Issue 232 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published July/August 1999 Copyright Socialist Review


The Balkans balance sheet

A licence to bomb

War criminal walks free

Another forgotten casualty of Nato's war against Yugoslavia is respect for the principles of international law. This leaves a dangerous precedent for future world peace. This 'casualty' was taken well before the first bomb fell, and its repercussions may change how wars are conducted forever. Nato's justification for taking this action was to safeguard 'human rights', yet its blatant disregard for international law will mean that illegal acts can be justified if taken for 'humanitarian' reasons.

The danger now is that Nato can decide who and when it bombs and not have to worry about breaching international law. This opens up a need to scrutinise how Nato sees its new role in fostering an emerging international legal order that makes up its own rules according to ad hoc 'moral' and political arguments rather than internationally agreed standards and principles. Further, the relationship between Nato and the UN has been radically transformed due to this war. Not only has the authority of the UN been severely undermined by Nato's decision to bomb Yugoslavia without UN sanction, the latter has not even condemned the illegality of Nato's actions.

Nato's disregard for international law is obvious. Nato violated the strict provision of the United Nations Charter which prohibits the threat or use of force against a sovereign state.

Under the UN Charter, if the Security Council decides that peace is threatened in a country due to mass human rights violations, an intervention is allowed but only if such a humanitarian crisis crosses the borders of the territory in question. There was no mass of refugees spilling out of Kosovo until the Nato bombing started.

The International Court of Justice stated in its 1986 Nicaragua judgement that human rights could not be respected by the use of force. Furthermore, the British foreign office also said in the same year that 'the case against making humanitarian intervention an exception to the principle of non-intervention is that its doubtful benefits would be heavily outweighed by its costs in terms of respect for international law'. What was once an important concern within international law, that forceful intervention could lead to more casualties of war, has been sidelined.

It is the emerging new role of Nato that shed some light on why this is the case. In 1997 the International Task Force on the Enforcement of UN Security Council Resolutions stated that it was 'doubtful that Nato would consider taking enforcement action, at least out of the area, without Security Council authorisation.' Nato's wholehearted collaboration with the UN has moved in less than a year to enforcing its aims in Yugoslavia without the UN's authorisation at all. We are witnessing the rebirth of Nato--from a redundant post Cold War military edifice to a tool of the US led western power bloc 'safeguarding' the new Europe and its economic, political and social stability. How better to achieve this moral authority in intervention than to invoke notions of protecting human rights, the safeguarding of people's lives in order to maintain a peaceful Europe?

At Nato's 50th anniversary summit in Washington in April this year US Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott spoke of the ambitious project of Nato's new role. He stated that, although the Cold War threats had disappeared, 'new, less spectacular, but more diversified threats have arisen. Disputes over ethnicity, religion or territory can... trigger armed conflict, which in turn can generate cross-border political instability, refugee flows and humanitarian crises that endanger European security.' He went on to say that in the current new order Nato 'needs forces, doctrines and communication assets that allow us to address the challenges of ethnic strife and regional conflict that directly affect our security, but that lie beyond Nato territory, as we have done and are doing in the Balkans.' For that read licence to bomb wherever and whenever necessary. The doctrine of humanitarian intervention is an important legal principle, but Nato has subverted it to meet its own aims for world dominance. To hell with what the law is--the law is what Nato says it is.

Speculation as to how the indictment against Slobodan Milosevic issued by the International Criminal Tribunal sitting in the Hague is to affect the future of Yugoslavia is difficult to gauge. Many have welcomed the indictment and highlighted the fact that it is the first one ever to be issued against a serving head of state. Milosevic is, not surprisingly, unfazed by the charges of the murder of 340 people and the deportation of 740,000 Kosovan Albanians since the beginning of this year.

The indictment named Milosevic and four other senior government officials. The Serbian administration has never recognised the legitimacy of this court and now has received the indictment as another example of US and Nato propaganda. Vladan Batic, coordinator of the opposition Alliance for Changes, stated, 'The tribunal stood... silent for years and then one day just decided to raise charges against a number of people, precisely at the moment when the chances for a political resolution to the Kosovo crisis [were] growing. If the tribunal were not in the service of the western powers... certainly Tudjman [Croation president] would be on its list owing to the exodus of Serbs from Krajina, or Izetbegovic [former Bosnian Muslim president] because of the [Serb] exodus from parts of Bosnia and the Republika Srpska [in Bosnia].'

So what does Nato hope that this indictment will achieve? Hopes that this indictment will make the Serbs wake up and realise what a monster their president is are naive in the extreme. If he again becomes 'a man we can do business with', this indictment may be left in the history books as a symbolic gesture. After all, where are the indicted Karadzic and Mladic?

UN Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson has spoken of war crimes against the people of Kosovo and Serbia simultaneously and warned Nato that by intervening in the first place, it was putting itself in the potential position of being answerable to the Hague tribunal. However, it is rather unlikely that Milosevic will meet Clinton, Blair, Clark and their entourage in the dock.

Further, Nato's war crimes are in danger of being forgotten. In taking this 'moral' position, the major international legal institutions have not been persuaded to try Nato leaders and personnel for breaches of international humanitarian law--otherwise known as war crimes. Various organisations from the international legal community (mainly from the UK, Canada and Greece) have brought charges against Nato and attempted to argue them in the Hague tribunal, whilst the International Court of Justice has ignored submissions questioning the legality of Nato's acts. It is more likely that an ad hoc court (such as the Commission of Inquiry to be held in New York this month as currently proposed by former US attorney-general Ramsey Clark) will be left to judge Nato's actions, leaving Nato leaders or personnel unpunished for their grievous war crimes.

The UN and the Hague tribunal are pawns in Nato's game. Not only has Nato disregarded important international legal principles, it has imposed its own moral doctrine to justify its actions. To allow Nato to make its own 'laws' in the midst of its egregious behaviour is the greatest injustice of all.
Natassja Smiljanic

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