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Evidence of James Bissett

Canadian Ambassador to Yugoslavia (1990-2)
to the
Inquiry into Kosovo by Canadian House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, 15th February 2000

Labour & Trade Union Review, October 2000


Opening statement

I've been an outspoken critic of the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia. I think it was a serious mistake. Indeed, I think it's probably going to go down as a historic miscalculation that will have very far-reaching implications for all of us. When NATO bombs fell on Yugoslavia last spring, in March, they not only spread death and destruction in Yugoslavia, they also struck a serious blow to international law and to the framework of global security that had probably protected us all, since the end of the Second World War, from a nuclear holocaust.

Kosovo broke the ground rules for NATO engagement. The aggressive military intervention by NATO into the affairs of a sovereign state for other than defensive purposes marked an ominous turning point in the aims and objectives of that organization. It's important, I think, that we understand this. We should seek clarification as to whether this was a one-off aberration on the part of NATO or a signal of a fundamental change in the nature and the purposes of the organization. This is something the committee may well want to examine in the course of its work.

The NATO war was an illegal war. NATO's war in Kosovo was in violation of international law. It was conducted without the approval of the United Nations Security Council. It was a violation of the United Nations charter and its own article 1, which requires NATO to settle all international disputes by peaceful means and not to threaten or to use force "in any manner inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations".

Some apologists for NATO, including our own foreign minister and our defence minister, try to avoid this issue by simply not mentioning it. There has been no attempt to explain why the United Nations Security Council was ignored in Kosovo. No effort has been made to spell out under whose authority NATO bombed Yugoslavia.

The ministers and their officials continue to justify the bombing on the grounds that bombing was necessary to stop ethnic cleansing and atrocities that were being committed in Kosovo. They continue to argue this despite all the evidence that shows that by far the bulk of the ethnic cleansing took place after the bombing, not before it. Indeed, it was the bombing that triggered off the worst of the ethnic cleansing.

As for the atrocities, it seems that here again we were lied to about the extent of the crimes that were being committed. United States Secretary of Defense Cohen told us that at least 100,000 Kosovars had perished. Tony Blair spoke of genocide being carried out in Kosovo. The media relished every atrocity story that they heard from Albanian eyewitnesses.

The myth that the war was to stop ethnic cleansing and atrocities continues to be perpetrated by departmental spokesmen and by large parts of the media. No one wants to defend atrocities, and the numbers game in these circumstances can become sordid, but numbers do become important if they are used to justify military action against an independent and sovereign state.

In the case of Kosovo, it appears that about 2,000 people were killed prior to the NATO bombing. When one considers that a civil war had been going on in Kosovo since 1993, that is not a remarkable figure, certainly not when compared with a lot of other hot spots in the rest of the world. It doesn't warrant a 79-day bombing campaign.

It's also interesting to note that the UN tribunal indictment of President Milosovic in May 1999 cites only one incident of deaths before the bombing, and that's this infamous Racak incident, which itself is challenged by a number of French journalists who were there on the ground in Racak at the time this atrocity was alleged to have taken place. These journalists suspect a frameup on the part of US General Walker, who was the first to claim that atrocities had taken place there.

The Kosovo war reveals, in my view, very disturbing evidence that lies and duplicity can mislead all of us into accepting things that we know instinctively to be wrong. Jamie Shea and other NATO apologists have lied to us about the bombing. The sad thing is that most of the media and our political representatives have accepted without question what has been told to us by NATO and our own foreign affairs spokesmen.

The Kosovo war was an unnecessary war. This is perhaps the most serious charge that can be levelled against NATO. The NATO bombing of Yugoslavia was a choice by NATO to use violence rather than negotiation and to choose force rather than try to use diplomacy. NATO leaders tried to convince us that dropping tons of bombs on Yugoslavia was serving humanitarian purposes.

