NATO and Serbia, 15 Years On


It is never fitting to be too morose. Sigmund Freud’s distinction between those who mourn from those who are melancholic was fundamental. To mourn is to concede that an act has happened, that it lies in the realm of the undoable and irreversible. One can only learn. To be melancholic is a concession that things have never entire left, that it lingers, the memory haunting like the sun defying shadow.

The wars in the Balkans have tended to foster the melancholia of a past that never leaves, granting it the status of a permanent stand in for the ever present. Such sentinels can make poor company, but they are unavoidable. As Ukraine’s situation accelerates with actions of sanctions, annexations, coups and counter-coups, it is worth noting how another compact was firstly dissolved and then subsequently tortured in the 1990s. The trends are similar – the moralising, the external interference, the bullying of powers extraneous yet obsessed with holding the levers of a disintegrating country.

The Yugoslavian Federation, an experiment bound by the iron fist and held by the iron glove, frayed and then fell apart during the early 1990s. By the time NATO revealed itself, not so much as a defensive alliance as an offensive one, Serbian civilians found themselves the target of a military offensive ostensibly to punish them for their government’s ruthless policies in Kosovo. Never mind the fact that there was a secessionist movement on home soil also dedicated to extreme violence. Nor did it matter that many Serbs were against the authoritarian insanities of the Milošević regime. As some protesters in Maidan can feel sorrowful over, their voices became the distant echoes of intrusion and interference, railroaded and road blocked by other powers.

The bombings by NATO started on March 24, 1999 and lasted for 78 days. 2,300 missiles and 14,000 bombs were used on as many as 990 targets across Serbia, killing over 2000 civilians. Vital infrastructure was crippled and not so vital military targets hit. Residents were also targets of Depleted Uranium munitions, a legacy that continues to menace survivors. In the talk about ethnic cleansing, replete in conversations about what Serb authorities were doing to Albanians, some 200 thousand ethnic Serbs were forced to leave Kosovo.

Importantly, for powers otherwise keen to resort to the law book on international relations, NATO members decided to shirk territorial restrictions and go in for the kill. The premise was, as ever, an “emerging” humanitarian norm that had, in truth, never emerged so much as existed in the back pages of international law. Natural lawyers of the international polity, be it Vittoria (1492-1546) or Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), had always mentioned that the area of rescue – where one state intervenes in the affairs of other ostensibly to save a brutalised populace – did exist. John Stuart Mill, a key architect of utilitarianism, thought that there would be “cases in which it is allowable to go to war, without having ourselves been attacked”. For all these nostrums, its practice was never taken too seriously, largely because it was empirically impossible to maintain or measure.

Then came the NATO bombings of the Kosovo conflict, lauded by US President Bill Clinton as one of the first true humanitarian wars, the sui generis of all conflicts. But even in that specious assertion, the narrative began to buckle. The bombs began raining on Serbia because the Kosovars wanted peace, and the Serbs did not, a curious twist of narratives if ever there was one. “The Kosovars said yes to peace; Serbia put 40,000 troops and 300 tanks in and around Kosovo”. But for all of that, it was the strategic sense that mattered: “we need a Europe that is safe, secure, free, united a good partner”.

Even now, Clinton’s old friend and former US Deputy Secretary of State during the Kosovo conflict, Strobe Talbott, can claim that Kosovo involved “a Muslim-dominated part… of Serbia, where the central government – dominated by the Serbs – were carrying out acts of virtual genocide.” How comfortable it must be to play the politics of the simple, where aggressors are neatly packaged and victims easily found.

The operation, code named “Operation Allied Force”, took place in something of a legal vacuum. The United Nations never gave the green light to the incursion of Serbian sovereignty. There was no mandating Security Council resolution. Nor could it be said that the situation was such that other states needed to intervene on the pretext of “self-defence” which is still retained in the UN Charter. Even the jurists had to scratch around for some justification for it, given the fact that the incursion did not eventuate through any accepted channels of international law.

The deaths inflicted on the civilian population came to be neatly summed up as “collateral damage”, putting pay to the nonsense of surgical strikes. There is nothing surgical about the waging of war, however technically clean it is deemed – it kills some and spares others. It risks jeopardising relationships – the attack on the Chinese embassy in Belgrade on May 7, 1999 seeing the death of three Chinese nationals, remains a sore point in Washington-Beijing relations. But NATO’s spokesman Jamie Shea, the designated attack dog for the media, would suggest that, “Victory over evil always comes at a price.”

Broken laws can often lead to founding norms. The subsequent recognition of Kosovo after its unilateral declaration of independence in February 2008 gave Russian President Vladimir Putin moment of pause. While the EU and US condemn the Crimean secession from Ukraine, the same countries were cheering the freeing of Kosovo from the Serbian compact, effectively justifying the breaking up of a country. Only a few states in the EU have taken the stance not to recognise Kosovo’s independence – the precedent is simply too pressing to accept given the current fever of nationalist divorces.

NATO’s intervention fifteen years ago revealed the dangers of cloaking aggression with humanitarian zeal, obsessing over the human subject as religion, as pious object of salvation. The comments at that time demonstrate how wars waged with moral fervour tend to have a disproportionate sense of attainment. Iraq is creaking, Libya is wrenching, and we are seeing the global effects of this “humanitarian” contagion. While it did not begin in the Kosovo intervention in 1999, it was certainly critical to its formulation.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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