Kosovo and the Law

18 June 2007

Kosovo and the Law

By Gwynne Dyer

The ratio of foreign soldiers to local citizens in Kosovo (16,500 NATO troops to two million civilians) is slightly higher than the ratio of American soldiers to Iraqi citizens. The soldiers in Kosovo are not fighting a war, but their presence has certainly been needed to keep one from breaking out again — and there are plenty of people in Kosovo who threaten that if they don’t get full independence soon, there will be another war anyway.

During his visit to neighbouring Albania earlier this month, President George W. Bush declared: “At some point, sooner rather than later, you’ve got to say ‘Enough is enough — Kosovo is independent’.” There was great joy in Kosovo (where 90 percent of the population are ethnic Albanians), but in Moscow there were threats of a veto.

A senior Russian official explained that “Kosovo is an inviolable part of Serbia and the question of its future status can be resolved only with the agreement of both Belgrade and Pristina (Kosovo’s capital).” But that will never happen.

A few months earlier Richard Holbrooke, the US diplomat who negotiated an end to the war in Bosnia in 1995, warned in the “Washington Post” that “Russia’s actions could determine whether there is another war in Europe….If Moscow vetoes or delays (Kosovo’s independence) the Kosovar Albanians will declare independence unilaterally. Some countries, including the United States and many Muslim states, would probably recognise them, but most of the European Union would not. A major European crisis would be assured. Bloodshed would return to the Balkans.”

The war in Kosovo ended with a Serbian withdrawal eight years ago, but it didn’t really settle anything. Determined to stop another genocide of Balkan Muslims like the one that Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic had masterminded in Bosnia in 1992-95, NATO bombed Serbia for eleven weeks in 1999, and in the end Milosevic pulled Serbian troops out of Kosovo. The problem was that Kosovo was legally part of Serbia, and that NATO’s action was therefore illegal.

The only way it could have been legal was if the United Nations Security Council had agreed that there were legal grounds for a military intervention, but any such motion would have been vetoed by Russia and China. So the major Western powers, with the United States in the lead, attacked Serbia to prevent the genocide they believed was impending in Kosovo. That, under international law, was an unjustifiable act of aggression.

Many people (including myself) supported this act of aggression at the time, believing that Milosevic had to be stopped and that the breach of international law could be papered over later. It was papered over, in a sense, for the UN agreed after the war to take responsibility for the administration of Kosovo. But it was not given independence, because that would be just too flagrant a violation of the international rules.

The fundamental bargain that underpins the United Nations is this: every member gives up the right to attack other states, and in return every state gets a guarantee that it will not be attacked. The guarantee does not say that you will not be attacked except if you are a tyranny, or are oppressing your minorities, or look dangerous to your neighbours. It says YOU WILL NOT BE ATTACKED. No excuses, no exceptions, no loopholes that a clever enemy could use to justify an attack.

The priority of the American diplomats who drafted the UN Charter in 1945 was to prevent another major war. The worst war in history had just ended: 60 million were dead, and nuclear weapons had been used. A law that bans aggression must be universal, protecting both “good” countries and “bad” ones from attack. So what goes on inside a country is the business of that country’s government alone, as long as it does not harm the neighbours.

It was a brutal rule, made for brutally dangerous times. For a moment there, in the mid- to late 1990s, some of us believed that the times had got softer and that the rules could be modified to give vulnerable people and groups more international protection. But we were wrong, for the rhetoric that justified an attack on Serbia in 1999 was then hijacked to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The slope is too slippery, and we have to get back to solid ground.

That is why Kosovo has remained a UN protectorate for eight years, rather than gaining the independence that the vast majority of its people crave: to give it independence would be to dismantle the sovereign state of Serbia by force. For Russians, who fear that Kosovo’s independence could be used as a legal precedent for breaking up their own multi-ethnic state, it is a red line.

Yet Kosovo cannot be forced back into Serbia, and it cannot be left in limbo forever. If the UN will not grant it something very close to full independence, many Kosovars are ready to seize it anyway, even if that triggers a new war. There are no good options left. Indeed, there were none from the beginning of this miserable tale.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 4. (“A senior…theBalkans”)