[A-List] Nato's 'good war' in Kosovo degraded international law
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
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).
More information about the A-List