genocide in world politics
contemporary warfare and society
war, state & society
social science of conflict
sociology of global politics
home page
the global site
subscribe for news
IR & Politics programme
University of Sussex

Martin Shaw 

the Kosova war

talk to an open meeting at Sussex University, organised by the International Relations and Politics Group, 26 April 1999

Let us begin with what kind of war this is, and where it began.

This war didn’t begin with NATO airstrikes on Serbia.

It began shortly after Slobodan Milosevic became president of Serbia, with disbanding of Kosova’s autonomous institutions in 1989 and the imposition of a repressive regime.

This was the beginning of the end for federal Yugoslavia.

Until 1998, the war in Kosova itself remained a ‘cold war’, with constant repression by Serbia and passive resistance by the 90 per cent Albanian majority, not breaking out into widespread, open violence.

But in the meanwhile Milosevic had opened up no fewer than three further hot wars, ‘new wars’ against civilians as much as other against other republics, tearing Yugoslavia to pieces in an orgy of killing and mass clearances of population.

• The war in Slovenia in 1991 was mercifully very brief and with few casualties.

• In Croatia in 1991-92 the Yugoslav Army, under the direction of Milosevic’s Serbia, ripped the heart out of Osijek and Vukovar, the first European cities to be reduced to rubble since 1945.

• In Bosnia-Herzegovina, between 1992 and 1995, the Serbian party led by Radovan Karadzic, sponsored and directed by Milosevic and utilising the Yugoslav Army’s organization and weaponry as well as Serbian paramilitary gangs, conquered most of the country, expelling nearly all non-Serbs, killing, raping and robbing on a huge scale; destroying the majority of the country’s mosques; attempting to destroy plural urban centres and above all Sarajevo.

I don’t mean to imply that the Serbians are the only guilty party.

Croatia aimed from the start to divide Bosnia with Serbia, and its forces carried out a similar campaign, for which one of its generals is now being tried in the Hague. Bosnian forces also committed atrocities.

But Serbia was the main driving force of all these wars, and it killed, expelled and destroyed across Yugoslavia.

All the time, the Kosovans were tortured.

Afraid of the kind of war which has now engulfed them, they showed remarkable constraint.

But by last year, Milosevic’s attention turned back to them, and in defiance many Albanians supported the emergent guerilla force, the Kosova Liberation Army.

Defeating the KLA in turn gave Milosevic his pretext and his forces began to do to the Kosovans what they had already done in Bosnia: to burn, to expel, to massacre on a large scale.

What NATO has done, having wasted a year failing to get Milosevic to agree to an international force to protect Kosovan civilians, is to intervene in this war. Three kinds of issues arise here:

• whether in principle it was right for the West to intervene,

• whether the intervention has been of an appropriate kind, and carried out in the right way,

• and given that this intervention has taken place, what should happen now.

On the first issue,it is absolutely right and proper that international organizations should intervene, politically and if necessary militarily, for two reasons:

• to protect Kosovan civilians from the violence of the Serbian state and

• to achieve a just political settlement in Kosova. In such a settlement the wishes of the vast majority of the population for independence must be respected, so long as the rights of the Serbian minority are also protected.

Many critics of the Western action subordinate these two central concerns to outdated political prejudices:

1 It is argued that the West is overriding national sovereignty.

But state sovereignty has been conditional on popular legitimacy for 200 years now.

The right of self-determination has been recognised on all sides.

Although this right is problematic, Kosova is actually one of its simplest cases.

Today, states’ sovereignty also depends on their respecting universal standards of human rights.

Thus by his own actions Milosevic, not NATO, has destroyed any residual claims Serbia has over Kosova.

2 It is argued that the war is about a new Western or American super-imperialism.

But this view neglects the fact that it is the Kosovans themselves who are pleading for NATO intervention.

It neglects the extreme form of imperial control which Serbia has sought to exercise in Kosova and throughout Yugoslavia.

3 It is argued that the war has no legitimacy under international law or UN authority.

In fact it is not merely a right but a duty of all states to prevent genocide.

And since Russia, afraid of the principle of international jurisdiction over its own Kosovas, would veto effective action under UN authority, it is legitimate that NATO has acted under its own auspices.

It is also noteworthy that Security Council rejected Russia’s condemnation of NATO by 12-3, thus indirectly conferring some UN legitimacy on NATO’s action.

