Former UN weapons inspector dismisses PM's push to bolster WHO's powers

Former UN Senior Weapons Inspector Rod Barton. Source: Supplied

A former UN senior weapons inspector has cast doubt on Prime Minister Scott Morrison's plan to arm health inspectors with similar powers to investigate the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.

A former UN senior weapons inspector says Prime Minister Scott Morrison's plan to send health inspectors into China to determine the origin of the coronavirus doesn’t stack up.

The prime minister has led global calls for an independent investigation into China's handling of the pandemic, suggesting WHO investigators should be armed with the same powers as weapons inspectors. 

Rob Barton, who was a weapons inspector sent into Iraq in the wake of the war there in 2003, said that there is no clear mechanism for such a plan to take place.

“It's so different to what we were doing in Iraq that what Morrison seems to be suggesting, I just see it has zero prospects of getting off the ground,” he told SBS News.

Mr Barton says Mr Morrison's plan has zero prospect of getting off the ground.
Mr Barton says Mr Morrison's plan has zero prospect of getting off the ground.

UN weapons inspectors are able to forcibly enter a country they suspect has illegal arms - something Mr Morrison believes the WHO should also have the power to do. 

“If you're going to be a member of a club like the World Health Organization, there should be responsibilities and obligations attached to that,” Mr Morrison said on Wednesday. 

Prime Minister Scott Morrison talks to reporters on Thursday.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison talks to reporters on Thursday.

But Mr Barton said that would prove difficult as the objective of such a mission was unclear and China would never cooperate.

“I can't see any way which we could go into China if China doesn't agree,” he said.

“There could not possibly be any international agreement to have such an inspection regime.”

He also questioned precisely what we would learn from such inspections, with the initial outbreak now months ago.

“What's the point of it? Would we learn any more than we know now? We wouldn't get a definitive answer and that's an important thing," he said.

The Chinese Embassy in Australia has lashed out at calls from the Morrison government for an independent investigation into the pandemic.

The embassy questioned the motives of Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, who has said there needs to be greater transparency in China around COVID-19. 

“Obviously he [Dutton] must have also received some instructions from Washington requiring him to cooperate with the US in its propaganda war against China,” an embassy spokesperson said in a statement.

Whether or not there is an appetite in the World Health Organization for such an inquiry is an open question, according to senior fellow at the Hudson Institute Dr John Lee.

“There's an issue of political will or resolve by WHO to investigate large powers like China,” he told SBS News.

“Even if you give WHO beefed up powers, there's still an issue about the political leadership of WHO and whether they would use those beefed up powers against a country like China.”

If the UN Security Council tried to force inspections in China, Mr Barton believed it would be vetoed, either by the Chinese government, Russia or even the United States.

He said forced inspections would set a precedent allowing global inspections in the future, which the US and other major powers would be keen to avoid.

“We're looking at China now, but inspectors … medical inspectors might be able to go into Johnson and Johnson in the UK and I'm sure that the United States wouldn't want that,” Mr Barton said.

The Chinese Embassy did not respond to requests from SBS News.

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