Supporters of the US-backed NATO bombing of Libya have so far cited humanitarianism as the reason for supporting the war. The United States, they say, cannot sit back and allow a dictator to murder his own people. While nearly every war dating back to the colonialism has been justified at least partially on humanitarian concerns the quintessential example of humanitarian intervention remains the 76-day NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999. Per the prevailing narrative Slobodan Milosevic was engaging in crimes against humanity against the Kosovar Albanians population, the US and NATO benevolently intervened, and stopped the atrocities. Given the potency of the both the dominate narrative of NATO intervention in Kosovo, as well as support for humanitarian intervention in Libya it worthwhile to go back and reexamine what happened in the Former Yugoslavia both within the framework of humanitarian intervention (did the NATO bombing achieve humanitarian objectives), as well as question the framework itself (were NATO objectives humanitarian).
Did the NATO bombing achieve Humanitarian Objectives?
The key claim to the legitimacy of NATO’s intervention was that it stopped Milosevic’s atrocities against civilian populations. There should be no question about Milosevic was a thug and a war criminal. However, as David Gibbs notes in The Guardian prior to NATO intervention civilian causalities were around 2,000 people, roughly half of which were killed by Serbia forcesn. However, after the NATO bombing Serbian forces killed 10,000 civilians. Per Gibbs “The Serbian forces were furious that they could not stop the Nato air attacks, so they took out their frustration on the relatively defenceless Albanians, causing a huge increase in the number of killings.”
Gibbs is not alone in his thinking. When Noam Chomsky was asked by UN General Secretary Ban Ki Moon to address the General Assembly on the issue of “responsibility to protect,” he noted that the worst Serbian atrocities were committed after the NATO bombing had begun, and later noted in a response to criticism of his speech that when Milosevic was indicted only one count referred to instances from before the NATO bombing. More importantly, Chomsky notes that at the time of the NATO bombing the then head of NATO Clark was asked about the spike in Serbian atrocities. His response? They were “anticipated.” Clark further elaborated this point in his memoirs in which he recounts how he told Secretary of State Madame Albright that a bombing of Serbia would merely exacerbate the situation and result in heightened Serbian atrocities. He was later proven right by history. The correlation between NATO intervention and a spike in the very sort of crimes it was supposedly meant to prevent is an undeniable historical fact. Debatable, however is whether there was a direct causation between the events. Given that even the architects of the so-called “humanitarian” war assert causation it’s fair to say that there’s not much debate.
Gibbs brings a up a second inconvenient fact for proponents of the humanitarian war. As Gibbs notes, that the “war crimes of Serbian forces are well known, but their Kosovan adversaries committed crimes too.” Indeed, while the pretext of the war was Serbian ethnic cleansing of Albanians, the Kosovo Liberation Army after being brought to power by NATO conducted their own ethnic cleansing campaigns, not just against Serbians, but against Roma as well.
In addition to failing to prevent Serbian crimes and enabling Kosovar crimes there is a third damning fact about NATO’s humanitarianism–that NATO itself committed numerous war crimes. The bombing of Serbia and the targets selected by NATO were at the time condemned as violations of international law by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the United Nations Committee on Human Rights. The bombing, which included such targets as a Serbian television station, resulted in 500 civilian casualties. Considering the entire number of civilian dead on all sides of the conflict prior to NATO bombing was 2,000 that number is staggering.
Equally importantly was the legitimacy of the intervention itself. NATO intervened without security council approval meaning the intervention was a violation of international law. Additionally, Bill Clinton did not seek Congressional approval for US bombing, and continued the bombing even when Congressional motions to authorize the airstrikes and declare war on Yugoslavia failed to pass in the House of Representatives.
Was The NATO bombing motivated by humanitarianism?
Given the established humanitarian record, that NATO illegally intervened knowing that it would result in an increase of Serbian atrocities, backed atrocities committed by the KLA, and itself engaged in a massive campaign of war crimes it seems worthwhile to call into question NATO’s intentions. Perhaps NATO really are just among the worst humanitarians in history. They are, after all, a defensive military alliance designed to counter Soviet influence in Western Europe. And in spite of their recent attempt to rebrand themselves a global intervention force to ensue Western access to Caspian sea oil, humanitarianism really is outside their expertise. Cruise missiles are not agents of relief and therefore can never be used to alleviate humanitarian concerns. Perhaps.
Or perhaps not. Things continue to get interesting when examining what the lead US negotiator in Kosovo, Strobe Talbot, had to say about NATO intervention. Per Talbot, “It was Yugoslavia’s resistance to the broader trends of political and economic reform–not the plight of the Kosovar Albanians–that best explains NATO’s war.” Emphasis is mine.
Further questions about NATO’s motivation in bombing Serbia arise from the series of event that lead NATO to intervene. Prior to the bombing, peace talks were held in Rambouillet between the government of (the former) Yugoslavia and the Kosovar Albanians. NATO presented an agreement (dubbed the Rambouillet Agreement) which Yugoslavia could either accept or be bombed. Journalist Jeremy Scahill has labeled the accord an “occupation agreement” and Henry Kissinger said of it “The Rambouillet text, which called on Serbia to admit NATO troops throughout Yugoslavia, was a provocation, an excuse to start bombing. Rambouillet is not a document that an angelic Serb could have accepted. It was a terrible diplomatic document that should never have been presented in that form.” Defenders of the agreement have argued that the provisions for a NATO occupation of all of Yugoslavia, not just Kosovo, were merely a photocopying accident. If so, NATO is not just the world’s worst humanitarians, but also the most incompetent diplomats.
Another interesting element of Rambouillet Agreement in light of Talbot’s comment is the section on “economic issues.’ The first statement of it is “The economy of Kosovo shall function in accordance with free market principles.” For more on how this played out I recommend Neil Clark’s Guardian article.
NATO’s bombing of Kosovo is hardly the case for the success of humanitarian bombing. Even if NATO’s intentions were purely humanitarian they failed spectacularly, both bumbling a potential diplomatic solution to the atrocities with their poor photocopying skills and that they made worse Serbian atrocities, enabled Kosovar atrocities, all while committing what has been nearly universally recognized as war crimes. If one goes so far to look at the architect’s of the NATO war official comments it becomes abundantly clear that NATO were not incompetent humanitarians, but had no humanitarian motivations at all.