Kath Noble

Foreign intervention, Louise Arbour and the former Yugoslavia

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on October 24, 2007

Reflecting on NATO intervention in Kosovo as Louise Arbour visits Sri Lanka.

Louise Arbour provoked equal and opposite reactions on the occasion of her recent visit to Sri Lanka. The event was keenly awaited and enthusiastically celebrated by a fair few, but was the subject of suspicion and anger amongst many others. It all boiled down to whether or not one believed in the benevolent nature of foreign intervention and its ability to deliver us from the evil of human rights abuses, for she is the very embodiment of the idea as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

I almost embraced the theory myself after I watched the trailer for a film dramatising Louise Arbour’s previous role as the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. It is called ‘Hunt for Justice: the Louise Arbour Story’.

The plot is simple. Serbs are in the middle of committing genocide against ethnic Albanians in the province of Kosovo. It is being orchestrated by the monstrous Slobodan Milosevic, President of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and not for the first time, as he was also responsible for similar attacks during the earlier breakaway of the states of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. He has to be stopped, and the world is just watching it happen, but here comes our heroine, Louise Arbour. She swoops in and saves the day by indicting Slobodan Milosevic for war crimes in a special court in The Hague. It looks like a blockbuster.

It is propaganda. There were no goodies and baddies, and it was not all neatly solved by the end. However, that is the way it is presented, on the world stage as well as in the film, particularly by the Americans.

Bill Clinton, the American President at the time, had a thing about bombing. He started in Sudan and Afghanistan in August 1998 (in apparent retaliation for the attacks on American embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi), moved on to Iraq from December 1998 (to punish Saddam Hussein for not cooperating with weapons inspectors), and finally reached the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia by March 1999 (to persuade Slobodan Milosevic to give up Kosovo). Coincidentally, it all happened after he got into trouble at home, where he was facing impeachment for lying about and then trying to cover up his affair with Monica Lewinsky.

It would not have been wise to say that this was all in the interests of distracting attention from a domestic problem, or even entrenching one country’s domination of the whole world post-Cold War, which was presumably the intention of those who suggested it to Bill Clinton. People had to wipe from their minds what Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s press secretary, strategist and trusted confidant (quoting from the dust jacket of his book published a couple of months ago: ‘The Blair Years’) wrote in his diary in January 1999 in the aftermath of one of the worst Serb attacks in Kosovo, in which it is said that 45 ethnic Albanians were killed: ‘Tony Blair and Robin Cook (British Foreign Secretary) agreed we could not bomb because there was no political process and the Kosovo Liberation Army were not much better than the Serbs, and just looking to NATO to be their defence arm and bomb Slobodan Milosevic for them.’

The Americans got the propaganda ball rolling. It is the worst genocide since World War II, announced NATO.

The Independent International Commission on Kosovo declared in its comprehensive report on the conflict that around 2,000 people had died in at least a year leading up to March 1999, of which probably 500 were Serb civilians or police and 1,500 were ethnic Albanian civilians or members of the Kosovo Liberation Army.

Meanwhile, a peace conference was called near Paris. The Serbs were cautious because the ceasefire that they had negotiated under pressure from NATO the previous year had seen them withdraw 6,000 police and soldiers back to barracks, only to watch their positions being taken over by the Kosovo Liberation Army, and all under the supervision of the international monitors from the OSCE. It broke down following a deliberate campaign of provocation by the Kosovo Liberation Army, according to confidential minutes of a meeting at NATO later made public by the BBC.

There is a dispute over what happened next. The proposal that emerged from the peace conference was agreed to by the Albanian, American and British delegates, but rejected by the Serbs and Russians. It was suggested to hand over the administration of Kosovo to NATO, whose troops would be granted immunity from prosecution and the right to roam throughout the whole of Serbia. Slobodan Milosevic might not have signed up to any agreement at that point, but that last clause seems to have been inserted to guarantee it.

Whatever, the somewhat half-hearted attempt at peace failed. NATO bombed.

Things then got a lot worse in Kosovo. The Serbian Army drove out about 850,000 ethnic Albanians, amounting to some 80% of the population. The Independent International Commission on Kosovo says that possibly up to 10,000 people were killed.

Bombing turned out not to be as easy as some had expected it to be and, once it had started, the political imperative to reassure the public that it was a moral war increased exponentially. Alastair Campbell put it well, ‘Tony Blair said if we didn’t win this, it was curtains for the government.’ He was soon complaining about coverage by the BBC: ‘We (he and Tony Blair) talked about whether we should go for them publicly. They made no effort to balance the fact that they were reporting democracies and a dictatorship, virtually taking the dictatorship propaganda at face value while putting everything we did through a far more intense scrutiny.’ He was also upset about retired generals giving interviews critical of the prosecution of the bombing campaign, who the Chief of Defence Staff referred to as ‘rats who should be shot.’

Before long, the politicians were taken in by their own speeches, and they forgot that only a few weeks earlier they had thought that the situation was largely the fault of the Kosovo Liberation Army. Alastair Campbell reports himself discussing the relative merits of bombing a television station or the headquarters of a political party, both of which were illegitimate targets under international humanitarian law, and also sure to result in the deaths of ordinary people, or what he was now happily calling ‘collateral damage.’ In fact, at least 500 civilians were killed in NATO air attacks, according to Human Rights Watch. 

Alastair Campbell visited Kosovo when it was all over and, as he was driving past a convoy of Serbs on their way out, he said, ‘I could see the rapist in their eyes. They were among the most disgusting people I had ever seen and I felt all the more satisfied at what we had done.’ It is profoundly disturbing.

Slobodan Milosevic did a deal with NATO in June 1999. Kosovo remains part of Serbia until talks on its final status can be completed, but it is administered by the United Nations with the support of soldiers from NATO. Within a year, around 1,000 Serbs and Roma had been killed in Kosovo, and more than 200,000 had fled their homes to Serbia.

Foreign intervention, it seems to me, brought nothing but death and destruction to Kosovo, but nobody can say what would have happened if it had not taken place, and this may explain why the Americans and British were able to use Kosovo as the precedent to declare still more humanitarian wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Louise Arbour played an important part in the propaganda campaign in the lead up to and during the bombing. The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia was set up in 1993 in response to the earlier conflicts in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and she served as Chief Prosecutor from 1996. The vast majority of those indicted were Serbs (including Croatian Serbs and Bosnian Serbs), and Slobodan Milosevic himself was indicted in May 1999 for crimes committed in the preceding few months in Kosovo, but it was only after he lost an election and the Americans promised the new government millions in aid that he was arrested and handed over to the court in The Hague. The first ethnic Albanian, and a low-ranker at that, was indicted only in November 2004, and the Serbian government complaint against NATO was rejected on the basis that the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia had been suspended from the United Nations at the time of the bombing. Louise Arbour resigned on the day the war was won by NATO.

Mahinda Samarasinghe, Minister of Human Rights, says that Louise Arbour did not call for any kind of foreign intervention in Sri Lanka, not even the relatively mild proposal of an international monitoring mission under the auspices of her office at the United Nations. Good. It would not stop human rights abuses and nor would a clean bill of health from such a body stop people with ulterior motives bombing the country if they really wanted to do so. That is how the world works, I fear, and anyone who thinks otherwise has seen too many films.

As for ‘Hunt for Justice: the Louise Arbour Story’: the world would be better off without a sequel in Sri Lanka.

This article was published on the editorial page of The Island on October 24th, 2007. The internet version can be accessed here.

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