4 It is argued that the West is inconsistent, neglecting similar cases elsewhere.

This view obviously does have some force, but

• it neglects the extremity of the Kosovan situation;

• it neglects the fact that NATO learnt from the consequences of its failure to intervene earlier in the Yugoslav wars;

• it neglects the fact that the West has learnt from its failures to intervene in other situations, such as Rwanda;

• in any case, the West’s failures to uphold human rights elsewhere are not an argument against doing so in Kosova, but a case for action.

5 Finally, it is argued by some that this is not genocide, because Milosevic does not aim to kill every last Albanian.

This argument does not gain much sympathy from Holocaust survivors who see the parallel all too clearly.

Nor is it warranted by the internationally agreed definition of genocide as ‘the destruction of a people in whole or in part’.

It is only a fool who does not see that Milosevic is attempting to destroy the Kosova Albanians as a people, to wipe out their society and their homeland.

Therefore all the conventional old-left objections to this war fail.

The political rationale for NATO’s intervention does not just stand up: it is absolutely imperative that this politics prevails not only over Milosevic, but over any tendencies towards new compromises with his regime.

Leaders like Blair have put the situation of the Kosovan people at the heart of their stance.

Let us support these pledges and not allow our governments to go back on them.

The problems with Western policy lie not so much in its stated aims, therefore, but in the failure to pursue them consistently and to adopt appropriate means.

The overriding problem with this war is that NATO has not adopted a strategy which has put the protection of the Kosova people first.

• It has said it wants to uphold their rights but has put the safety of its own soldiers before those of children, old people and other innocent civilians on the ground in Kosova.

• It launched an air campaign knowing that this would provide Milosevic with an opportunity to accelerate the genocide.

• It has been far too slow to alter this strategy even after it discovered the toll from this terrible mistake.

NATO persists in this stance to this day.

‘Time is our greatest ally’ said Robin Cook last Thursday. Time is not the ally of the hundreds of thousands of Kosovans hiding from the Serb troops, many of them living with very little food or shelter in cold mountainous areas, under constant threat of attack from a well-armed military force.

I think these concerns are more urgent than those about the civilians inside Serbia.

However terrible it is to have to live with bombing, there is no serious comparison between the plight of people in Serbia and that of the Kosova Albanians.

It has to be said that people who live near the heart of the killing-machine which has slaughtered people across Yugoslavia for ten years should not be surprised when the war comes home.

The Serbian opposition has certainly been weakened, but let us be clear that it had already been utterly out-manouevred by Milosevic. It offered little short-term hope for change.

Nevertheless there are serious dangers in NATO’s strategy towards Serbia.

It is a refinement of older strategies of aerial bombardment.

The weapons are smarter: when they work right, they can distinguish between Milosevic’s house and Tito’s tomb in the garden.

So long as targetting is limited to those parts of the infrastructure which directly support the war in Kosova, such as oil refineries, bridges or for that matter the TV station, and is designed to minimise civilian casualties, it can be justified.

But NATO’s strategy runs the risk, the longer the war goes on and the wider the target list is widened, of going round the road of fundamentally damaging the society as well as its infrastructure of power, as happened in Iraq.

What should happen now:

• however much we may criticise the West’s failures in the past and its mistakes today, now that war is launched we must want them to win;

• we must accept no solution which gives Serbia any continuing authority over Kosova, and which does not allow all the people of Kosova to return to and rebuild their pre-war homes;

• we must warn resolutely against any partition of Kosova, for which there is no justification whatsoever and which will simply store up new trouble for the future;

• much greater priority should be given to the plight of the Albanian people still in Kosova: we must press NATO to put protective forces on the ground immediately - this is the most urgent single question at the present time;

• we must be prepared to make vocal criticism of the strategy of the campaign, and especially warn of the dangers of widening the bombing targets;

• we must press for full support for the International War Crimes Tribunal to indict as many as possible of those involved in the Serbian genocide in Kosova.

If we are to learn any lessons from the appalling human suffering of this war, after all the other wars of the 10 years since 1989, it must be to set in train far more comprehensive and ambitious arrangements for global government, law and security in the 21st century.

Beyond the victory, we must win the wider peace, we must make sure that we consolidate a European order in which the peoples of the Balkans can at last find a peaceful, democratic and prosperous place, and begin the task of creating this order worldwide.

online texts
topical commentary
Global Society & IR
Civil Society and Media
Dialectics of War
war & genocide project
civil society