Kosovo Liberation


Early in the morning of April 23, 1999, NATO aircraft bombed the Belgrade headquarters of RTS, Serbia's official radio and television service. The attack, which knocked RTS off the air for a few hours, killed at least 16 of the 120 or so civilians who were working in the building at the time.

Arguing that RTS propaganda was indirectly assisting Serbia's armed forces in Kosovo, NATO called the bombing a justified attack on a legitimate military target. Amnesty International calls it a war crime.

In a recent report, the human rights organization argues that NATO's air campaign against Yugoslavia, which ended a year ago this month, violated internationally accepted rules of war. Among other things, those rules forbid deliberate attacks on civilian targets and require combatants to weigh military benefits against the risk of civilian casualties.

When it bombed RTS, Amnesty International notes, "NATO deliberately attacked a civilian object, killing 16 civilians, for the purpose of disrupting Serb television broadcasts in the middle of the night for approximately three hours….Even if the building could have been properly considered a military objective…[the] attack would have violated the rule of proportionality."

In an interview for a BBC documentary that aired in March, British Prime Minister Tony Blair shed some light on the perverse logic underlying the decision to bomb RTS. He noted that RTS footage of "collateral damage" from NATO's bombs, picked up by Western TV outlets, was fostering criticism of the war.

"This is one of the problems about waging a conflict in a modern communications and news world," Blair said. "We were aware that those pictures would come back and there would be an instinctive sympathy for the victims of the campaign."

In other words, NATO officials worried that killing civilians might make them look bad. The solution? Kill more civilians.

The precise number of civilians killed by NATO bombs is uncertain. Some Yugoslav estimates put the total in the thousands. NATO has not offered its own estimate, but last fall Gen. Joseph W. Ralston, vice chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the civilian death toll was "less than 1,500." Human Rights Watch counts about 500 civilian deaths in 90 separate incidents.

In its report, Amnesty International argues that many of these deaths could have been avoided by greater care on NATO's part. Among other things, it faults the alliance for using cluster bombs in populated areas, for conducting raids in places frequented by civilians at times when they were likely to be around, and for keeping planes at heights from which it was difficult or impossible to verify targets.

The incidents described in the report include three in which NATO bombed bridges in the daytime, apparently without checking for civilian traffic. In an attack that killed a dozen civilians, a pilot bombed a bridge a second time after he knew that a passenger train was crossing it. The report also discusses attacks on hospitals and Kosovar refugees, including multiple bombings that reportedly killed more than 70 ethnic Albanians in a civilian convoy.

As you may recall, these were the people NATO supposedly was trying to save from Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. But as Christopher Layne and Benjamin Schwarz remind us in a new paper published by the Cato Institute, the mass expulsions from Kosovo did not begin until after NATO's intervention.

"NATO's air campaign triggered the very debacle it was said to be preventing," write Layne and Schwarz, who cast serious doubt on the claim that Milosevic planned to drive ethnic Albanians from Kosovo anyway. They also note that Milosevic's crimes, however brutal, did not amount to the genocidal campaign alleged by the war's defenders.

After the Kosovar refugees returned to the province under NATO protection, they proceeded to harass, attack, and murder Serbs, carrying out their own "ethnic cleansing." Meanwhile, Layne and Schwarz report, the officially demobilized Kosovo Liberation Army, which appears to be orchestrating these efforts, "is fomenting an insurgency across the provincial border, in Serbia's predominantly ethnic Albanian-inhabited Presevo valley–which the KLA calls 'Eastern Kosovo.' "

A year after NATO's war to end interethnic violence in Kosovo, peace does not look any closer. Layne and Schwartz quote Ivo Daalder, a foreign policy expert at the Brookings Institution who used to advise President Clinton. "If you ask me 25 years from now if I'm surprised that troops are still in Kosovo," he said, "I'll have to say 'no.' "