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New Labour Humanitarianism: the reality

Labour & Trade Union Review, November 1999


The clear, simple, military objective

On the 24th March, the day the NATO bombing of Jugoslavia started, George (now Lord) Robertson appeared before the Defence Select Committee of the House of Commons and defined NATO's military objective as follows:

"Our military objective-our clear, simple, military objective-will be to reduce the Serbs' capability to repress the Albanian population and thus to avert a humanitarian disaster."

In the House of Commons next day he restated it in similar terms:

"Hon. Members have asked about the military objectives of the Government and of NATO. They are clear
cut; to avert an impending humanitarian catastrophe by disrupting the violent attacks currently being carried out by the Yugoslav security forces against the Kosovar Albanians, and to limit their ability to conduct such repression in future."

On 25th June after the end of the war, Robertson again appeared before the Defence Select Committee of the House of Commons. In his opening remarks to the Committee, the military objectives had metamorphosed into getting the Albanian refugees, generated by the war, back to Kosovo:

"The objectives that we set ourselves at the beginning could essentially be summed up by saying, "Serb troops out, NATO troops in and the refugees home." So the Serb troops were all out on Sunday 20 June, the implementation force, KFOR, is now in, and I think that 20,000 NATO troops are actually inside Kosovo itself at the moment, and despite the fact that we had asked the refugees to wait until it was safe to go home, I believe a quarter of a million of them have already gone home, though another half million are still in camps scattered outside as well. So encapsulating what have been 12 very long weeks of military action taken to prevent, we hope, a humanitarian catastrophe, to bring stability to Kosovo and to return the refugees that were in there, it has been very successful and has achieved what we set out to do."

The latter gibberish seems to be an attempt to reconcile the original military objective as stated by himself with the new one he had just enunciated and declared to be achieved.


Blunt speaking

Later, Robertson was questioned by Crispin Blunt, a Conservative MP and former army officer, who at the outset of the war had expressed the reasonable opinion that the Kosovan Albanians could not be protected by air power alone. This is demonstrated in the following exchange, which took place between him and Robertson at the Defence Select Committee on 24th March before any NATO bombs fell:

Blunt: Secretary of State, to what level do you believe we need to reduce the Yugoslav National Army and the internal security troops in order to prevent them suppressing Albanian citizens of Kosovo?

Robertson: By enough to stop them doing it, to reduce their opportunities of doing it.

Blunt: My concern is that in a sense, however much we bomb the Yugoslav National Army, if Serb will holds then it is going to be impossible with air power to achieve our objective which is degrading his military capability so that he cannot oppress the local population. Would it not be more predictable and would not the military advice be that you could actually predict and control the outcome if you were prepared to take the decision to conduct this operation as a land/air operation with both ground forces and air troops and then you could predict the outcome?

Mr Robertson: I do not think so. It is a pretty unanimous view of the military commanders that we should not get involved in a land campaign because the sheer numbers that would be involved are so considerable Our objective is to stop the violence, not to bomb them back to the negotiating table. It is not our objective to do that. It is to stop the escalating violence that is going to create these refugee flows at the humanitarian disaster which we all see looming in front of us.

Blunt: If the Yugoslav Army is reduced to the status of an infantry force, and it is not realistic I believe to expect air power to go further than that, we are going to be left with the slaughter and the ethnic cleansing continuing to happen in Kosovo, possibly in greater numbers than we have now, and then I fear that the humanitarian crisis will worsen.

A few hours later NATO began bombing Serbia. And within a few days, as predicted by Blunt, the whole world could see on their television screens that the humanitarian crisis had worsened dramatically. Judged by the military objective laid down by Robertson, the war was lost. Six weeks later after 17,000 sorties even the gung-ho Mr Jamie Shea admitted NATO's failure to achieve its stated objective. "It is true", he said, "that we were not able to succeed in the initial objective to stop ethnic cleansing" (Guardian, 7th May).


Was there a humanitarian disaster?

After the war on 24th June the following exchange took place between Blunt and Robertson at the Defence Select Committee::

Blunt: You came to this Committee today and you told us that the objectives of the action were "Serb troops out, NATO troops in and refugees home", but that is not what you told us when you came to give evidence to us on 23 March [actually 24 March]. You said: "Our military objective-our clear, simple, military objective-will be to reduce the Serbs' capability to repress the Albanian population and thus to avert a humanitarian disaster." Would you describe what happened in Kosovo as a humanitarian disaster or not?

Robertson: It would certainly be a disaster if the refugees, the vast majority of the population of Kosovo did not get back to their homes. We are going to get the vast majority of the refugees back to their homes within the next few weeks. We will therefore have averted that overall humanitarian disaster that would have been perpetrated by Milosevic.

