washington has won the removal of a senior UN official with whom it disagreed. Last Friday, after intense US lobbying, a US scientist who favors vigorous action to slow global warming lost his job as head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Robert Watson was replaced by Rajendra Pachauri of India. Mr. Watson is a strong supporter of the Kyoto Protocol, a treaty to reduce most industrial nations' emissions of greenhouse gases. Washington has refused to join the pact, arguing that complying with its provisions would endanger US economic growth.
Bustani argued that his fate would also be a pointer to the future. "The choices that you will make during this session ... will determine whether genuine multilateralism will survive or whether it will be replaced by unilateralism in a multilateral disguise," he told delegates at the opening of the special OPCW session on Sunday.
The senior US official denied that Washington's action set a precedent. But he added that he hoped "it will instill a greater sense of responsibility in international organizations."
Some delegates shared Bustani's disquiet. "Multilateralism is based on the independence of international organizations and their leaders," says Anne Gazeau-Secret, the ambassador of France, which abstained in Monday's vote.
If other governments followed the US lead and sought to remove United Nations officials whom they disliked, she worried, "a chain reaction risks leading to the destruction of the multilateral system."
"This is grave as a matter of principle," says an official from one country that abstained. "If one delegation threatens blackmail, saying it will not pay its contributions unless the director general goes ... where does that leave us?"
US officials had hinted that if Washington lost the vote on Monday, the US would cease contributing to the OPCW's $60 million annual budget, which depends on the US for 20 percent of its funds.
The US still owes half of its 2002 contribution.
In the wake of Bustani's departure, the senior US official says, "I am confident we will pay that in the immediate future."