Mr. Fawcett [an earlier witness] has mentioned the UN resolution of October 1998, where President Milosovic accepted some 2,000 monitors to go into Kosovo to try to de-escalate the fighting that had been taking place there. From the accounts of a number of these monitors, their task was relatively successful. While ceasefire violations continued on both sides, the intensity of the fighting did abate considerably. We have the word of the former Czech Foreign Minister Jiri Dienstbier, who was on the ground in Kosovo. We have our own Rollie Keith, from Vancouver, who is on the ground as a monitor in Kosovo, and others who have stated publicly that the OSCE mission did de-escalate the fighting and that for the last five months of their presence in Kosovo, there was very little internal displacement and very few, if any, externally displaced refugees during that period. So the OSCE mission demonstrates that diplomacy and negotiation might well have been tried a little harder to resolve the Kosovo problem without resorting to the use of force.

In my view, it was a failure of the flexibility of the United States in dealing with Belgrade in the weeks leading up to the bombing that spelled diplomatic failure: the adamant refusal of the United States to involve either the Russians or the United Nations in the negotiations; the refusal to allow any other intermediary except Americans to deal with Milosovic; and finally, the imposition of the Rambouillet ultimatum, which was clearly designed to ensure that Yugoslavia would refuse it.

It's now generally accepted by those who've seen the terms of the Rambouillet agreement that no sovereign state could have agreed to its conditions. The insistence of allowing access to all of Yugoslavia by NATO forces and the demand that a referendum on autonomy be held within three years guaranteed a Serbian rejection. The Serbian Parliament, despite this, did meet most of the political terms of the Rambouillet agreement and indicated a willingness to "examine the character and extent of an international presence in Kosovo immediately after the signing of an autonomy accord acceptable to all national communities in Kosovo, the local Serb minority included." But the United States wasn't interested in pursuing this commitment, and NATO in effect needed its war. NATO's formal commitment to resolve international disputes by peaceful means was in effect thrown out the window.

The Rambouillet document itself was not easy to get a hold of from NATO sources. The chairman of the defence committee of the French national assembly asked for a copy of the Rambouillet agreement shortly after the bombing took place. He wasn't given a copy until about three days before the peace agreement was signed.

I hope that members of our committee will have a copy of Rambouillet and will be able to take a look at it, examine it, and satisfy yourselves as to what modern, sovereign state could possibly have accepted those conditions. It would also be interesting for you to find out just if and when the Canadian government was informed of the conditions of Rambouillet.

NATO's campaign, in my view, was a total failure. We've been asked to believe that the war in Kosovo was fought for human rights, and indeed the President of the Czech Republic received a standing ovation in the Canadian House of Commons when he said that Kosovo was the first war fought for human values rather than for territory. I suspect that even President Havel would have second thoughts about that statement now that the one effect of Kosovo has been that a very large part of Serbia has in effect been handed over to the Albanians in Kosovo.

The war allegedly to stop ethnic cleansing hasn't done so. Serbs, Gypsies, Jews, Slav Muslims, and Turks are being forced out of Kosovo every day under the eyes of 45,000 NATO troops. Murder and anarchy reigns supreme in Kosovo. The KLA and criminal elements have taken charge, and the United Nations admits failure to control the situation and warns Serbs not to return to Kosovo.

The war allegedly to restore stability in the Balkans has done the opposite. Yugoslavia's neighbours are in a state of turmoil. Montenegro is on the verge of civil war. Macedonia is now worried that Kosovo has shown the way for their sizeable Albanian minority to also seek self-determination. Albania has been encouraged to continue its dreams of a greater Albania. Serbia itself has been ruined economically. Embittered and disillusioned, it feels betrayed and alienated from the western democracies. So the fuse on the Balkan powder keg is much shorter now than it was before the bombing.

This illegal and unnecessary war has alienated the other great nuclear powers, China and Russia. These countries are now convinced that the west cannot be trusted. NATO's expansion eastward is seen as an aggressive and hostile threat and will be answered by an increase in the nuclear arsenal of both nations. After Kosovo, who can with any conviction convince the Russians or the Chinese that NATO is purely a defensive alliance dedicated to peace and the upholding of the principles of the United Nations?