Blunt: Has there or has there not been a humanitarian disaster in Kosovo because the point at stake, Secretary of State, is that there are a great number of us who do not believe that the military strategy employed by NATO could avert a humanitarian disaster. It could or it hoped to achieve a number of other objectives but the one it could not achieve was to avert a humanitarian disaster. That is the question: was there or was there not a humanitarian disaster in Kosovo? Yes or no?

Robertson: There were atrocities that took place inside Kosovo that bore out the predictions that we made. The humanitarian catastrophe that we have prevented by the use of air power would have been a humanitarian catastrophe of over one million ethnic Albanians driven from their homes and the rest of them in many ways persecuted for generations to come [sic]. We have successfully averted that.

What, according to Robertson, NATO bombing "successfully averted" is not clear from that gibberish. But, as Robertson and the rest of the humanitarian warriors kept telling us throughout the war, it did not avert a major exodus of Albanians from Kosovo, and the displacement of others within Kosovo, plus the deaths, they told us, of 10,000 Albanian civilians in Kosovo at the hands of Jugoslav forces.

(On 2nd September BBC TV news reported the discovery by British soldiers of a mass grave in a rubbish dump somewhere in Kosovo. The report mentioned in passing that British K-For soldiers had up to now discovered a total of 200 bodies. It did not give a figure for the total number of bodies discovered by K-For.)

Of course, the war was not fought out of humanitarian concern for Kosovan Albanians. It was fought to bring Yugoslavia to heel after it refused to submit to the Rambouillet diktat to give NATO free access to the whole of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY). That was contained in Appendix B, Paragraph 8 of the Rambouillet text, which is worth repeating to demonstrate the enormity of what Yugoslavia was asked to sign to avoid being bombed by NATO:

"NATO personnel shall enjoy, together with their vehicles, vessels, aircraft, and equipment, free and unrestricted passage and unimpeded access throughout the FRY including associated airspace and territorial waters. This shall include, but not be limited to, the right of bivouac, maneuver, billet, and utilization of any areas or facilities as required for support, training, and operations."

No sovereign state could sign that and remain a sovereign state. So Yugoslavia refused and accepted the inevitable consequences. It is often said that, after 78 days of bombing, Milosevic accepted less favourable terms than those available to him at the outset. That is nonsense. First and foremost, NATO does not have free access to the whole of Yugoslavia at the present time. Secondly, Kosovo is under the administration of the UN rather than the OSCE and NATO. Thirdly, the Kosovan Albanians have not been promised a referendum on independence in 3 years time.

(Had Yugoslavia accepted the Rambouillet diktat, NATO would have had free access not only to Serbia but also to Montenegro which has a port on the Adriatic­ Montenegro and Serbia are the two remaining republics making up the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Montenegro is run by Milo Djukanovic, who is regarded very favourably in the West because he is opposed to Milosevic (the President of the Federal Republic) and supports privatisation and a free market economy. He was formerly the Socialist Prime Minister of Montenegro who managed to become very wealthy during the Bosnian war by his participation in the petrol smuggling trade into Serbia.

However, despite being regarded as a good guy in the West, he was not to have any say in NATO having access to Montenegro. The Rambouillet agreement was to have been signed by the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, by the Republic of Serbia and by the Kosovan delegation. The Republic of Montenegro was excluded. And when the war started, Montenegro was bombed as well as Serbia.

According to Alice Mahon, Djukanovic was opposed to NATO bombing. In the House of Commons on 25th March, she quoted him as saying:

"I believe that the bombing of the FRY would strengthen the regime of Mr. Milosevic. For this reason, I have always maintained that instead of air strikes we should persist with political talks, to find a solution that would bring about long-term political stability in Kosovo.")


Two wars

During the war there was a lot of confused chatter about whether air power alone could win it. The confusion arose because there were in a sense two wars, the war NATO said it was fighting ­ to avert a humanitarian catastrophe in Kosovo ­ which it lost within a few days, and the war to bring Yugoslavia to heel, in which NATO claimed an outright victory not justified by the facts. As Crispin Blunt and many others said at the outset the former could not be won by air power alone, and certainly not if out of humanitarian concern for NATO pilots aircraft were not allowed to go below 15,000.

The latter was a different matter: it was always possible that if life was made intolerable for the civilian population of Serbia the Yugoslav Government would have to put its hands up. To do that, hitting military sites alone would not suffice: at the very least economic targets such as the power supply system, targets directly affecting the civilian population, would have to be attacked.

It is now clear that the British Government wanted to bomb economic targets from the outset but it proved impossible to get unanimity within the 19-member NATO alliance to do so. Defence Minister, Lord Gilbert, blurted this out in response to a question in the House of Lords on 28th June. He said:

" a very great price was paid for keeping unanimity within the North Atlantic Council. The price, unfortunately, was paid by the citizens of Kosovo and also those of Serbia who suffered damage through NATO operations. It is certainly my view that had NATO been allowed to attack in the first few weeks the targets it was allowed to attack in the last few weeks the operation would have been over in a fraction of the time that it took."

