All posts by Harry Martisius

Harry has an MPhil in Russian and East European Studies from the University of Oxford, and is currently writing a PhD on the break-up of Yugoslavia.

Bombing Syria Would Violate the UK Government’s Criteria for Legality

The government presents three very loose criteria by which the bombing of Syria would be considered legal, but even these criteria cannot be considered met by any objective observer. 




[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he UK government today published its position on the legality of a UK military intervention in Syria, including three requirements under which a “humanitarian intervention” would be legal without UN authorisation, which it claims are “clearly” met. However, any objective observer must conclude that even these loose criteria are absolutely not met in this case, and thus any bombing of Syria would, according to the UK government’s own arguments, be manifestly illegal.

I shall now consider each of these criteria in turn.

(i) there is convincing evidence, generally accepted by the international community as a whole, of extreme humanitarian distress on a large scale, requiring immediate and urgent relief;

The government claims that this condition is “clearly” met, as “the Syrian regime has been killing its people for two years, with reported deaths now over 100,000 and refugees at nearly 2 million”, and has now engaged in “large-scale use of chemical weapons”. This rhetoric clearly flags the bias of the author(s). A civil war in which each side is “killing its people”, i.e. other Syrians, is attributed solely to one side, the regime, as are, implicitly, the total number of casualties and refugees so far – although these figures include victims of all sides, including the rebels. For example, the tens of thousands of Kurds who have fled into northern Iraq in the past weeks, escaping from jihadist violence.

The paper, meanwhile, accepts as fact that the Syrian regime is behind the recent use of chemical weapons, although this is yet to be established and the rebels, too, have previously been implicated in chemical weapons use. Western states, of course, have quite a reputation for lying and manipulating information about WMD (Iraq) and atrocities (Kosovo), and so we would be wise to maintain a healthy skepticism towards any such claims, particularly when the accusing states show no desire for, and even hostility towards, UN investigation.

Most importantly, although there is general acceptance by the international community of humanitarian problems in Syria, there is widespread disagreement as to who is responsible for these problems, and what relief would be appropriate. Some states hold the rebels rather than the regime more responsible for the situation, while others see it as a civil war with blame on both sides. And only a handful of states support the idea of bombing Syria. So even in the highly loose manner in which the government frames this first criteria, it cannot seriously be considered met.

(ii) it must be objectively clear that there is no practicable alternative to the use of force if lives are to be saved;

There are very clear alternatives to bombing to improving the situation in Syria, a fact which is “objectively clear” to the majority of the world, and the majority of the British public.

Most obviously, the West could try to de-escalate rather than escalate the Syrian conflict, by promoting negotiations and compromise between the different factions, rather than directly and indirectly supporting the rebels and maintaining their hopes of full intervention on their side. So far, negotiations have not taken place because of the one-sided insistence that Assad must go, followed by difficulties forming a negotiating team on the rebel side. Assad’s regime may be a reprehensible dictatorship but it clearly has popular support of some, particularly Alawites and Christians who fear the Sunni majority. The civil war has evident sectarian elements to it, and the rebels, too, have been accused of war crimes. The situation on the rebel side, meanwhile, is highly chaotic, and there are major jihadist elements among them.

This is not a black and white situation, and even if the regime’s side is a darker shade of grey than the rebels, the course of action that is most likely to save lives is, undoubtedly, to try to de-escalate the conflict and promote negotiations between the warring sides. Given that the majority of the world holds the above opinion, this second criteria has clearly not been met.

(iii) the proposed use of force must be necessary and proportionate to the aim of relief of humanitarian need and must be strictly limited in time and scope to this aim (i.e. the minimum necessary to achieve that end and for no other purpose).

This very criteria presupposes that bombing can achieve an aim of reducing the loss of lives and preventing chemical weapons usage, whereas many in Britain and globally would argue that such bombing would most likely only escalate the fighting and the civilian suffering – as it did in, for example, Kosovo. It is, therefore, very contestable and debatable. In the light of NATO’s misuse of the “limited” and “proportionate” UN authorisation for action in Libya, meanwhile, it is hard to see how anyone could take such assurances from Western governments serious again.

