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Kosovo: Were International Responses to Ethnic Conflict Adequate?

by Thomas J. Hegarty, Professor of History, The University of Tampa, Florida, USA.

This article appeared in ECRD Volume 4, Number 2 (September 2001)

REVIEWING: Independent International Commission on Kosovo, Kosovo Report: Conflict, International Response, Lessons Learned (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000) 380pp. Index. Hb.: £30.00; ISBN 0-19-924308-5. Pb.: £9.99; ISBN 0-19-924309-3; and Ken BOOTH (ed.), The Kosovo Tragedy: The Human Rights Dimension (London: Frank Cass, 2001) 390pp. Index. Hb.: £45.00; ISBN 0-7146-5085-4. Pb.: £17.50; ISBN 0-7146-8126-1.

The recent history of Kosovo cogently raises questions regarding the obligations of other countries to take action when ethnic conflict and serious and prolonged abuses of human rights take place within another country's borders. The questions involve the meaning and limits of national sovereignty, concerns for area and international security as well as realizations of the political and military constraints and limitations inherent in intervening for humanitarian reasons.

The Kosovo Report … of the Independent International Commission is well worth reading for its treatment of the lessons from the Kosovo conflict. Though the entire report merits attention, for those short on time there is an excellent executive summary. In it, the Commission succinctly covers the topics of early prevention of ethnic strife; armed ethnic conflict; the belated diplomatic effort to head it off; the NATO air campaign that followed diplomatic failure; the various responses to the humanitarian crisis that began when the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia stepped up its efforts to expel Albanians; the role of the media before, during and after the conflict; the shaky rule by the United Nations Interim Administration in Kosovo [UNMIK] since peace was reestablished; the effects of all the events on the surrounding Balkan region; and the future status of Kosovo and humanitarian intervention elsewhere. These are more fully developed in the body of the report.

Immediately after the text of an address to the Commission by Nelson Mandela, a formal introduction explains how the Commission was established, was staffed and organized its business. It came about as an idea of Prime Minister Goran Persson of Sweden who quickly received encouragement from the Secretary-General of the United Nations. The Swedish government then invited Justice Richard Goldstone of South Africa and Carl Tham, Secretary-General of the Olof Palme International Center at Stockholm to act as chairman and co-chairman. They invited the additional eleven members to serve in their private, rather than official, capacities. Selection was based on established expertise in international relations and conflict resolution but also with attention to gender and geographical concerns. Though the resulting report was to be submitted to the U.N. Secretary-General, it was a broader audience of interested people all across the world that was to be its primary focus. The Commission worked over a twelve month period with plenary meetings in Stockholm, New York, Budapest, Florence, and Johannesburg, with seminars and expert briefings held for the members throughout the year. Documentary material and position papers were solicited widely. The members did not tap any secret sources of information but worked through the voluminous if uneven documents and commentaries that are available in the public domain. During the course of its work the Commission asked the American Bar Association Central European Law Initiative [ABA/CELI] to establish a team of experts to compile data on violations of human rights and humanitarian law before, during and after the NATO campaign. One part of the ABA/CELI effort is the lengthy and interesting document which is appended as Annex I.

The Commission's report itself is divided into three sections: narratives, analyses and conclusions. Despite some inevitable overlap, the structure works well. A high degree of clarity and readability - almost unknown to the reviewer in reports of other commissions -- has been achieved. Part I, "What Happened", documents the facts of the Kosovo crisis, beginning with its remote ethnic origins. The war and its outcome in Kosovo are presented in three subsections, the first treating the long developing spiral of repression and resistance, the second covering the NATO intervention up to the peace agreement of June 1999; and the third providing a picture of Kosovo in 1999-2000, as administered by the United Nations under Security Council Resolution 1244.

Part II provides analyses of aspects of the intervention which are the most disputed and problematic: two of them are the omissions and failure of diplomacy over many years but especially at Rambouillet, just prior to the NATO action, and the existence of possible effective alternatives to intervention over the years. The next issues are an assessment of the provisions of international law with respect to humanitarian intervention and a review of the mixed impacts of organizations providing humanitarian assistance and the world media. The section also explores the largely unexpected flight of hundreds of thousands of Albanian refugees as a result of and during the intervention, and considers their impact on the several countries and territories that received them. Analyses are also offered of the broader political and economic impacts of the Kosovo crisis on the Balkan region and, in particular, on FRY and Serbia. The section closes with attention to the promising efforts at reconstruction and regional cooperation available through the European Stability Pact.

Part III presents the Commission's conclusions, which are offered not only in the hope of ensuring lasting peace and security for Kosovo and the Balkan region, but also of identifying the lessons that may assist in dealing with ethnic strife and humanitarian intervention elsewhere in the world. The report does not shrink from leveling its most sweeping criticisms at FRY and Serbian actions but makes plain that acts of omission and commission on the part of other countries and organizations deepened and extended the fray and postponed the finding of a solution. Now that Kosovo is under international control, the Commission strongly exhorts that Kosovo be put on the path toward conditional independence. The conditions are to be imposed to ensure that there will not be the replacement of one oppressed people by another and that the conflict of Kosovo not be transferred to a neighbor's territory. The Commission urges that the people of Kosovo reject revanchism and build on the framework of peace and freedom that has been extended to them, that they develop tolerance and a desire to live at peace with their neighbors. When the conditions are satisfied in the eyes of the international community, Kosovo, the report argues, should be granted its independence.

