Emperor's Clothes
Washington Post a 'Useful Tool' for Nato?

Coverage distorts facts about Kosovo war crimes charges

by FAIR NY

2000-01-28


When a group of prominent international legal scholars filed a war crimes complaint against NATO for its actions in Yugoslavia, the Washington Post's coverage (1/20/00) was dismissive—demonstrating a poor grasp of international law and the war in Yugoslavia, and relying on an "expert" with a blatant and unmentioned conflict of interest.

The scholars, led by Professor Michael Mandel of York University in Toronto, sent a detailed legal brief to the U.N.-sponsored International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), arguing that NATO leaders committed serious violations of international law during the 78-day bombing campaign against Yugoslavia last year.

The Post article, by Paris correspondent Charles Trueheart, curtly dismissed the legal case against NATO: "Most legal scholars say the professors have a pretty weak case, noting that accidental civilian deaths caused by NATO bombs fail to meet the commonly accepted standard for war crimes. Even so, the legal campaign against the Western alliance has taken on a life of its own." The piece goes on to claim that "even the Tribunal's most ardent champions in the human rights community and elsewhere are worried that the case may have damaged its reputation through an exercise in dangerous relativism."

Yet only one such "legal scholar" or member of the "human rights community" is quoted by Trueheart: Professor Paul Williams of American University, who is identified simply as a "war crimes expert." Nowhere in the article is it disclosed that Williams, a former State Department lawyer, is currently a paid lobbyist for the "provisional government of Kosovo" in Washington.

There's no evidence in Trueheart's article that he made a genuine effort to determine whether, in fact, other jurists or human rights experts support Mandel's view that NATO violated international law during its Kosovo campaign. Trueheart could have examined Human Rights Watch's recent announcement that that it will send detailed reports to the Tribunal arguing that NATO's target selections were "disproportionate and should be found violations of international humanitarian law." (London Guardian, 1/7/00)

Trueheart might also have noted that no less a "champion" of the Tribunal than its former President and presiding judge, Antonio Cassese, has expressed the view (European Journal of International Law, #1/99) that NATO violated the United Nations Charter by attacking Yugoslavia without a mandate from the U.N. Security Council: "The breach of the United Nations Charter occurring in this instance cannot be termed minor. The action of NATO countries radically departs from the Charter system for collective security." (Cassese did add that in his view a moral case could be made for NATO's intervention.)

In fact, judging by Trueheart's assertions--"accidental civilian deaths caused by NATO bombs fail to meet the commonly accepted standard for war crimes"--he appears to be ignorant of either the nature of NATO's attacks on Yugoslavia or of the Geneva Convention statutes which make up the "commonly accepted standard for war crimes." This unfamiliarity is disturbing, since Trueheart regularly covers the ICTY for the Post.

The Geneva Conventions would not hold a bomber pilot criminally liable if a missile aimed at a military installation--say, an anti-aircraft gun or a munitions storage facility--drifted off-course and accidentally struck a village populated by civilians. Such accidents are not war crimes. In their complaint, Mandel and his colleagues do not cite such accidents as violations of the Geneva statutes. They point to other strikes that were deliberate attacks on civilian targets.

Ironically, some of the clearest evidence that some NATO strikes seriously breached the Geneva Conventions can be found in the Washington Post's own reporting. For example, a front-page article last year by military reporter Dana Priest ("Bombing by Committee: France Balked at NATO Targets," 9/20/99) recounted the decision-making processes behind several NATO targeting decisions. According to Priest, at one point, British "Foreign Secretary Robin Cook questioned strikes on power lines affecting a large hospital in Belgrade. But the group brought him around."

In another episode, shortly before a planned missile strike on the headquarters of Milosevic's ruling Socialist Party--which was located in a residential neighborhood of Belgrade--an internal memo assessing the likely civilian destruction was distributed among NATO leaders:

  • Next to a photograph of the party headquarters, the document said: "Collateral damage: Tier 3—high. Casualty Estimate: 50-100 Government/Party employees. Unintended Civ Casualty Est: 250—Apts in expected blast radius."

