July 27, 2020
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A Balkan Blunder

In cavalier disregard for international law, NATO invokes human rights against sovereignty

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A Balkan Blunder

IN the extreme international climate hovering over the Kosovo question, the Yugoslav ambassador to India, Dr Cedomir Strbac, finds it apt to relate what he calls a "bitter joke". He says there is a new Jewish nation in Europe, ie Yugoslavia, which is blamed for all the region's evil. Like the Jews, the target of Hitler's Nazi Germany, Yugoslavia has become the target for the whole of Europe, says the ambassador.

The analogy may not be entirely accurate, since the Jews did nothing to provoke the Holocaust, but it is understandable. A single country, small and villainised, facing the might of nato firepower—the image invites one to paint Yugoslavia in the role of victim. This despite one obvious problematic: the Yugoslav security forces committed serious human rights violations in Kosovo now and earlier during the Bosnian civil war.

But Yugoslavia's case against nato's action doesn't rest on emotionalism alone. "True, lots of heinous crimes were committed, but what the US and nato have done is completely wrong in law," says V.S. Mani, professor of international law at jnu and secretary general of the Indian Society of International Law. Right through and before the operation, US and nato spokesmen cited humanitarian reasons for the action, refusing to enter the debate about its legitimacy in terms of international law.

But let's begin at the beginning. What is the problem in Kosovo? Was there an inevitability to its denouement? Are the Yugoslavs completely at fault? What are the implications of the nato action for the world? Is humanitarian intervention a valid motto for violating a nation's territorial integrity and sovereignty? And, the same old question, who decides?

The basic issues in Kosovo are not of recent vintage. Since '74, this tiny southern Yugoslav province had enjoyed autonomy. In '89, Belgrade abolished this and imposed direct rule. Serbs regard Kosovo as a natural extension of the Serbian landscape—it was here that the Slavs settled first, and a lot of the architecture reflects that. The predominantly Muslim ethnic Albanians—a whopping 90 per cent of the current population—don't take kindly to this view.

Says O.N. Mehrotra, of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses: "The movement for secession of Kosovo began much before Slobodan Milosevic became president in the late '80s". Things came to a head last year when the militant Kosovo Liberation Army, armed and trained in neighbouring Albania, launched a violent campaign for independence. Serbian security forces responded equally ferociously. The die was cast. It set in motion a spiral of human rights violations.

The present problem follows Milosevic's refusal to sign the Paris accord in March, which would have allowed considerable autonomy to the Kosovars followed by a referendum three years later. The situation during this time was to be monitored by nato peacekeepers. While agreeing to the autonomy demand, Milosevic refused to station nato troops on his territory.

Says Miomir Udovicki, Yugoslav deputy chief of mission in New Delhi: "We are facing this brutal aggression because we didn't accept the so-called agreement.It was not even discussed. It's practically Albania's draft, which they'd published in their own newspapers before the Rambouillet talks (near Paris) in February". Serbians fear the referendum and the stationing of nato troops would eventually lead to giving independence to Kosovo, which they will never accept.

"One may criticise Milosevic's methods, not his universally acknowledged goal that Serbia's territorial integrity must be protected," says Mehrotra. The official view from India tends to concur. "Typically the US approach is very short-sighted, very clever, very impractical," says a senior Indian official. "If you decimate Serbian power now, you hand over Kosovo to the Albanians."

The action in distant Kosovo has pitted India against the US and nato. New Delhi surprised itself and others by its strong stand against the nato assault. Says Stephen P. Cohen, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington: "Events again place India in a difficult position. It shows the deeper tensions in Indian foreign policy—between the inclination to pursue realpolitik, i.e. national interests narrowly conceived, and the impetus to hold others to universal principles of international relations."

This time, India raised a fundamental question of international law, which impacts on the UN's role. Kamlesh Sharma, India's permanent representative to the UN, said the attacks violated Article 53 of the UN Charter. "No country, group of countries or regional arrangement, no matter how powerful, can arrogate to itself the right of taking arbitrary and unilateral military action against others. That would be a return to anarchy, where might is right". He also cited Article 2 (7) of the Charter which authorises the UN to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state. The only exception is use of force under Chapter VII, which too must first be cleared by the Security Council. This procedure was ignored this time. Sharma pointed to the folly of forcing Yugoslavia to accept nato troops. The UN, he pointed out, can't be forced to abdicate its role in peacekeeping.