Though the Commission accepts as unavoidable the intervention in Kosovo after the failure at Rambouillet, it criticizes with great specificity the way in which the intervention was carried out. As presented, part of the problem, beyond differences of policy among participating countries and squabbling between the intervening civil and military authorities was the inadequate state of international law, which needs revision and augmentation to provide a process for intervention and provisions which outlaw ethnic cleansing. [Legal scholars quarrel over whether merely driving out an ethnic minority falls under the convention on genocide.] Seeing the Kosovo intervention as legitimate but not legal according to current international legal principles, the Commission offers its thoughts in sections entitled "Threshold Principles" and "Contextual Principles". The first states the conditions that would have to be satisfied in order to claim legitimacy for any future intervention while the second put forward conditions that would either enhance or diminish that legitimacy. The Commission views military force as only the last resort of humanitarian intervention and one which in Kosovo demonstrated its great limitations and inadequacies in achieving humanitarian aims. Some will regard the Commission as oblivious to the political realities of intervening powers who cannot, for reasons of domestic tranquillity, sustain large numbers of casualties in order to put more troops on the ground rather than planes in the air. The Commission members' answer would be their recommendation that all the necessary earlier steps be taken in a timelier manner so that no troops or planes would be required. Less controversial are the recommendations that international law and United Nations processes be updated, the former to bring definitional clarity and worldwide understanding of general principles, and the latter to escape from the current vagaries of the Security Council and the General Assembly. Until then, regional organs like NATO may have to carry the burden and act according to their own understandings.

Most of the essays in Ken Booth's edited work The Kosovo Tragedy… first appeared in a special issue of the International Journal of Human Rights, vol. 4, nos. 3/4 (Autumn/Winter, 2000). They are worthy of reprinting in this book. Though the contributions, aimed as they are at specific issues and problems, do not present a comprehensive picture of Kosovo, they explore the most essential human rights aspects of the conflict and offer a number of perspectives on genocide, ethnic cleansing, and rape in war. The book also provides many of the human right lessons that can be drawn from the recent history of Bosnia-Hercegovina. Essayists examine the human rights abuses which over time led to the outbreak of the fighting between NATO and Serbia, or outline the human rights dimensions of the war and the negotiations that took place just before and after it. Others inquire into the legality and legitimacy of NATO's actions and assess the part played by well-meaning outsiders who came to mitigate the refugee crisis but sometimes exacerbated it. The book also considers the human rights issues which have developed since June 1999 when Kosovo became an international protectorate.

In a brief review, it is difficult to give credit to the individual authors and their ideas. It must suffice to show the riches of the contents of The Kosovo Tragedy. Part One, entitled "Perspectives" offers the following crucial pieces; "Genocide: Knowing What It Is That We Want to Remember, or Forget, or Forgive"; "The History and Politics of Ethnic Cleansing"; and "Rape in War: Lessons of The Balkan Conflicts in the 1990s". Part Two, called "Prologue" provides a sense of history in "Warnings from Bosnia: The Dayton Agreement and the Implementation of Human Rights"; "Human Wrongs in Kosovo, 1974 - 99"; " OSCE Verification Experiences in Kosovo: November 1998 - June 1999."

Part Three, entitled "War" presents several aspects of the military intervention: "Reflections on the Legality and Legitimacy of NATO's Intervention in Kosovo"; "The Kosovo Refugee Crisis: NATO's Humanitarianism versus Human Rights"; "International Humanitarian Law and the Kosovo Crisis"; and "The Kosovo Indictment of the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia". Part Four, "Aftermath", offers "From Rambouillet to the Kosovo Accords: NATO's War against Serbia and Its Aftermath"; "The Ambiguities of Elections in Kosovo: Democratisation versus Human Rights?" and " 'Post-Conflict' Kosovo: An Anatomy Lesson in the Ethics/Politics of Human Rights."

Part Five, entitled "Forum", provides reactions to the question "Is Humanitarian War a Contradiction in Terms?" They are "A Qualified Defence of the Use of Force for 'Humanitarian' Reasons"; "Can There Be Such a Thing as a Just War?"; "The 1999 Kosovo War through a South African Lens"; "No Good Deed Shall Go Unpunished"; "Air Power and the Liberal Politics of War"; an essay by the editor Ken Booth, " Ten Flaws of Just Wars"; and " 'Humanitarian Wars', Realist Geopolitics and Genocidal Practices: 'Saving the Kosovars'. Coming from all over the spectrum, they provide much food for thought.

Part VI is a collection of important documents related to Kosovo which are in their own right deserving of publication. They include the current but dated United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Stemming from World War II experience, it may or may not cover the issue of ethnic cleansing. Also available are Security Council Resolutions 1160 and 1199 adopted in 1998; the interim Agreement for Peace and Self-Government in Kosovo of February 1999; the proposal of the Parliament of Serbia for Self-Governance in Kosovo of Match 1999; the Military Technical Agreement of June 1999 between the KFOR troops and the Governments of FRY and Serbia; and Security Council Resolution 1244, adopted in June 1999.

Kosovo offers a warning that (1) ethnic disharmony and strife exist or can be stirred up in many places; (2) that ruthless would-be leaders can exploit ethnic issues for their own gain; and (3) that regimes, drawing on the ethnic conflict, can commit the most brutal human rights abuses, unless somehow checked. The dilemmas of whether and how to intervene will therefore confront outsiders, including international bodies, regional alliances, national governments or individuals. Though the results of recent interventions in Bosnia-Hercegovina and Kosovo are not yet known and the work of the international protectorate in Kosovo is ongoing, the issue of intervention cannot be left to leisurely study . Even as this review is being written, some ethnic conflicts are brewing while others have already erupted. It is vital that the complexities and contradictions of what we know of ethnic conflict and intervention not be lost sight of, but be taken into account in deciding on appropriate action. The Kosovo experience and the two works under review here will be helpful to that end.

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