LE MONDE DIPLOMATIQUE - May 1999
WAR IN THE BALKANS
Nato, master of the world
by NOAM CHOMSKY *
Meeting in Washington for the 50th anniversary of the North Atlantic
Treaty Organisation, the member states on 26 April ratified the New
Strategic Concept proposed by the United States. This permits Nato to go
beyond its defensive role and intervene militarily, without a mandate
from the United Nations, against a sovereign state. The token reference
to the UN may satisfy France but does not seriously modify US power. The
war in the Balkans, conducted without the authorisation of the Security
Council, in the name of humanitarian intervention, and the new strategic
concept mark a turning point in the global order. For the first time
since 1945 the victors of the second world war (less Russia) have
ignored the sole source of international legality, the UN - without
replacing it. This allows China, India or Russia, for example, to
conduct similar interventions in their own spheres of influence; and
increases the risks of injustice and conflict throughout the world.
There are many questions about the bombing of Yugoslavia by the North
Atlantic Treaty Organisation - meaning primarily the United States. They
come down to two fundamental issues: what are the accepted and
applicable "rules of world order" and how do these or other
considerations apply in the case of Kosovo?
There is a regime of international law and international order, binding
on all states, based on the United Nations Charter and subsequent
resolutions and World Court decisions. In brief, the threat or use of
force is banned unless explicitly authorised by the Security Council
after it has determined that peaceful means have failed, or else in
self-defence against "armed attack" (a narrow concept) until the
Security Council takes action.
There is, of course, more to say. There is at least a tension, if not an
outright contradiction, between the rules of world order laid down in
the UN Charter and the rights articulated in the Universal Declaration
of Human Rights, a second pillar of the world order established under US
initiative after the second world war. The charter bans force violating
state sovereignty; the UD guarantees the rights of individuals against
oppressive states. The issue of "humanitarian intervention" arises from
this tension. It is this right that is claimed by the US/Nato in Kosovo,
and is generally supported by editorial opinion and news reports (in the
latter case, reflexively, even through the very choice of terminology).
The question is addressed in a news report in the New York Times (1),
headlined "Legal Scholars Support Case for Using Force" in Kosovo. One
example is offered: Allen Gerson, former counsel to the US mission to
the UN. Two other legal scholars are cited. One, Ted Galen Carpenter,
"scoffed at the Administration argument" and dismissed the alleged right
of intervention. The third is Jack Goldsmith, a specialist on
international law at Chicago Law school. He says that critics of the
Nato bombing "have a pretty good legal argument" but "many people think
[an exception for humanitarian intervention] does exist as a matter of
custom and practice". That summarises the evidence offered to justify
the favoured conclusion stated in the headline.
Goldsmith's observation is reasonable, at least if we agree that facts
are relevant to the determination of "custom and practice". We may also
bear in mind a truism: the right of humanitarian intervention, if it
exists, is premised on the "good faith" of those intervening, and that
assumption is based not on their rhetoric but on their record, in
particular their record of adherence to the principles of international
law, World Court decisions, and so on.
Consider, for example, Iranian offers to intervene in Bosnia to prevent
massacres at a time when the West would not do so. These were dismissed
with ridicule (in fact, ignored); if there was a reason beyond
subordination to power, it was because Iranian "good faith" could not be
assumed. A rational person then asks obvious questions: is the Iranian
record of intervention and terror worse than that of the US? And how
should we assess the "good faith" of the only country to have vetoed a
Security Council resolution calling on all states to obey international
law? What about its historical record? Unless such questions are
prominent on the agenda of discourse, an honest person will dismiss it
as mere allegiance to doctrine. A useful exercise is to determine how
much of the literature - media or other - survives such elementary
conditions as these.
How do these or other considerations apply in the case of Kosovo? There
has been a humanitarian catastrophe in Kosovo in the past year,
overwhelmingly attributable to Yugoslav military forces. The main
victims have been ethnic Albanian Kosovars, some 90% of the population
of this Yugoslav territory. The standard estimate is 2,000 deaths and
hundreds of thousands of refugees. In such cases, outsiders have three
choices: solution 1, try to escalate the catastrophe; solution 2, do
nothing; solution 3, try to mitigate the catastrophe. The choices can be
illustrated by other contemporary cases. Let us keep to a few of
approximately the same scale and ask where Kosovo fits into the pattern.
