Some ethical aspects on NATO’s intervention in Kosovo – Part B

By Jan Oberg

TFF PressInfo 74 – July 29, 1999

Originally published here.

Serbo-Croatian version here.


• Stereotyping and discrimination
Ask yourself whether NATO’s bombing and subsequent occupation could have been done against any other nation in today’s Europe. Whether any other country than Yugoslavia and any other people but Serbs is so despised? The plight of the Albanian refugees is in focus, but how well and how extensive did media cover that of the Serbs, Goranis, Montenegrin, Turks and Gypsies in Kosovo? The refugee camps in Macedonia and Albania entered our living rooms – but did the human suffering of people living in and fleeing to bombed-out Yugoslavia?

Recent Albanian extremist violence against Serbs is reported with ‘understanding,’ presented as (justifiable) revenge for what Serb police, military and paramilitary units did. But the media which told the story this way, never ‘explained’ that Serb ethnic cleansing after NATO started bombing could be ‘understood’ as (justifiable) anger at what THEY saw as the destruction of their entire country commissioned or demanded – as it was – by moderate as well as extremist Kosovo-Albanians.

Everybody knows that humanitarian aid should be based on needs only. But people living in Yugoslavia shall not receive any assistance ‘as long as Milosevic is at the helmet.’ One wonders whether the international human rights community is on collective holiday? Since the early 1990s, Serb human and minority rights were never cared for to the extent e.g. Croatian, Bosniak and Albanian rights were.

In social science, stereotyping can be defined as ‘a one-sided, exaggerated and normally prejudicial view of a group, tribe or class of people, and is usually associated with racism and sexism.’ Stereotypes are often resistant to change or correction from countervailing evidence, because they create a sense of social solidarity. Is it so unlikely that the United States and NATO did just a bit of stereotyping to maintain alliance credibility and solidarity?

• Authoritarian politics undermining international democracy.
NATO now has a near-monopoly on conflict-management. The UN, the EU, single governments in the region, OSCE and NGOs went out of the region when NATO went in. No NATO government declared war, no parliaments voted about participation in the campaign. (In contrast, the ‘dictatorship’s parliament in Belgrade debated both the Rambouillet and the G8 plan). None of the democracies in NATO dared challenge the near-total US military and political dominance in this operation or that of the “Quint” – the five biggest NATO leaders. President Clinton violated the War Powers Act; no non-NATO country was consulted when NATO chopped up Kosovo in ‘peacekeeping’ zones; numerous national and international laws and human rights were violated by NATO decision-makers – impunity now established as a norm for them. Why is this important? Because all these facts are outcomes of moral choices.

From the perspective of world democracy it is a huge setback that the United Nations is now an organisation that is invited to ‘endorse’ NATO action rather than serve as the body that expresses the will of the international community – all of it. Decisions are increasingly debated and made in less transparent forums such as G7, the Contact group, Davos and, who knows – Bilderberg – and crisis management conducted on cellular phones. The G7 in effect wrote UN SC Resolution 1244.

The term ‘international community’ was part of the propaganda. In fact, it signifies some ten state leaders and foreign ministers, not even all 19 NATO members. IF the international community were truly the actor here, why was the United Nations – with ten times more members than NATO – not the central discussion forum, the central actor, the central negotiator, why is the present mission not established and run by the UN?

Rhetorics only compounded this slide towards authoritarianism: Suddenly, when the West had no need for Milosevic, he was called a dictator, a serial ethnic cleanser etc. and there is now a draft in the US to designate Yugoslavia status as a terrorist state. Repeatedly, phrases were used like: ‘The US has stated…’ or ‘We have made it abundantly clear that…’ – meaning that everybody else has to agree. ‘Milosevic knows what he has to do, and he knows which number to call if he wants bombs to stop.’ ‘These conditions must be met before we will even consider stopping the bombing.’ The stronger sets the rule of the game, to humiliate.

• Lack of transparency – why the Rambouillet texts are not published
Thus, NATO early defined itself as an organisation that does not negotiate. Rambouillet – being a cheap media-diplomatic manipulation – was a dictate (as everybody who cared to read it knows). The Rambouillet texts – the original, the expanded and the Yugoslav government’s – are undoubtedly the single most important historical documents explaining why NATO went to war, why it is in the Balkans and what is supposed to happen in the future there. But did any NATO government translate and publish it, perhaps with an introduction on how the ‘negotiations’ were conducted? Would it not be reasonable to make it available to citizens – as ministries make so many other treaty texts available as part of their public information policy? Why not give citizens a chance to judge the issues: What’s in the texts? Was there a peace treaty? Was it fair play? Was it fair to start bombing because Belgrade said no?

