by Millie Radovic, an Anglo-Serbian student, reading International Relations at the War Studies Department of King’s College London; Chief Editor of IR Today.
Today is an important anniversary (for me anyway), and like every year it brings back memories and my humanitarian intervention rants. In most conversations, I say: “I’m against humanitarian intervention because we (the West) don’t do a very good job. Our (the West’s) only success was Sierra Leone”. The answer I get is: “but what about Kosovo? That worked out well.” What about it? Well here’s what about it:
On March 24th 1999, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) launched Operation Allied Forces, against the then Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Coincidentally, I remember that Wednesday; 8pm – sirens sounding off and my parents saying, “it’s started”.
So what caused this intervention in particular?
The 1990s are in the Balkans known as a time of ethnic cleansing in form of mass genocides. In Kosovo, this meant violent discrimination against Albanian Kosovars. Tensions culminated in persistent armed conflict between the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) – a recognised terrorist group – and Yugoslav army forces from 1998 onwards. Consequently, NATO decided that only a peacekeeping mission would restrain both sides. It then drafted the Rambouillet Agreement proposing entrance of NATO forces into Yugoslavia. Its socialist president, Slobodan Milošević, rejected this on the 23rd of March, and on the next evening NATO launched its campaign – code name: Operation Nobel Anvil.
What did the intervention look like?
It was a large-scale air campaign from high altitudes with a clear aim to destroy Yugoslav military infrastructure, and thus force Milošević and the government to withdraw from Kosovo. NATO did not use ground forces, and this makes sense – why risk losing forces after a disaster like Somalia?
By the 3rd day, almost all of NATO’s strategic military targets are down *pause for applause*. Nevertheless the Yugo army continues to function and attack KLA insurgents in Kosovo.
In the course of the next 12 weeks, NATO bombed several other strategic targets – bridges, military targets, andofficial government facilities. The operation also targeted infrastructure, power plants, water-processing plants and the state-owned broadcaster, causing significant environmental and economic damage throughout the already impoverished Yugoslavia.
You’ll notice that list of targets includes a state-owned broadcaster, Radio Television Serbia (RTS). Yes, a 10-minute walk from my grandparents’ flat in Belgrade, right next to my favourite childhood playground, a park called Tašmajdan, NATO forces bombed the headquarters of the national TV station. Strategically speaking, attacking military structures I understand, but a TV station – how is that humanitarian? How is it moral? By now you’re realising I’m biased, but really how can I not be?
43 days into the campaign, in an astoundingly embarrassing feat, NATO also managed to accidentally bomb the Chinese embassy and kill three Chinese reporters in Belgrade, the capital of Yugoslavia. The Chinese were outraged, calling this a “barbarian act”. It was actually the only operation that the CIA had directed and George Tenet (its infamous director at the time) apologised explaining that they had the wrong coordinates for a Yugoslav military target on the same street. Bravo Tenet – very humanitarian and professional indeed.
And the Serbian POV?
So following good times in the 1970s and 80s, the entire region is consistently going to shit. A ‘democratically’ voted in dictator is STILL leading the country further down the spiral – you didn’t vote for him, none of your friends did, and most of you protest against him, but some idiots obviously did because he’s still in power. Meanwhile, as it all goes to hell – you hope, you really really hope that Milošević can at least come to a deal with the Western Allies. We’ve always loved America, everyone’s a sucker for Hollywood, and the “Ameri” were so good to us under Tito. The 90s were bad enough, we need them to end – the new millennium can’t come quickly enough.
And then BOOM, this massive, powerful, and most importantly very legitimate organisation – the great mighty NATO – begins bombing you? Yugoslavia? A measly country of what – 10 million people? Yugoslavia? Impoverished, corruption infested, inflation damned Yugoslavia? Is this a joke?
What follows are 70 days and 38,000 flights of horror for you. Shelters packed, Milošević looking awkward as ever in national TV broadcasts, rambling on about ‘Serbian pride’ and ‘not letting the West bully us’. Buildings going down – those same buildings your grandparents worked so hard to build after the War. An IR pluralist may be criticising breaches of sovereignty, but all you can muster is: humiliation, repetitive humiliation. Innocent people are dying, you’re trying to keep your life together as much as possible – but all you can see or hear is what the media (controlled and censored by Milošević) is throwing at you.
Soon enough, Russia withdraws its support – and finally Milošević gives in and allows establishment of the UN mission in Kosovo (UNMIK). The horror is over, but really isn’t it just beginning?