To start with Colombia, according to State Department estimates the
annual level of political killing by the government and its paramilitary
associates is about at the level of Kosovo, and refugee flight
(primarily from their atrocities) is well over a million. Colombia has
been the leading Western recipient of US arms and training as violence
has grown through the 1990s, and that assistance is now increasing under
a "drug war" pretext dismissed by almost all serious observers. The
Clinton administration was particularly enthusiastic in its praise for
President Gaviria, whose tenure in office was responsible for "appalling
levels of violence" according to human rights organisations, even
surpassing his predecessors. Details are readily available. In this
case, the US reaction was solution 1: escalate the atrocities.
Then there is Turkey. By very conservative estimates, Turkish repression
of Kurds in the 1990s falls into the category of Kosovo. It peaked in
the early 1990s; one index is the flight of over a million Kurds from
the countryside to the unofficial Kurdish capital Diyarbakir from
1990-94, as the Turkish army was devastating the countryside. The second
year marked two records: it was "the year of the worst repression in the
Kurdish provinces" of Turkey, as US journalist Jonathan Randal reported
from the scene, and also the year when Turkey became "the biggest single
importer of American military hardware and thus the world's largest arms
purchaser". When human rights groups exposed Turkey's use of US jets to
bomb villages, the Clinton administration found ways to evade laws
requiring suspension of arms deliveries, much as it was doing in
Indonesia and elsewhere. Again Washington opted for solution 1.
Colombia and Turkey explain their (US-supported) atrocities on the
grounds that they are defending their countries from the threat of
terrorist guerrillas - as does the government of Slobodan Milosevic.
The third example is Laos. Every year thousands of people, mostly
children and poor farmers, are killed in the Plain of Jars in Northern
Laos, the scene of the heaviest bombing of civilian targets in history
it appears, and arguably the most cruel. Washington's furious assault on
a poor peasant society had little to do with its wars in the region. The
worst period was from 1968, when Washington was compelled to undertake
negotiations – under popular and business pressure - ending the regular
bombardment of North Vietnam. Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon then
decided to shift the planes to bombardment of Laos and Cambodia.
The deaths are from "bombies", tiny anti-personnel weapons, far worse
than land-mines. They are designed specifically to kill and maim, and
have no effect on trucks, buildings, etc. The Jars plain was saturated
with hundreds of millions of these criminal devices, which have a
failure-to-explode rate of 20%-30% according to the manufacturer,
Honeywell. The numbers suggest either remarkably poor quality control or
a rational policy of murdering civilians by delayed action. These were
only a fraction of the technology deployed, including advanced missiles
to penetrate caves where families sought shelter. Current annual
casualties from "bombies" are estimated from hundreds to "an annual
nationwide casualty rate of 20,000," more than half of them deaths,
according to the veteran Asia reporter Barry Wain of the Asia edition of
the Wall Street Journal. The crisis this year seems approximately
comparable to Kosovo, though deaths are far more highly concentrated
There have been efforts to publicise and deal with the humanitarian
catastrophe. A British-based Mine Advisory Group (MAG) is trying to
remove the lethal objects, but the US is "conspicuously missing from the
handful of Western organisations that have followed MAG," the British
press says, though it has finally agreed to train some Laotian
civilians. The UK press also reports, with some anger, the allegation of
MAG specialists that the US refuses to provide them with "render
harmless procedures" that would make their work "a lot quicker and a lot
safer". These remain a state secret, as does the whole affair in the US.
The Bangkok press reports a very similar situation in Cambodia,
particularly the eastern region where US bombardment from early 1969 was
In this case, the US opted for solution 2: do nothing. And the reaction
of the media and commentators was to keep silent, following the norms
under which the war against Laos was designated a "secret war" – meaning
well-known but suppressed, as was also the case in Cambodia from March
1969. The level of self-censorship was extraordinary then, as is the
current phase. The relevance of this shocking example needs no further
There are many other examples of solutions 1 and 2, and also much more
serious contemporary atrocities, such as the huge slaughter of Iraqi
civilians by means of a particularly vicious form of biological warfare.