All that could be agreed within NATO at the outset was a set of target phases, beginning with air defences, followed by military targets such as barracks and only then economic targets. Escalation from one phase to the next was not supposed to go ahead without a unanimous decision of the members of the alliance. In fact, it proved impossible to get unanimity to move to attacking economic targets ­ Italy and Greece amongst others objected ­ but NATO military leaders pushed ahead anyway with the consent of the US and the UK. The strategy suffered a setback at the outset when Yugoslavia held back its anti-aircraft missiles and kept them out of sight. Jugoslavia's air defence system wasn't destroyed. This was the prime reason why NATO planes operated from above 15,000 feet throughout the war.


Apache helicopters

When the humanitarian catastrophe provoked by NATO bombing burst upon TV screens in the West, NATO had to be seen to be doing something about the other war, the one to protect Kosovan Albanians by "degrading" Yugoslav forces in Kosovo. For a brief period it seemed as if some NATO servicemen were going to be required to risk their lives in this humanitarian war.

US Apache helicopters were rushed to Albania and it was expected that they would be used against Jugoslav armour in Kosovo. But after two of them crashed in night training exercises in Albania killing the crew of one of them, Clinton thought better of using them, fearful presumably of the impact on US public opinion of dead American servicemen. Also, the Apache is supposed to be a very sophisticated piece of kit which the US is selling all round the world, including to Britain, and it would not have been good for the US image of military invincibility (or for business) if the Yugoslavs managed to bring some of them down. As it was, a question mark had been put against their ability to operate in rugged terrain at night.

Far better then to play safe and demonstrate humanitarian concern for Kosovo Albanians from 15,000 feet ­ even if this meant accidentally killing large numbers of them. Happily for the NATO, it doesn't seem to have occurred to any journalist to ask its spokesman, Jamie Shea, to justify the non-use of Apache helicopters against Jugoslav forces in Kosovo when day after day he was telling the world of atrocities being carried out by these forces against Kosovan Albanians. The story of the Apache helicopters died.


NATO winning in Kosovo?

Day after day we were told by NATO that it was winning, that NATO bombing had brought Jugoslav forces in Kosovo to their knees. Here is an account from the Guardian on 7th May, six weeks into the campaign, which makes good reading in the light of subsequent events:

"NATO unveiled yesterday its long-promised assessment of its campaign against the Serb field forces in Kosovo, and claimed to have succeeded in sharply reducing their military capacity, so that they controlled less and less territory, and were less and less able to harass the civilian population. With maps and aerial photographs, they portrayed a Serb army whose morale was crumbling from mounting casualties, shortage of food and fuel, and lack of sleep, as it dispersed into smaller and weaker units to escape the relentless bombing.

"'There is no evidence of any significant flow of material coming into Kosovo any more', said the alliance's military spokesman, General Walter Jertz. 'They will not be able to survive much longer if nothing, including food, is coming in from outside Kosovo. NATO can continue and intensify the air campaign, and wait until they surrender'. He went on: 'Imagine the plight of a Serb unit in Kosovo, knowing they have lost 20% of their heavy forces, half their fuel and ammunition, with their re-supply routes closed and the communications broken. They can only move from shelter to shelter.'"

In fact, the Jugoslav forces in Kosovo "survived" for a further five weeks and withdrew in good order as a consequence of the political settlement and not because they were on their last legs. And as part of the military negotiations before they withdrew, they informed NATO that its bombers had destroyed only 13 of the 300 or so tanks they had in Kosovo. This has never been denied. NATO had claimed to have destroyed 110 tanks and killed 5,000 Jugoslav soldiers (and, of course, five or six thousand soldiers were supposed to have deserted in Kosovo). It now seems to be agreed that only a few hundred Jugoslav soldiers were killed in Kosovo and a significant number of them were killed by the KLA and not by NATO bombing. NATO didn't even manage to destroy the Jugoslav air force in Kosovo: despite repeated attacks on Pristina airport, at least 6 MIG 21s survived in underground hangars and flew off before K-For troops arrived.

NATO flew 3,000 or so bombing missions against targets in Kosovo. As in the rest of Serbia, these included military installations and civilian infrastructure, for example, power stations and bridges. But the vast bulk of them were against Jugoslav forces in the field in order, in the words of George Robertson, "to reduce the Serbs capability to repress the Albanian population". As in the rest of Serbia, NATO was very successful at destroying fixed installations but was quite unsuccessful at destroying military vehicles in the field, let alone killing Jugoslav soldiers ­ and in the process a considerable number of Albanian civilians, whom NATO was supposed to be protecting, were killed. The number is unknown but it is possibly as many as a few hundred, in other words, not very different from the number of Jugoslav soldiers killed. Humanitarian war, indeed.