A quick point on recognised controversies of the intervention. This operation was NOT authorised by the UN Security Council. Russia would never go for it, China wasn’t a sure thing, so the vote was not even held. Instead NATO claimed legitimacy saying that while the UN does not condone individual unprovoked attacks, they do condone unprovoked military group attacks (which NATO is considered under Article 52, to allow them to maintain ‘international security and peace’). My question remains, why is there no intervention in practically anarchical Libya today to preserve security and peace, or better yet Ukraine? Much like the Balkans it borders with NATO. Not to mention, oppression and human rights violations are clearly steaming on. Why not intervene against Russia? Maybe (although not exclusively), because it isn’t a tiny impoverished country with not even a hundredth of the resources that NATO has, like Serbia?
Meanwhile, NATO has since admitted that they used depleted uranium bombs – ones with a very long and dangerous half-life, of many which are arguably growing ill, and in extreme cases dying. How is this humanitarian? How is it a success?
The always wise Kofi Annan says, “there are times when the use of force may be legitimate in the pursuit of peace”. Oh I do wish I could see your point here Kofi.
Here’s Kosovo 16 years later:
In 2008, Kosovo declared itself independent from Serbia – so far 108 countries have recognised this. While it aspires to a seat in both the UN, and eventually the EU this won’t happen soon. Serbia refuses to accept its independence and is backed by two UN veto holders – you guessed it, Russia and China.
Statistics on Kosovo are varied – to be entirely honest I don’t trust them to be completely accurate. Every entity has something to gain by exaggerating a particular finding.
Nevertheless, what I’ve found is that:
- Its population: 1.8 million
- The average salary is €364
- Unemployment is at 30.9%; Long-term unemployment is at 59.8%
- The total poverty rate is at approximately 29.7%, whereas around 10.2% of Kosovars live in extreme poverty (on under €0.60 a day!)
And in current news? Upon recent relaxation of EU immigration laws, since the beginning of 2015 over 30,000 Kosovars have crossed through Serbia into Hungary, fleeing Kosovo at a speedy rate.
Reuters characterises this exodus as coinciding with political turmoil and unrest in Kosovo, fuelled by “poverty, high unemployment and economically debilitating corruption.” Why emigration has suddenly exponentially remains a mystery to me. Southern Serbs (by the border with Kosovo) are worriedly discussing the lines of buses passing by them daily, speculating ‘another bombing’, or worse. Frankly, as much as I think this is overly paranoid, after 1999 – I can’t blame them. What isn’t a mystery, is that 16 years on from NATO’s ‘successful’ humanitarian intervention, Kosovo is still corrupt, poor, and obviously to a lot an outright unwanted home.
A pariah. A small impoverished, debt ridden, corruption infested, humiliated country is still quite a legit European pariah. 16 years later, what is Serbia known for? Genocide, genocide, ethnic cleansing, more genocide. Oh yes – they also mention Gavrilo Princip. What about Nikola Tesla? What about our thriving sportsmen and women? Our culture? What about Mileva Einstein-Maric? What about that damn Eurovision win in 2007? Nothing huh? Okay.
That’s how it’s perceived from the outside. Meanwhile, from the inside it rots. The entire country – from parliament to the Church – is still corrupt. We actually have some of the leading politicians from the 1990s in power (so much for change). We are eternally alternating between puckering up to Russia and Putin (quite literally), and firmly marching towards the EU as quickly as we’re allowed to. Unemployment is growing, the value of the dinar falling, those able to are emigrating (hence, me), and most of the current government officials have questionable Bachelors Diplomas – one of them being the current president. All in all, not dandy.
I don’t have enough words to go into whether it was in our (the UK’s) or the US’s national interest to go into Kosovo – there’s plenty of speculation that this intervention was Clinton’s ‘small win’ following the Lewinsky scandal. What this article hopes to do is shed some light on issues that are right next door. And they are international issues – they certainly became so on the 24th of March of 1999.
All countries and identities are arguably victimised at some point, especially in international relations. Well I feel that each and every Serbian civilian; who never meant or did any harm to anyone in their Balkan neighbourhood; who was oppressed by the Milosevic government; and who feared for their lives and shed a river of frightened tears during that 1999 campaign, is being victimised when internationally their small meaningless country is only associated with the sins of its government.
So I’ll leave you with a plea, a plea to consider a more relativist approach regarding humanitarian intervention. I get plenty of friends and colleagues insisting that the fundamental issue of Western intervention and interference in the Middle East is that we doesn’t understand it – that we’re failing to see the Middle East’s point of view, and ‘what it’s like there’. Well I’ve just told you what it was like in Serbia and Kosovo – during a legit NATO campaign that is down in the books as an example of success . Consider my words if you’re going to be truly relativist about humanitarian intervention.