More seriously, the NATO bombing has destroyed NATO's credibility. NATO stood for much more than just a powerful military machine. It stood for peace, the rule of law, and democratic institutions. The bombing of Yugoslavia threw all of that out. No longer can NATO stand on the high moral ground. Its action in Yugoslavia revealed it to be an aggressive military organization prepared to ignore international law and intervene with deadly force in the internal affairs of any state with whose actions or behaviour it does not agree.

A lot of people believe that the idea of state sovereignty can be overruled now if human rights violations are taking place in an individual country. The ground rules for intervention as they exist now are that this can be done if the Security Council agrees. Those are the ground rules that we've all lived under. Now, people in Kosovo argue that we couldn't get the Security Council to agree because China and Russia would have vetoed them. But that's part of the rules; that's what we all agreed on. Not only that, but I don't think any effort was really made to convince the Chinese or Russians, or ask them to abstain. There was no attempt, as Truman did in 1950 because he didn't think he could get the Security Council agreement, to go to the General Assembly and ask the General Assembly to give them authority to intervene in Kosovo. None of that was done.

I'm not opposed to the idea of intervention in a sovereign state to protect human rights. I think that's probably going to be necessary, and Rwanda is the closest example of that. But if the ground rules for intervention are as they are now, then we should obey them. We can't just overlook the structure that is there in the United Nations Security Council. If we don't like it, let's change it. But while those rules apply, let's follow them; let's obey them. We have to have some legitimacy before we intervene in a sovereign state.

I think the whole intervention in Kosovo by NATO was an unmitigated disaster, and we're all going to pay the price for it. Not only that, it raises other questions. I think it should be a warning call to Canadian democracy. I think we have to wake up to the fact that foreign policy is important; otherwise we'll all wake up, as we did last March, to realize that we're at war. We were at war with a state. People in Canada didn't even know where Kosovo was, and yet we were sending our pilots off to bomb Yugoslavia.

I think that's wrong. And the more serious thing about it was it was done without any consultation with the Canadian Parliament. The Canadian people had no idea why we were at war. This isn't satisfactory. It seems to me that if we have to give up some of our sovereignty as the price we pay for belonging to international organizations like NATO, then we should be able to insist that NATO follow the ground rules, their own rules, and the rule of law and the principles of the United Nations. This NATO did not do, and I think for this reason it's incumbent upon your committee to look very hard at Canada's participation in the Kosovo war.



Keith Martin: Given the great body of human rights law that we have, perhaps what we're asking ourselves here is how we can put teeth to it. How can we actually act in the face of a potentially impending human rights disaster?

Secondly, you also asked the very good question about what can be done about the Balkan powder keg? What can we do to diffuse the situation in Montenegro, and what can we do to protect the civilian populations in Kosovo? Is the ultimate solution to this the partition of Kosovo, with the north going to Serbia and the south becoming an independent state of Kosovo that perhaps will ultimately be amalgamated with Albania?

James Bissett: Yes, I suspect that in the final analysis the solution to Kosovo will be some sort of geographical division. I don't think there's much hope there that Serbs and Albanians can live peacefully ever after. Some realistic division, with the north part belonging to Serbia and the south remaining with Albania, is my preferred solution.

I think that probably will also apply to some degree in Bosnia. I don't think the situation there has made any appreciable difference. You still have Serbs, Croats, and Muslims separated and doing their own thing. The idea of a multi-ethnic population in Bosnia and Kosovo is probably unrealistic at this stage.

The second question is more difficult. When do you intervene in a sovereign state for humanitarian reasons? I am very suspicious of human rights people who believe you can pursue humanitarian objectives by bombing people. I was in Chechnya in 1994. I've seen what a rocket will do and what a 2,000-pound bomb does to civilians. It tears them to pieces.

The idea that you can start bombing people in Belgrade because of what Milosevic is doing in Kosovo is absolutely horrendous. The people of Belgrade voted against Milosevic, 80% of them. The people in Novi Sad voted against him. Yet we're bombing these people because of what his security forces are doing in Kosovo and we're doing it in the name of human rights. I mean, that's nonsense.