Feeding the displaced

Apart from the million or so Albanians who left Kosovo after NATO bombing started, large numbers were displaced within Kosovo. According to NATO, five or six hundred thousand were hiding in the hills without proper food or shelter, and Jamie Shea regularly told us that they were dying of malnutrition. NATO claimed to know where they were and showed their location on maps at press conferences. But when it was suggested by a journalist that NATO supply them with food and shelter by airdrops, humanitarian concern for NATO aircrew won out over the starving Albanians in the hills. It was too dangerous, they said.

This was a story which was never pursued by journalists. NATO had full command of the air. Yet by its own admission it allowed Albanian refugees within Kosovo to die without lifting a finger to help them. Why not? Even if they were not prepared to allow aircraft to fly below 15,000 feet, supplies could have been dropped from that height, though with less chance of them landing at the desired location. Could it have been that they were not prepared to do this in case the supplies fell into the hands of Jugoslav forces?

Before the end of the war food was dropped to displaced people within Kosovo. The Guardian reported on 10th June that "more than 10,000 food rations have been dropped by air to starving refugees stranded inside Kosovo in the past week". It was not done by NATO, however, and was done with scarcely any publicity, presumably because NATO didn't want to prompt the obvious question of why they weren't doing it themselves and doing it on a much bigger scale. 10,000 food rations is a drop in the ocean if there were, as NATO alleged, more than half a million refugees. It was organised by the World Food Programme and the aircraft used were Russian-made Antonov aircraft, painted with orange stripes to distinguish them from NATO planes and flown from Italy by Moldovan pilots. NATO had generously allowed a two-hour break in their bombing operations every morning to allow for the humanitarian flights. Obviously, the Jugoslavs were party to the arrangement.


Unexploded cluster bombs

NATO dropped large numbers of cluster bombs on Kosovo (and the rest of Serbia). It is reckoned that around 10% of cluster bombs do not explode and, when they don't, the unexploded remnants lie around like landmines. In addition to this unexploded ordinance, it was said that the Jugoslavs had left behind "hundreds of thousands of mines and booby-traps" (Guardian, 22nd June). This was probably a gross exaggeration put about by NATO on the basis of no knowledge whatsoever in order to add to the demonisation of Serbs.

It was expected that when NATO troops arrived in Kosovo as part of K-For they would help clear up this dangerous mess, including the unexploded cluster bombs they were personally responsible for. But, sadly, humanitarian concern for Kosovan Albanians did not stretch to dealing with NATO bombs, which might kill or blow the legs off Albanian civilians. Listen to this account of the argument over de-mining from Jonathan Steele in the Guardian on 22nd June immediately after the K-For troops went into Kosovo:

"Nato's policy is only to mark and clear mines if they impede K-For's security. Indeed, Nato shocked aid workers and UN humanitarian officials by announcing a few days ago that it would only help to remove mines if they were found on major roads. With huge numbers of refugees starting to stream home, both Nato and UN officials acknowledge that mine clearance is a top priority. But a row is going on over who is to lift them, and who is to pay.

"Brigadier John Hoskinson, the head of K-For's de-mining unit, initially told reporters that K-For could not remove every mine, but 'we will ensure that the towns and villages to which the refugees return will have a higher priority in mine clearance than perhaps the fields that adjoin them'. His broad approach was later countermanded at the top.

"Pieter Feith, Nato's director of crisis management, stunned the heads of various UN agencies at a meeting in Geneva last week by saying Nato would only mark landmines and unexploded ordinance 'in so far as military security is concerned'. He explained that this meant removing landmines laid on the main roads that K-For would use.

" The main job of removing landmines was dumped on the UN. But the UN's mine action service, based in New York, has a limited staff and budget, compared to the hundreds of de-mining specialists within Nato's 19 national armies. 'We have six people who have gone out to Kosovo in the last few days to co-ordinate with agencies on the ground, and one mine awareness specialist who has been travelling between Tirana and Pristina,' Henry Breed, its communications director, said yesterday."

We do not know whether NATO has relented since and taken responsibility for defusing the bombs they dropped on Kosovo. We do know that Kosovo Albanians have been killed and injured by them.



An interesting (and little noticed) exchange took place in the House of Lords on 26th July. Baroness Symons, who is a foreign office minister, was asked whether civilian victims of NATO bombing in Kosovo, whether Albanian or Serbian, would receive compensation. She replied:

" our Armed Forces complied strictly with the laws of armed conflict . Questions of possible compensation could arise only if unlawful action had been taken. We are satisfied that our action was lawful."

So there you have it. NATO drops bombs on Kosovo out of humanitarian concern for Kosovan Albanians, and kills some of them and injures more ­ and is still killing and injuring them. But they are not to be compensated because killing and injuring them out of humanitarian concern for them is legal.