• NATO’s own premises violated
What indisputably started out as bombing ‘because they won’t sign the Rambouillet Accord’ was rapidly turned into ‘we bomb because Mr. Milosevic had a plan of ethnic cleansing.’ Gone was any mention of the indisputable fact that a civil war had raged in the province for 13 months, a war that broke out only when KLA surfaced.

Conspicuously, virtually all mass graves now found in the Kosovo province are products of atrocities committed AFTER March 24 when NATO started bombing. Contrary to what Western leaders tell us, eager as they are to justify their Balkan bombing blunder, this does not prove that NATO stopped an already ongoing mass expulsion or genocide.

Contrary to what NATO told the world, few today believe that the bombing of Yugoslavia was not a violation of the NATO charter and not an aggression. (Many seem to think that that is OK given the monstrous policies of the Belgrade regime). Few believe that there is more stability in Europe today than before March 24. Few believe that it is right to kill so many innocent civilians and that NATO was not at war. Hard evidence also tell that we were fooled by NATO when its spin doctors presented fantastic military successes stories. Funnily enough, many still cling to the belief that NATO did not release a humanitarian catastrophe but, rather, stopped one.

• An increasingly ‘politically correct’ human rights activism
It is a simple ethical principle in both conflict-resolution and human rights work to recognise ALL parties’ human suffering and rights, recognise ALL violations no matter the perpetrator and speak up against them! However, MORE people died and were wounded in Yugoslavia under NATO’s bombs than during the 13-month war between Yugoslav/Serb units and KLA. The destruction of future possibilities for 11 million in FRY achieved – and will achieve – much less attention than that of 800.000 Albanians who are rapidly returning to the Kosovo province. The 650.00+ refugees in Serbia and Montenegro – victims of ethnic cleansing elsewhere since 1995 – have attracted disproportionately little media attention.

The international human rights community has been rightfully attentive to the human rights violations against the Kosovo-Albanians and woefully ignorant (with exceptions such as Amnesty International and the British Helsinki Human Rights Group) about the human rights of Serbs everywhere, including Kosovo. Furthermore, it is particularly deplorable that the human rights community, particularly in the United States and other NATO countries, has had no more to say about NATO’s flagrant, systematic – and much larger – human rights violations. Throughout the Balkan crisis, we have seen human rights organisations and advocates moving dangerously near to ‘political correctness’ either by a) speaking about politics and advocating bombing and political measures outside their field of expertise, b) keeping silent about certain groups’ human rights that did not fit into the conflict-management of the West, or c) keeping equally silent about the human rights violations of NATO.”

• The intellectual’s moral imperative is to challenge power
TFF’s director finally touches on a related theme: “I am sure that, when reading the above, some will say: ‘pro-Serb arguments!’ and believe they have said something significant. But this is to reduce complex matters to the equally moralising as irrelevant question (for conflict-resolution), Which side are you on? It SHOULD be intellectually possible to imagine that there can be different diagnoses, different prognoses and different types of treatment in conflict-management and peacekeeping. It should be part of liberal democracy to have them presented also when the powers that be do not consider them politically correct. So you may wonder why those who shaped, promoted and legitimated the West’s unethical conflict (mis)management in the Balkans since 1990 were never accused of being ‘pro-Croat’ or ‘pro-Muslim’ or ‘pro-Albanian.

In a violent world and a violence-prone time like ours, I do not think that politically correct peace research is peace research. Perhaps, in this case, it was particularly difficult to strive for analytical objectivity because NATO’s project was spearheaded by statesmen and ministers who once upon a time were socialists, peace and anti-NATO activists, liberals and social democrats – some still professing to be. In short, from traditions rather critical to militarist policies.

The relevant question remains,” ends Oberg, “how we can learn to approach conflicts as complex matters encompassing elements of history, structures, culture and psychology that must be applied specifically to each case. The intellectual and moral challenge remains how to handle conflicts with the least violence possible.”

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