I think the ground rules may have to change. At the moment the rule is you don't intervene unless you have Security Council permission. We intervened in the Gulf War. We've intervened in a lot of places with Security Council authority. We didn't have it in Kosovo, and there are other ways of doing it rather than resorting to violence. Here we are, six months before the new millennium, and we decide the way to resolve human rights problems is by bombing a modern state.

The choice is to try negotiating. I don't think there was any negotiation done by the Americans with Milosevic. They were issuing ultimatums. Remember, they didn't even bring the oil embargo against Yugoslavia until after the bombing. There was really no serious attempt to sit down and bargain with this guy. It was done before with him. He can be bargained with. Dayton proved that. He did allow the OSCE to come into Kosovo, under the aegis of the United Nations.

Milosevic had no reason to support and believe NATO. NATO air strikes helped cleanse 300,000 Serbs out of Croatia. As a politician he wasn't in any position to accept all the demands of NATO. There was clear evidence that he was listening to what the United Nations was saying to him. He would have listened perhaps to the Russians or to the Indians or the Pakistanis. Why did it have to be the Americans? So I think there were other alternatives there.

In addition to that, let's face it, there was a civil war going on. At one point, 80% of Kosovo was controlled by the KLA. They were armed. They were killing Serb policemen. They were terrorists. He was trying to protect his turf. He did it in a brutal, savage way. I'm not defending that, but the principle is fairly sound. If you take up armed violence against a state, the state has the right to try to protect itself.

I believe there are occasions when intervention should take place, but we have to be very careful about that.
Remember, Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia in 1938. Why? For human rights violations. He claimed the Sudeten Germans were being persecuted by the Czechs and he invaded Czechoslovakia to stop that from happening. we have to be very careful of this business of invading countries because of human rights.

I think there are occasions when a sovereign state has to give up some of its rights if it's abusing its citizens. But to do that, there have to be fairly firm ground rules. That's what I'm saying. Otherwise, who decides?

Mr. Mendes [an earlier witness] suggested that if one person is killed, we should intervene. If that were the case, we'd be intervening everywhere. I don't like to get into the numbers game either, but 2,000 people killed in Kosovo up to the bombing is not a big deal compared to what was happening in Colombia, in Turkey, in Iraq, in many places. I don't have to give the list.

The second question is a tough one to answer. I don't have the answer to it, but I really do feel we have to decide whether NATO's constitution still stands. Does NATO still undertake not to use violence to resolve international disputes? Does NATO still stand for what article 1 of NATO claims it does? I think we have to get that straight, because if it doesn't, then we're in a new ball game. It's a ball game that affects us all and affects the whole security of the world because basically it means that it will be the United States that will decide, with its $270 billion defence budget. It becomes the policeman.

There's a lot of evidence that in Kosovo the U.S. determined to bomb in Serbia not only for NATO's credibility on its 50th anniversary, but if you believe The New York Times and a lot of U.S. commentators, it was to get Bill Clinton's name off the front pages and to get this victory surge that always happens when U.S. presidents go to war. As it turned out, that didn't happen, but there's strong evidence to indicate that this was Madeleine Albright's real gain here. It was pushing hard.

Because of Milosevic and his actions in the past, he was a target; there's no question of it. But he has been demonized by the press. Bosnia is a long story. I witnessed what was happening in Yugoslavia from 1990 to 1992, and the western intervention there, as always happens in the Balkans, made the situation much worse. People forget that in Bosnia, the Portuguese foreign minister had reached an agreement, signed by the Muslim, Croat, and Serb leaders, to keep Bosnia intact but with three separate parts. They all signed that in Lisbon in March 1992.

My neighbour, the US ambassador, flew to Sarajevo and convinced Izetbegovic to withdraw his signature from that agreement a week after he'd signed it. If he held a referendum in Bosnia, the United States would recognize the independence of Bosnia.