The government presents three very loose criteria by which the bombing of Syria would be considered legal, but even these criteria cannot be considered met by any objective observer. As the partisan rhetoric of the UK government’s paper highlights, this amounts to a very weak attempt, made more with crude propaganda than any serious legal argument, to justify its highly unpopular and contested proposal to bomb Syria.


Photo Credit: Madhu babu pandi

Is Iraq The Only War Tony Blair Should Be On Trial For?

Kosovo was not a question of defending people from ethnic cleansing and genocide. Tony Blair’s support for intervention led to more deaths than likely would have occurred without the bombing campaign.


B1-B US Bomber on a night mission


Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair has been back in the headlines recently (though not quite as he would like), with Archbishop Desmond Tutu calling for him to be put on trial, a call supported by, among others, Guardian columnist George Monbiot, who has been promoting citizens’ arrests of Blair. Their argument is that Blair prosecuted an illegal war without UN authorisation, an act of aggression justified on spurious grounds, which led to countless unnecessary deaths.

The facts are certainly on their side, but perhaps more than they themselves realise. For whereas they point only to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, I would suggest that these arguments also hold true for the 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia (now Serbia), of which Blair’s UK was, as in 2003, a main instigator.

A Moral War?

Like the attack on Iraq, the bombing of Serbia lacked UN authorisation, and so was illegal under international law. The bombing also carried a terrible direct toll (at least 500 civilian deaths and billions of dollars of damage, as NATO targeted Serbia’s civilian infrastructure), including war crimes such as the deliberate targeting of Serbia’s media.

Despite this, the Kosovo intervention is usually seen as justifiable on humanitarian grounds, as it defended the Kosovars (Kosovo Albanians) from genocide and ethnic cleansing, and liberated them from the oppressive rule of the ‘Serbian Saddam’, Slobodan Milosevic.

It is this justification – the moral case, as Blair would call it – that this article will focus on. As we shall see, the situation was no-where near as black-and-white as presented, and, far from preventing violence or promoting compromise, the NATO bombing actually caused a huge escalation of the conflict and eliminated all possibility of compromise: it caused the very disaster it claimed to be preventing. So if Tony Blair ever does face trial for his wars, there is a strong case for including this one in the Prosecutor’s brief.

Kosovo: The Story Before the Bombing

Kosovo is a case – of which there are many in the world – of a territory contested by two national groups, Serbs and Albanians. Serbs, who by the twentieth century formed about a quarter of the population, considered it an integral part of Serbia, and were never too happy about the presence of an Albanian majority there since the nineteenth century. Albanians, two-thirds of the population, wanted the province to be part of Albania rather than Serbia, and were never too happy with the Serbs being there. Whenever one group had control of the region, they oppressed, abused or persecuted the other, in a fairly predictable cycle.

The most recent part of this cycle began in the late 1960s, when communist Yugoslavia transformed itself into a loose federation of which Kosovo, run mainly by its Albanian majority, was de facto an equal part. Despite this unprecedented degree of autonomy, in 1981 Kosovo was shaken by Albanian riots demanding the severing of the symbolic links with Serbia that remained. Soon, abuses of Serbs by Albanian nationalists, acknowledged and described by the province’s Albanian leaders themselves, and the persistence of separatist feeling in the province, became major issues throughout Yugoslavia.

It was this situation itself which helped lead to Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic revoking Kosovo’s autonomy in 1990, now bringing Albanians under a discriminatory and repressive Serb regime. Faced with Serb military strength, the Kosovo Albanians adopted a largely pacifist resistance. Their openly declared goal, however, was not merely civil rights or autonomy, but secession from Serbia and, ideally, unification with Albania.