What really irked the US was Sharma's subsequent statement: "nato argues that the Serb police in Kosovo is acting violently and without any respect for law. Unfortunately, nato seems to have taken on the persona and the methods of operation of those whose activities it wants to curb." The attacks also violate the nato treaty. It decrees that the parties abide by the UN Charter and undertake to settle any dispute by peaceful means. Besides, the action falls outside nato's area of operation.

That's not all. The casualties include Article 5, which recognises that the parties will only act in collective self-defence as recognised by Article 51 of the UN Charter. Says Mani: "You can act in collective self-defence when you are faced with an armed attack. Besides, under this mechanism, you have to report to the UN Security Council", which then has to decide what action to take.

nato countries have neither been attacked nor have they reported the matter to the Security Council. On the contrary, when Russia moved a resolution for cessation of attacks, it was shot down in the Council. The UN has been diligently kept out. "With the UN involved, it can get messy and it ties you down," says an Indian official.

The question now is: who decides when humanitarian intervention is necessary? "Given that there is no fair and impartial international arbiter, it's not right for any state or group of states to engage in such intervention. Who appointed the US as the world's policeman?" asks Mani.

"Why do the Americans have a different set of rules when it comes to the Kurds in Turkey?" asks an Indian official. Not to mention the Croatian offensive against ethnic Serbs in '95, which drove several hundred thousand Serbs out of Croatia. Only recently, the international war crimes tribunal at The Hague determined that the Croatian army conducted summary executions, indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas and 'ethnic cleansing' during the '95 assault.

Increasingly, there has been a trend to abridge the concept of sovereignty. Actions such as in Yugoslavia can only further erode this doctrine. India isn't unaware of what it could mean in areas like Kashmir, though some feel it's a far-fetched comparison.

Cohen responds that India has historically used its own military power to intervene wherever it felt necessary, and it has been silent about the interventions of friends, especially the Soviet Union (as in Afghanistan). He adds that India is probably critical of nato now for the same reason that Russia and China is: "It has something to be embarrassed about, something to be afraid about, should Kashmir (or Chechnya, or Tibet) attract the international gaze. I don't think it will, but Indians seem excessively defensive about their actions in the part of Kashmir they control".

Cohen also feels that, leaving aside the virtues or vices of the nato intervention against the Serbs, India needs to "come to grips with hard cases: places where international intervention (not unlike their own in South Asia) seems morally and strategically compelling, yet which seem to violate the sanctity of the state. I don't think much of this policy, but India, the US, and other democracies must find a way of addressing cases where a state does declare war against its own people, or a fragment of its people. A state like India, whose own domestic record is, on balance, quite remarkable, should be less shy about engaging others on this—the days of basing foreign policy upon a narrow definition of national interest have passed."

What next? For nearly 10 days now nato has been bombing Yugoslavia. Except for offering to reduce troops in Kosovo, Milosevic has refused to budge. nato spokesmen speak of deepening the attacks. But aerial bombing serves only a limited purpose and if Milosevic doesn't crumble, nato will have a tough choice on sending in ground troops. The issue was brought into acute relief when the Serbs picked up three US soldiers near the Macedonian border on April 1.

Meanwhile, the media barrage has continued apace, turning the attack into some kind of prime-time entertainment. ("These are front-row seats in a show," said a TV reporter of the night sky in Yugoslavia.) The media has focused on the humanitarian disaster, but it's been one-sided. And Belgrade hasn't helped its cause by expelling journalists.

Yet questions have been asked, within the US too, on the endgame that the Clinton Administration has in mind. The great Cold Warrior, former secretary of state Dr Henry Kissinger, had this to say: "I have not been uneasy about any US military action since I left government. Here we have no dividing lines, no definable outcome and a situation which, by our own definition, is bound to become more and more complicated and will bring us inevitably not only into a conflict with the Serbs, as we are already, but with the Albanians as it goes along".

With Ludwina A. Joseph in Washington DC

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