    In short, NATO anticipated that the attack could, in the worst case, kill up to 350 people, including 250 civilians living in nearby apartment buildings.

    Washington and London approved the target, but the French were reluctant, noting that the party headquarters also housed Yugoslav television and radio studios. "In some societies, the idea of killing journalists—well, we were very nervous about that," said a French diplomat."

  • Ultimately, Paris went along. But in going ahead with the attack, NATO appears to have directly breached Article 51 of the Geneva Convention (Protocol I), which prohibits any

  • attack which may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.
  • The Socialist Party building was itself a civilian facility located hundreds of miles from the site of any military conflict. Asked by a reporter at the next day's press briefing what military rationale lay behind the party headquarters strike, NATO spokesman Jamie Shea could not name any specific military function. Instead, he declared that NATO considered "any aspect of the power structure" in Yugoslavia to be a legitimate target, adding that the party headquarters building "contains the propaganda machinery…of the ruling Socialist Party."

    The reluctance expressed by British and French diplomats over these strikes apparently stemmed from their concern that the raids in question might represent violations of the Geneva Conventions—or at least that they would be perceived as such. In fact, NATO leaders repeatedly admitted that their strategy in attacking civilian targets was to terrorize the population in the hope that the Serbian public would turn against its government and pressure Milosevic to capitulate. In a May 24 interview with the Washington Post, U.S. Air Force Lt.-Gen. Michael Short explained the strategy:

  • "If you wake up in the morning and you have no power to your house and no gas to your stove and the bridge you take to work is down and will be lying in the Danube for the next 20 years, I think you begin to ask, 'Hey, Slobo, what's this all about? How much more of this do we have to withstand?' And at some point, you make the transition from applauding Serb machismo against the world to thinking what your country is going to look like if this continues."
  • Short's rather bowlderized list of examples of civilian destruction in Serbia does not fully explain the strategy: As the memorandum published by the Post showed, NATO expected its attack on Socialist Party headquarters to kill up to 250 neighboring residents as they slept.

    In an another instance, NATO spokesman Jamie Shea declared : "If President Milosevic really wants all of his population to have water and electricity, all he has to do is accept NATO's five conditions and we will stop this campaign." Statements like these have led Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth to declare (Letters, London Guardian, 1/12/00) his group's concern that

  • NATO bombed the civilian infrastructure not because it was making a significant contribution to the Yugoslav military effort but because its destruction would squeeze Serb civilians to put pressure on Milosevic to withdraw from Kosovo. Using military force in this fashion against civilians would violate the "principle of distinction"—a fundamental principle of international humanitarian law—which requires military force to be used only against military targets, not against civilians or civilian objects.
  • But if Trueheart and the Post appear uninterested in examining whether NATO violated international law during its Kosovo campaign, that does not mean they are uninterested in the subject of war crimes. In fact, the Post considers the Tribunal's activities to be major news when they are directed against NATO's enemies.

    When the Tribunal handed down its indictment of Slobodan Milosevic last May, Trueheart's article ran on the front page. Since then, the Post has used the phrase "indicted war criminal" to describe Milosevic an average of about once a month. Yet the Post has made no serious attempt to evaluate whether our own government violated the laws of war in its air campaign last year.

    When the Tribunal was first established, American policymakers hoped that just such a double standard would prevail in media coverage. As Michael Scharf, the State Department envoy who dealt with the Tribunal when it was created, wrote in the Washington Post (10/3/99) :

  • America's chief Balkans negotiator at the time, Richard Holbrooke, has acknowledged that the tribunal was widely perceived within the government as little more than a public relations device and as a potentially useful policy tool.... Indictments also would serve to isolate offending leaders diplomatically, strengthen the hand of their domestic rivals and fortify the international political will to employ economic sanctions or use force…. Indeed [the Milosevic indictment] became a useful tool in their [U.S. and Britain's] efforts to demonize the Serbian leader and maintain public support for NATO's bombing campaign.
  • It's bad enough that the international war crimes tribunal—much of whose funding comes directly from the U.S., in violation of the tribunal's own statutes (New York Press, 1/26/00)—can be described as a "useful tool" of Washington's foreign policy. The Washington Post should not serve the same function.




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