In the second half of the 1990s, meanwhile, a group of radicals called the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) – described as ‘a terrorist group’ even by US negotiator Robert Gelbard, among others – began a violent campaign against Serb rule, targeting not just Serbian police and military, but Serb and Roma civilians too, and any ethnic Albanians they deemed ‘collaborators’, or simply rivals. (Former KLA leaders are on trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) for some of these crimes). Their goal was to provoke Serb response and thereby greater Albanian support for the KLA, and eventually international intervention. As one of their officials later admitted: ‘every single Albanian realized that the more civilians die, intervention comes nearer… The more civilians were killed, the chances of international intervention became bigger, and the KLA of course realized that’.

The KLA managed to take control of much of the province, and, predictably, the Serbs responded with a brutal counter-insurgency campaign, until the threat of NATO bombing in October 1998 forced an uneasy truce and de-escalation. Over the following months the KLA used the ‘truce’ to re-take lost territory – British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook himself noted the KLA was the truce’s chief violator – but the presence of large numbers of OSCE and EU monitors kept the conflict at a relatively low level.

Thus, the conflict in Kosovo before the NATO bombing was one between two rival nationalist forces, a repressive state apparatus on the one hand and a rebel group on the other, with each guilty of crimes. The Serbian counter-insurgency campaign was brutal and often indiscriminate (like many in the world), but the available evidence does not suggest that it had the goal of ethnic cleansing – no Albanians were being forced out of Kosovo. The number of casualties – although high considering the size of Kosovo’s population of two million – was also hardly exceptional: according to the pro-Western Humanitarian Law Centre (HLC) in Belgrade, which has painstakingly documented the killed and ‘disappeared’ of the Kosovo conflict, there were about 1,500 dead in 1998, 300 of them non-Albanians.

The Negotiations That Never Were

Though harshly critical of the Serbian side, Western states at the time did not endorse Albanian nationalist goals. Rather, they advocated a compromise between Serb and Albanian national projects: extensive autonomy for Kosovo within Serbia, as had existed in the 1970s and 80s. In February 1999 negotiations were held in Rambouillet, France, with the supposed aim of reaching this outcome. Serbia’s negotiating platform was for autonomy, but at a lower level than had existed previously, and with built-in protections for non-Albanians (not just Serbs, but also the Roma, Muslims, and other groups in Kosovo). The Albanians, on the other hand, would reluctantly accept expansive autonomy only temporarily, under the condition of a future referendum on independence.

Whether Milosevic was really prepared to compromise is debatable – he was undoubtedly exploiting the crisis to strengthen his own authoritarian rule – but it is notable that his stances were actually closer to the envisaged compromise than the Albanians’. Moreover, just three years earlier he had indeed shown himself willing to claim victory in peace, forcing the Croatian and Bosnian Serbs into abandoning most of their goals.

Negotiations, however, were not given a chance, as Western negotiators instead sabotaged them to create a pretext for bombing, proposing a draft agreement that included a referendum after three years. In a signed promise given behind the back of the Russian negotiator, US Secretary of State Madeline Albright promised the Albanians that this meant a referendum on independence, whose results the USA would respect. This was not a compromise, but the victory of one side, and an agreement that no Serbian government would ever have been able to accept.

When the Serbs rejected the draft in March 1999, NATO then ordered the withdrawal of all OSCE and EU monitors from Kosovo, and began bombing.


Predictably, NATO’s bombing caused a massive escalation of the conflict. Serbian forces now not only cracked down on the KLA but also launched a campaign of ethnic cleansing, executing thousands of Albanians and ordering hundreds of thousands out. When Serbian forces withdrew as part of the June 1999 peace deal (which did not include a referendum on independence), these Albanians were able to return alongside NATO/UN peacekeepers. But so did the KLA, which in turn orchestrated a wave of ethnic cleansing against Serbs, Roma and other non-Albanians, kidnapping and executing many, and forcing the majority to flee the province. As has been revealed and extensively documented by former ICTY chief prosecutor Carla del Ponte and the Council of Europe’s investigator Dick Marty, there is convincing evidence that several hundred of the ‘disappeared’ non-Albanians had their organs removed by the KLA and sold on the international market. Former KLA leaders, such as current Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, remain dominant in Kosovo today, sitting – according to leaked NATO intelligence documents – atop an apex of organised crime, including the heroine trade.

