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Rambouillet terms "absolutely intolerable", says ex-Minister

Labour & Trade Union Review, February 2001


"I think certain people were spoiling for a fight in NATO at that time, ***. If you ask my personal view, I think the terms put to Milosevic at Rambouillet were absolutely intolerable; how could he possibly accept them; it was quite deliberate. That does not excuse an awful lot of other things, but we were at a point when some people felt that something had to be done, so you just provoked a fight."

Those are the words of Lord Gilbert, who was a Minister of State in the MoD from 1997-1999 under George Robertson and spoke for the Government in the House of Lords on defence. As such, he was at the heart of government in the lead up to and during the NATO war on Yugoslavia. He was also in the MoD from 1977-1979 when he was Dr John Gilbert MP.

Lord Gilbert was giving evidence to the Defence Select Committee of the House of Commons on 20th June. The Committee was taking evidence into the lessons of Kosovo (all of which is available on the Houses of Parliament web site). The asterisks in the text mean that, at the request of the MoD, and with the agreement of the Committee the publication of a passage of evidence has been suppressed.

It has always been the contention of this magazine that the terms laid down at Rambouillet were pitched so that it was impossible for Milosevic to accept them. It had been decided in advance that Milosevic had to be taught a military lesson and the only purpose of the Rambouillet process was to provide an excuse for doing so. Milosevic was to be made an offer he couldn't accept. That has now been confirmed by a Minister who was an active participant in the process.



In the evidence as published the aspects of the Rambouillet terms which Gilbert thought were "absolutely intolerable" to Milosevic are not identified. It's a fair bet that he did identify them but that the MoD had them deleted from the published record. It is reasonable to assume that he was referring to the infamous paragraph 8 of Appendix B to the Military Chapter of the Rambouillet text.

This Appendix set out the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) for NATO, that is, the rules which would govern the behaviour of and relations between NATO and the Yugoslav authorities. Paragraph 8 says:

"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."

In other words, it gave NATO unrestricted access, not just to Kosovo, but to the whole of Yugoslavia (including Montenegro). Unless defeated in war no state with a pretence of independence could accept those terms (and these terms were in fact omitted from the post-war settlement in June 1999).



It should be emphasised that Gilbert was an enthusiast for war against Yugoslavia. He wasn't complaining about NATO picking a fight with Milosevic. Quite the contrary. But he doesn't seem to have been in favour of justifying war in terms of false humanitarian concern. In his evidence to the committee, he said:

"Personally I did not share some of the emphases of the press conferences. The use of the word "genocide", which came up very often, I thought was quite misplaced because I do not think Mr Milosevic, whatever else he was doing, was engaged in genocide, he was just trying to kick people out. He used very unpleasant methods to do it but he was not actually trying to exterminate them all."

Gilbert also objected strenuously to the way the air war was prosecuted. His complaint (which he first voiced in the House of Lords on 28th June 1999 when he was still a Minister) was that because of the need to keep all 19 states in NATO on board Yugoslavia was not hit hard at the outset and that as a result the air war lasted a lot longer than it should have. In his evidence to the committee he restated this view:

"The whole story of the targeting is one of political timidity, of choosing targets in staged increments, which was a nonsense in my view, a military nonsense, from the very beginning."

He quoted approvingly from the US Air Force General Short (who was in operational command of the NATO air war):

"As an airman I would have done this differently. It would not be an incremental air campaign or slow build-up but we would go downtown from the first night so that on the first morning the influential citizens of Belgrade gathered around Milosevic would have awakened to significant destruction and a clear signal from NATO that we were taking the gloves off. If you wake up in the morning and you have no power to your house and no gas to your stove and the bridge you take to work is down and will be lying in the Danube for the next 20 years I think you begin to ask: 'Hey, Slobbo, what's all this about?'"


"Those are General Short's sentiments and they are mine too. I argued forcibly within the Ministry of Defence for a different menu of targets right from the beginning."

Had his advice been taken, he maintained:

" the campaign would have been completed in a fraction of the time that it took. We had a waste of treasure, 30 billion or so, which was far in excess of what was needed. You have to remember that we were dealing with a country of ten million people, an air force that only managed to stagger off the ground a couple of times, there were 14 NATO air forces involved in this. The gross domestic product of the countries who were attacking this run-down, clapped-out Communist dictatorship was certainly more than 50% of gross domestic product of the entire planet and it took us 11 weeks to do it."

Gilbert clearly believed in making Milosevic an offer he couldn't accept and bombing Yugoslav infrastructure at the outset, as was eventually done, in the belief that Milosevic would put his hands up quickly. He may have been right.



When the Rambouillet conference resumed in Paris, it took a lot pressure from US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, to get the leader of the Albanian delegation, Hasim Thaci of the KLA, to sign. Despite promises by Albright that NATO would bomb Yugoslavia if he signed and Yugoslavia didn't, Thaci held out for a long time, objecting to the absence from the Rambouillet text of any provision for a referendum in Kosovo on independence and a commitment to accept the result.

Chapter 8, Article 1 (3) of the text, which was concerned with a final settlement for Kosovo, merely said:

"Three years after the entry into force of this Agreement, an international meeting shall be convened to determine a mechanism for a final settlement for Kosovo, on the basis of the will of the people, opinions of relevant authorities, each Party's efforts regarding the implementation of this Agreement, and the Helsinki Final Act, and to undertake a comprehensive assessment of the implementation of this Agreement and to consider proposals by any Party for additional measures."

To persuade Thaci to sign, Madeleine Albright, gave him the US Government's interpretation of this Article in a letter dated 22nd February 1999. Its text was as follows (see Tim Judah's book, Kosovo: War and Revenge, page 215):

"This letter concerns the formulation (attached) proposed for Chapter 8, Article 1 (3) of the interim Framework Agreement. We will regard this proposal, or any other formulation, of that Article that may be agreed at Rambouillet, as confirming a right for the people of Kosovo to hold a referendum on the final status of Kosovo after three years."

Since it is impossible to envisage a referendum being held and the overwhelming result in favour of an independent Kosovo being disregarded, that amounts to US support for independence for Kosovo.