No need for revision

A year after Nato went to war for Kosovo

Monday March 20, 2000

It was hardly surprising that, when Nato launched the first hot war in its history by bombing Yugoslavia a year ago, it aroused as much passion as reasoned debate across Britain's political spectrum. Heated arguments over the conflict transcended ideological lines, with members of the Conservative right coming down on opposite sides of the fence just as much as luminaries of the left.

In the fluidity of the post-cold war world the war for Kosovo fitted no easy matrix. It was not fought for oil, or against communism. The code name "humanitarian intervention" which its proponents gave it was not, of course, the whole truth. No countries go to war on the basis of altruism. Nevertheless, the strategic and political interests which prompted the west to act, after considerable hesitation, were not clear cut at the time, and have not become much clearer since. Uncertainty over what the United States and the European Union consider to be their strategy in the Balkans, and whether they agree, is still pronounced.

In this confused continuity, the main questions which divided opinion at the start of the war remain just as contested today. Was it necessary? Was it legitimate? We would still say yes to both. By the time of the bombing, 200,000 Albanian civilians were displaced within Kosovo and another 50,000 were refugees outside. Repeated demands by the six-nation contact group, of which Russia was a full member, for Yugoslav security forces to stop their repression in Kosovo had been flouted, as had several resolutions of the United Nations security council. Some form of external restraint was needed. A major difficulty was that the council frequently wills a goal but not the method for reaching it. The west's failure to seek authorisation from the council for military action was understandable but serious, though, paradoxically, the bombing acquired greater legal cover three days after it started when the Russians asked the council to demand an immediate end and were outvoted by 12 to three. But if this meant that Nato's intervention was neither legal nor illegal, it was legitimate in that Yugoslavia's defiance of the UN had launched a humanitarian catastrophe.

The questions, which could only be answered after the military action was over, are whether the war was efficient and successful. This paper repeatedly criticised the bombing strategy and its wide range of non-military targets. We argued for a ground operation. But the civilian casualties caused by the air strikes were relatively low - around 500 deaths according to Human Rights Watch, of which most were not in Belgrade or other Serbian cities but in Kosovo itself. Although this toll will rise because of Nato's unjustifiable reluctance to defuse its own unexploded cluster bombs, the record is not so horrendous as some imply.

The most troubling issue is whether Nato's bombing made things worse. In the short term it did, because Milosevic used it to intensify his ethnic cleansing, resulting in several thousand murders and a huge outpouring of refugees. In the long term it did not, because after 78 days he withdrew his forces and let international peacekeepers come in and restore freedom from fear to the majority of Kosovo's people. That Serbs now feel under pressure, if they have not fled altogether, and that Kosovo faces major problems in rebuilding are issues to which western governments must respond with greater urgency. But they are not a result of the bombing. The man primarily responsible is still in Belgrade.

Original article