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.
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.
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