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Yugoslavia A Year Later

Turning a Blind Eye to NATO War Crimes

by Alexander Cockburn And Jeffrey St. Clair

Shortly after NATO missiles and bombs began killing civilians in Kosovo and Serbia, Michael Mandel, a law professor at York University in Canada, filed a complaint with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia alleging that NATO and key leaders in the US and Great Britain had committed war crimes. Over the next year, Mandel, and his colleagues, have supplemented the original complaint with numerous other filings, documenting human rights violations by the humanitarian warriors

Through the course of the war, NATO’s 25,000 missile strikes and bombing raids would kill between 500 and 1,800 civilians and permanently injure thousands of others. Thousands of more deaths were indirectly caused by predicable retaliatory and defensive actions taken by both the Serbs and the KLA. The raids on Yugoslavia also provoked a refuge crisis, with more than a million people fleeing Kosovo to escape the bombing. The bombings nearly destroyed the economy of Yugoslavia, causing between $60 and $100 billion in damage to a country that was already one of the poorest in Europe. After the bombing ceased, Kosovo, under the control of NATO troops, was allowed to be hit by waves of ethnic violence, assassination and purges, much of it conducted by the KLA.

But so far the United Nations’ tribunal has yet to even open an investigation into the complaints, despite a new report by Human Rights Watch-an early and avid proponent of intervention-condemning the civilian casualities.

On March 15, Mandel sent another complaint to Justice Carla del Ponte, the new chief prosecutor for the tribunal, who replaced Justice Louise Arbour in October. Mandel’s sharply worded letter protests the tribunal’s refusal to investigate NATO’s actions, saying that del Ponte has turned “the investigation into more of a farce than a judicial proceeding.” Mandel’s letter makes a solid case that far from being an independent investigator, the tribunal has conducted itself “as if it were an organ of NATO and not the United Nations.”

Mandel had hoped that Del Ponte, who comes from Switzerland which is nominally outside the NATO alliance, would take a more aggressive stance than Arbour, the Canadian. And there seemed to be reason for optimism. At a December press conference Del Ponte declared that she would be quite willing to hold NATO accountable if evidence of crimes was unearthed. “If I am not willing to do that, then I am not in the right place,” Del Ponte said. “I must give up my mission.” This did not sit well with NATO and the US State Department, which strongly protested. On December 30, Del Ponte quickly backpedaled, issuing a retraction saying that “NATO is not under investigation” and there was “no formal inquiry” going on.

Since then Del Ponte has been moving closer and closer to NATO. On January 19, Del Ponte had a private meeting with NATO secretary general George Robertson, the subject of numerous war crimes complaints. After the meeting, Del Ponte made a point of saying that she had not broached the topic of NATO war crimes with Robertson or any other NATO leader. Two weeks later Del Ponte was in London where she had a session with British foreign minister Robin Cook, also identified as a responsible party in several war crimes complaints filed with the tribunal. Following that meeting Del Ponte was asked if any progress had been made in the investigation of NATO. “Our work is not yet done, but what we can say is that up until now we have no indications that we should open an inquiry,” Del Ponte said. But there is no evidence that the UN tribunal has even started looking into NATO’s actions. In fact, on March 9, a spokesman for Del Ponte praised NATO troops, saying that they “respect the rule of law” and that any “prosecution is very unlikely.”

Mandel calls Del Ponte’s refusal to open an inquiry a “disgrace” and says that the tribanal has evidence that “NATO planners not only knowingly killed civilians, but deliberately set out to do so.” He points specifically to the bombing of the Grdelica and Varvarin Bridges (on April 12 and May 20) and the strikes on the Nis marketplace on May 7. Mandel notes that all the strikes on Yugoslavia were carried out without any risk to NATO pilots or leaders, a scenario that violates the Geneva code. “This was a war fought against civilians of all ethnicities with bombing from altitudes so high that the civilians bore all the risks of the inevitable collateral damage,” Mandel says.

Mandel makes a powerful case that the UN tribunal had been working for NATO from the beginning. “This war must be understood as an attempt by the United States, through NATO, to overthrow the authority of the United Nations and to replace it with NATO’s military might, to be used wherever strategically advantageous and whatever the human consequences,” Mandel says.

Mandel is convinced that the US backed the creation of the UN tribunal only in order to advance its on strategic interests in the Balkans. He has marshaled a compelling set of facts to back up this assertion, starting in January 1999, when Judge Arbour made a high-profile visit to the Kosovo border, where she endorsed the US/KLA accounts of Serb atrocities at Racak. This made-for-tv event became a rallying point for the war, despite later accounts that the events in Racak had been great exaggerated.

Shortly after the NATO bombing raids had started, Arbour announced the indictment of “Arkan”, which had been kept secret since 1997, helping to amplify the drumbeat of US-backed propaganda about Serbian atrocities. After the press began to focus on civilian deaths, Arbour again came to NATO’s rescue, holding a joint appearance with Robin Cook, where she accepted a NATO-prepared dossier on Serbia “war crimes.” Soon thereafter, Arbour met with Madeleine Albright, who used the opportunity to inform the world that the US was the principal financial backer of the UN tribunal.

Two weeks later, Arbour announce the indictment of Milosevic for the events at Racak based on undisclosed evidence gather in the middle of a war zone. After the bombing came to an end, Instead, Arbour handed over the investigation of Serbian war crimes to NATO troops in Kosovo, even though they had motives to falsify evidence in order to justify their own actions. The speed with which the Tribunal indicted Slobo and his associates stands in stark contrast to lethargic pace of the investigation into NATO’s crimes.

“These actions cannot be regarded as the acts of an impartial prosecutor,” says Mandel. “Not when NATO was in the midst of a controversial war in flagrant violation of international law.” CP