[A-List] Nato's 'good war' in Kosovo degraded international law

james daly james.irldaly at ntlworld.com
Mon Mar 23 10:21:26 MDT 2009

Nato's 'good war' in Kosovo degraded international law

IRISH TIMES Monday, March 23, 2009

OPINION: Nato's military action against Slobodan Milosevic is often held up 
as a triumph of justice over legality. But was it right? asks AIDAN HEHIR .

TEN YEARS ago today Nato, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, launched 
Operation Allied Force against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Nato 
claimed to be undertaking a humanitarian intervention, accusing Slobodan 
Milosevic's regime of a campaign of aggression and forced displacement 
against the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, Serbia's southern province. Military 
action was a "moral imperative", according to then US president Bill 
The campaign itself was a success; it lasted just 78 days, Nato did not 
suffer a single casualty and at its conclusion Nato personnel were literally 
welcomed with open arms by the Kosovo Albanians. Milosevic's power was 
fatally undermined and within two years he had been toppled and sent to The 
Hague to stand trial for war crimes.
In many ways Operation Allied Force has come to be nostalgically remembered 
as the zenith of a better era. In 1999 "The Third Way" and "Ethical Foreign 
Policy" were terms which provoked hope rather than cynicism and Nato's 
actions appeared to affirm the power of people to force their governments to 
"do something" in the face of humanitarian tragedy abroad.
The then fresh-faced Tony Blair was regarded at worst as a naive "do-gooder" 
while Clinton's reputation for circumspection in foreign affairs has been 
retrospectively heightened by the eight years of war and international 
divisiveness which characterised George W Bush's administration; Clinton's 
"good war" in Kosovo has been regularly contrasted with Bush's "bad war" in 
Operation Allied Force was a spectacle of force the ordinarily cautious and 
sceptical could proudly support; this was not a war fought for interests or 
revenge, it was, according to Blair, "a war fought for values". Milosevic 
was the archetypal Balkan bad guy, the Kosovo Albanians clear victims and 
Kosovo had no oil or major strategic value.
It was the war the liberal left could, and indeed did, support while the 
anti-war movement failed to mobilise beyond the political margins. 
Mainstream media coverage, albeit periodically nervous, was favourable 
throughout, aided to a significant extent by Nato's polished PR machine and 
the verbal dexterity of its chief spokesman Jamie Shea.
Lacking Security Council authorisation, Nato's campaign was illegal but this 
was deemed of minor importance and a function of an anachronistic legal 
framework which privileged states rather than the people who lived within 
them. Nato's actions were described as "illegal but legitimate" and evidence 
of a new dispensation among Western states to alter the norms governing the 
use of force.
Human rights, long rendered impotent by the restrictions of international 
law and the narrow national interests of the powerful few, were now, it 
seemed, finally to be realised. Supporters of Nato's intervention, 
emboldened by righteous victory, loudly heralded ever more exuberant 
predictions of the coming era. We were entering, according to Geoffrey 
Robertson QC, "the age of enforcement". Everything, it seemed, was possible 
now that power had been harnessed by justice. Events since, however, have 
not evolved according to this optimistic analysis.
It is a matter of some irony that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was decried 
as a violation of international law by many of the same commentators who 
enthusiastically welcomed Nato's "illegal but legitimate" intervention just 
four years earlier.
The coalition which prosecuted the pointedly named "Operation Iraqi Freedom" 
explicitly drew parallels between their "liberation" of Iraq and the 
intervention in Kosovo. Supporters of Operation Allied Force were left to 
express wounded surprise at the commandeering of their humanitarian 
arguments. It would be an exaggeration to claim that Nato's intervention 
directly led to the invasion of Iraq but equally it is disingenuous to 
disavow any correlation; legal systems do not thrive when their most 
powerful subjects subvert their seminal prescriptions and it is not 
surprising that the "illegal but legitimate" argument advanced by Nato in 
1999 has contributed to the unprecedented contemporary crisis of confidence 
in the UN framework.
What of the "age of enforcement"? The international response to the violence 
in Darfur from 2003 on - far worse than that which occurred in Kosovo - 
suggests that Western states have not undergone a conversion to an ethical 
foreign policy.
The high-publicity international campaign calling for intervention in Darfur 
and the massive anti-war protests against the invasion of Iraq suggest that 
in contrast to the analysis widely proffered at the time of Nato's 
intervention, public opinion has a limited influence on the foreign policy 
of even liberal Western states. Operation Allied Force has not led to any 
substantive reform of international law in favour of human rights apart from 
a nebulous commitment to a "responsibility to protect" at the 2005 World 
Summit. States in the developing world, fearful of neo-colonialism, have 
been to the fore in opposing legal reform but so too have Western states 
reluctant to subject themselves to international scrutiny or accept any 
commitment to intervene.
Kosovo itself has had a difficult 10 years; though initially greeted as 
liberators the UN and Nato were soon accused of obstructing Kosovo's 
independence leading to the March 2004 riots when Albanians vented their 
fury at the international administration. Kosovo remains deeply divided, 
violent and economically underdeveloped and while the Kosovo Assembly 
declared independence in February 2008, Kosovo enjoys few of the traditional 
trappings of statehood, not least political autonomy.
Righteous, albeit illegal, vengeance has been a common narrative of popular 
culture. Frustrated by laws which appear to protect oppressors, heroes from 
Batman to countless John Wayne cowboys have "done the right thing" in 
defiance of "the rules". We have come to venerate many political actors who 
have similarly subverted the law in the name of morality.
Yet, history shows that the rejection of law in favour of morality carries 
enormous danger and echoes of vigilantism. Those who have orchestrated or 
supported the forcible subversion of one set of ostensibly immoral laws in 
favour of the pursuit of "justice" have often found that in the process they 
have unleashed forces beyond their control.
The excesses of the Bush administration and Blair's later zealotry owed much 
to Nato's actions in 1999 and as we assess the current predicament of 
international politics, and especially the increasingly impotent and 
sidelined UN system, the role of Operation Allied Force in the degradation 
of international law must be acknowledged.

Aidan Hehir is a senior lecturer in international relations at the centre 
for the study of democracy at the University of Westminster (London).

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