The HLC has reached a figure of about 10,500 Albanians and 2,500 Serbs and others killed or ‘disappeared’ during the whole Kosovo conflict. (10) These numbers testify to the disastrous role played by NATO intervention, as the overwhelming majority of Albanian deaths took place after NATO began bombing, while a further 1,500 Serb civilians were killed or ‘disappeared’ after Yugoslav withdrawal on 10 June 1999. Moreover, although large considering the population size, the total number of Albanian victims was nowhere near the genocidal levels alleged by NATO (US Defence Secretary William Cohen had talked, during the bombing, of ‘about 100,000 military aged men missing… [who] may have been murdered’). Proportionately, in fact, the Kosovo Serbs suffered a similar number of victims, and – shockingly – as many Kosovo Serbs were killed in post-war peace as Albanians during the fighting in 1998.

Before the NATO bombing, meanwhile, there were no refugees outside Kosovo. During the bombing, however, about 800,000 Albanians were forced out, and afterwards about 200,000 non-Albanians, with very few of the latter ever returning.

Kosovo Today

Unsurprisingly, the result of this escalation was not a compromise between Serbs and Albanians. With the province now outside of Serbian control, the Albanians no longer had any incentive to compromise, and Western states eventually abandoned their support for autonomy. Thus, with Western backing, sensible Serbian offers of a Hong Kong-type arrangement for Kosovo were ignored, and in 2008 Kosovo declared independence.

The end result of the whole intervention is thus one great mess: Kosovo is ruled by organised crime, recognised by only a quarter of the world, and still has no control over a Serb-majority region in its north, which functionally remains a part of Serbia. Albanian-Serb relations within Kosovo remain poor and Serbia refuses to recognise the province’s secession, indefinitely hindering its EU prospects. The Kosovo precedent, meanwhile, has been cleverly used by Russia to justify its 2008 war with Georgia and subsequent recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. More devastatingly, the NATO intervention, which took place without UN authorisation, provided an important precedent for the attack on Iraq four years later.


There can be a ‘moral case’ for the NATO bombing only if all the deaths that it caused were inevitable; intervention somehow managed to prevent a far worse sequence of events; and the current situation is the best possible outcome. This seems highly unlikely. Before the bombing the Serbs were conducting counter-insurgency campaigns, not ethnic cleansing, and Western pressure and monitoring was keeping the fighting to a low level. Milosevic had previously shown himself to be susceptible to Western pressure and willing to compromise when necessary, and, even if an agreement proved elusive, it is doubtful that, under the pressure and watchful eye of the West, the conflict would ever have escalated so drastically.

To put it simply, Kosovo was not a question of defending people from ethnic cleansing and genocide, or liberating people from their oppressor. It was a matter of resolving a nationalist dispute between two peoples – and even if that is difficult, bombing one side is usually not the best way to find a solution. NATO’s bombing campaign was illegal, included clear war crimes, and caused the very catastrophe it claimed to be preventing. So if Tony Blair is ever put on trial, there is a strong case for adding it to the list of charges.


Photo Credit: expertinfantry

Serbia: Back To Genocide?

Serbia is not a perfect democracy, and the dominance of one party, the Democrats, for the last decade has not helped. Is that cause for concern?


serbia genocide 1


Serbia, it seems, may be returning to the dark days of the 1990s, with former allies of ‘Serbian Saddam’ Slobodan Milosevic and his extreme nationalist counter-part Vojislav Seselj (both charged for war crimes in the Hague), Ivica Dacic and Tomislav Nikolic, recently being elected as Prime Minister and President respectively. As Reuters has pointed out, an alliance of this sort last existed ‘at the close of Milosevic’s disastrous 13-year rule, when his forces expelled almost 1 million ethnic Albanians from Kosovo and NATO bombed in 1999 to wrest the province from him.

