IHT - Western policy toward Serbia has been biased

Paris, Wednesday, December 22, 1999

By Malcolm Fraser

MELBOURNE - The NATO military operation against Yugoslavia this year was meant to be a humanitarian war. British Prime Minister Tony Blair said that it would set the pattern for NATO's actions through the next century.

Such a war would presumably result in the humanitarian problem being much less serious than it was before the conflict. On that test, NATO's actions against Yugoslavia failed. There were about 80,000 refugees out of Kosovo at the beginning of the war, and well over a million at the end of the war.

NATO's claim that it was only attacking military targets was never accurate. Even in the early days of the bombing campaign, I walked through Serbian factories that had been totally destroyed, although their production was for civilian purposes alone. NATO's actions were directed not just against the Serbian military but also against the people of Serbia. Homes, hospitals, even refugee centers did not escape.

The West's mistakes against Yugoslavia were not only military. Diplomacy was conducted without finesse. People who did not understand the Balkans put together a plan and summoned the Kosovo Liberation Army and the Yugoslav government to Rambouillet in France. There was no negotiation. This diplomatic initiative seemed designed to provide an excuse for war.

At the end of the fighting, NATO made three significant concessions which were noton the agenda at Rambouillet. Those concessions can only be regarded as a weakening of NATO's position.

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At Rambouillet, NATO demanded that its forces occupy and govern Kosovo. At the end of the war the responsibility was given to the United Nations.

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At Rambouillet, NATO required a referendum in three years to determine Kosovo's fate. At the end of the war, Kosovo was recognized as an integral part of Yugoslavia.

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At Rambouillet, the ultimatum required that NATO troops be allowed access to any part of Yugoslavia. At the end of the war, the occupying force was to be confined to Kosovo.

The Rambouillet conditions could not have been accepted by any Serbian leader, or by any president of Yugoslavia. With more skillful diplomacy, the war could have been avoided.

Since it ended, the KLA, coupled with Albanian organized crime, seem set to dominate Kosovo.

On Aug. 11, a report by Human Rights Watch in New York indicated that since the arrival of NATO troops in mid-June more than 164,000 Serbs had fled Kosovo, and peacekeepers had reported nearly 200 murders.

Later, the International Crisis Group reported murders in Kosovo running at 30 a week, mostly of Serbs. At that rate, around 800 people will have been killed by Christmas. With all its power and authority, NATO is clearly unable to protect minorities in Kosovo.

Should NATO's condemnation of Serbia now be turned upon itself? And if that is so, who is to punish NATO?

What can we conclude? Can war ever be fought for humanitarian purposes? War represents a failure of diplomacy and of reason, it encourages the basest instincts in the human race, and truth becomes the first casualty.

It is old news that NATO's war was in violation of its own charter. It was not sanctioned by the United Nations. It was therefore, by international standards, illegal. Does illegality become sanctioned when the illegality is perpetrated by the most powerful?

There were alternatives - diplomacy, a strengthening of the efforts of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to monitor events within Kosovo, the exercise of wisdom as opposed to unreasoned conflict.

Even after the war, the West is reluctant to learn any lessons. Sanctions hurt the poorest of the poor. Because of the current cold winter in central Europe, it is likely that many old and very young people will die because there is insufficient heating to sustain life.

In all of this tragedy, Serbia and Serbs worldwide have been demonized. There are no saints in the Balkans, but the history and bitternesses there are too old and ingrained to be susceptible to quick Western solutions. Britain, of all NATO members, with its experience of Ireland, should have known that.

Serbs worldwide have encountered hostility within their countries of adoption because, in Western terminology, they have been made responsiblefor all the ills in the Balkans.In this environment it is im-portant that Yugoslavia do whatever it can to advance a broader and less hostile perception of its actions.

In September, two detained Australian humanitarian workers for Care Australia were released by the Yugoslav authorities after being convicted in a military court of passing information to Care in Australia and to unnamed NATO member countries, even though the court recognized that such information was valid for the purposes of Care's humanitarian work.It was President Slobodan Milosovic who exercised an actof clemency to return them to their families.

Their Serbian colleague, Branko Jelen, has not yet been released, even though the charges against him were less serious than those against at least one of the Australians.

In the larger issue of affairs between nations, it is a small thing; but to Mr. Jelen, his wife Nadia and their two children, it is everything. His release would be seen as an act of generosity and compassion. It would help to underline the fact that the demonization of Serbs has itself been unjust.

Mr. Jelen's release would give greater credibility to those who believe that Western policy toward Yugoslavia has been unbalanced and unwise. It would also help to undermine those who promoted NATO's policy so avidly.

The writer, a former prime minister of Australia, is chairman of Care Australia and in that capacity visited the Balkans five times this year. He contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.

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