This interpretation is what has dominated the headlines in the West, anyway. But such alarmism is unwarranted, as there is unlikely to be any significant change in Serbia’s democratic prospects or its policies towards Kosovo and the EU.

Dacic and Nikolic and their parties, the Socialist Party of Serbia and the Progressives, have changed a lot in the past five to ten years.

Dacic has been referred to as Milosevic’s man, but, much more recently than that, he was an ally of the Democratic and pro-Western President Tadic. The Socialist Party he leads (and which Milosevic founded) had always been closer to the populist and ‘patriotic’ opposition since Milosevic’s fall in 2000, but in 2008 switched sides and joined the Democrats, helping them secure a much-needed parliamentary majority. Dacic became Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister. This about-face was – it was no secret at the time – engineered by Western embassies in Belgrade, and Dacic henceforth became a loyal man in the Democrat-led coalition, including its policy towards Kosovo and the EU. The Socialists entered the most recent elections in that coalition and intending to continue it, and it is only because of Tadic’s surprise defeat that they, again, decided to change sides. Dacic’s promotion to Prime Minister should hardly, therefore, be cause for alarm.

Nikolic, too, has an unsavoury past, but support for him over the past decade has had more to do with dissatisfaction with the rule of the Democrats, in power uninterrupted since 2000, than with support for extreme nationalism. His supporters are the socio-economic ‘losers’ of the transition, whose numbers have grown with Serbia’s current recession. Moreover, his current party, the Progressives, were formed from a 2008 split from Seselj, and have tried to shed their nationalist image.Western embassies probably had something to do with his split from Seselj, and Nikolic has been keen to emphasise his  changed character, taking a former American ambassador as an advisor and even inviting former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a supporter of NATO’s 1999 bombardment of Serbia, for consultations.

The Guardian recently noted Nikolic refusing to rule out the partition of Kosovo, as if this was a radicalisation of Serbian policy. In fact, this was long been an option for Serbia, although officially it is almost always denied, as Serbia refuses to hand over any of its territory. Nikolic and Dacic emphasise their commitment to the territorial integrity of Serbia, as do all the major parties in Serbia, but, despite some nationalist posturing, immediately after the elections Nikolic went to Brussels and confirmed that he would be respecting recent Serbia-Kosovo agreements on ‘normalisation’ and continuing that process, claiming that the EU did not require recognition of Kosovo. Thus, it seems that the same Serbian policy will continue of pretending not to know that they are, bit by bit, being led towards de facto recognition of Kosovo. As Nikolic emphasises, the EU path remains the priority.

Likewise, in relation to Bosnia, where Milorad Dodik, the leader of the Serb entity, Republika Srpska, has been a thorn in the West’s side, there is unlikely to be any real change in Belgrade’s role. Dodik, in fact, had good relations with President Tadic, whom he backed in the May elections.

Nikolic may not initiate reconciliation with Serbia’s neighbours to the same extent as Tadic, and has already committed a few gaffes in this regard, but there is unlikely to be any real deterioration in regional relations, or inter-ethnic relations within Serbia. It is worth remembering that some of the best regional ‘reconcilers’ have had radical nationalists pasts. Former Kosovan President Ramush Haradinaj, for example, who was supported by the West as someone who embraced the idea of a multi-ethnic Kosovo, had to step down in 2004 to face trial in the Hague for horrific war crimes against national minorities committed just a few years earlier. It is notable that, as has become standard practice, the two key Bosniak politicians in Serbia have been given ministries in the new government, one as a deputy prime minister. (Their background is, incidentally, about as radical as Nikolic’s, both formerly advocating the secession of the Serbian region where most Bosniaks live.)

Serbia is not a perfect democracy, and the dominance of one party, the Democrats, for the last decade has not helped. Multiple changes in power are the real test of a democracy, and there shouldn’t be much to fear from Nikolic and Dacic in this respect. Whether they implement the same EU-sought policies as the Democrats, or perhaps the economic programme their voters sought them to implement, remains to be seen, but as far as Serbia’s democratic prospects and its relations with its neighbours go, there is no cause for alarm.