"A very hard choice" said US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on
national television in 1996 when asked for her reaction to the killing
of half a million Iraqi children in five years, but "we think the price
is worth it". Current estimates are about 5,000 children killed a month
and the price is still "worth it." These and other examples might also
be kept in mind when we read awed rhetoric about how the "moral compass"
of the Clinton administration is at last functioning properly, as the
Kosovo example illustrates.
Just what does the example illustrate? The threat of Nato bombing
predictably led to a sharp escalation of atrocities by the Serbian army
and paramilitaries, and to the departure of international observers,
which of course had the same effect. Nato Commander General Wesley Clark
declared that it was "entirely predictable" that Serb terror and
violence would intensify after the Nato bombing, exactly as happened.
Kosovo is therefore another illustration of solution 1: try to escalate
the violence, with exactly that expectation.
Perhaps the most compelling example of solution 3 (trying to limit
violence) is the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in December 1978,
terminating Pol Pot's atrocities which were then at their peak. Vietnam
pleaded the right of self-defence against armed attack - one of the few
post-UN Charter examples when the plea is plausible. The Khmer Rouge
regime (Democratic Kampuchea, DK) was carrying out murderous attacks
against Vietnam in border areas.
The US reaction was instructive. The press condemned the "Prussians" of
Asia for their outrageous violation of international law. They were
harshly punished for the crime of having terminated Pol Pot's
slaughters, first by a (US-backed) Chinese invasion, then by US
imposition of extremely harsh sanctions. The US recognised the expelled
DK as the official government of Cambodia because of its "continuity"
with the Pol Pot regime, the State Department explained. Not too subtly,
the US supported the Khmer Rouge in its continuing attacks in Cambodia.
The example tells us more about the "custom and practice" that underlies
"the emerging legal norms of humanitarian intervention".
Despite the desperate efforts of ideologues to prove that circles are
square, there is no serious doubt that the Nato bombings further
undermine what remains of the fragile structure of international law.
The US made that entirely clear in the discussions leading to the Nato
decision. Apart from the UK (by now about as much of an independent
actor as the Ukraine was in the pre-Gorbachev years), Nato countries
were sceptical of US policy and were particularly annoyed by Albright's
Today, the more closely one approaches the conflicted region, the
greater the opposition to Washington's insistence on force, even within
Nato (Greece and Italy). France had called for a UN Security Council
resolution to authorise deployment of Nato peacekeepers. The US flatly
refused, insisting on "its stand that Nato should be able to act
independently of the United Nations", State Department officials
explained. The US refused to permit the word "authorise" to appear in
the final Nato statement, unwilling to concede any authority to the UN
Charter and international law. Only the word "endorse" was permitted.
Similarly the bombing of Iraq was a brazen expression of contempt for
the UN, even the specific timing, and was so understood (3). And of
course the same is true of the destruction of half the pharmaceutical
production of Sudan a few months earlier (4). It could be argued, rather
plausibly, that further demolition of the rules of world order is
irrelevant, just as it had lost its meaning by the late 1930s. The
contempt of the world's leading power for the framework of world order
has become so extreme that there is nothing left to discuss.
This stance is not new: it began to gain overt expression during the
Kennedy years. The main innovation of the Reagan-Clinton years is that
this defiance has become entirely open. The highest authorities
explained with brutal clarity that the World Court, the UN and other
agencies had become irrelevant because they no longer followed US
orders, as they did in the early post-war years.
Under Clinton the defiance of world order has become so extreme as to be
of concern even to hawkish policy analysts. In the current issue of the
leading establishment journal Foreign Affairs, Samuel Huntington warns
that Washington is treading a dangerous course. In the eyes of much of
the world - probably most of the world, he suggests - the US is
"becoming the rogue superpower", considered "the single greatest
external threat to their societies". A realistic "international
relations theory," he argues, predicts that coalitions may arise to
counterbalance the rogue superpower (5).
Where does that leave the question of what to do in Kosovo? It leaves it
unanswered. The US has chosen a course of action which, as it explicitly
recognises, escalates atrocities and violence: a course of action that
also strikes yet another blow against the regime of international order,
which does offer the weak at least some limited protection from
predatory states. A standard argument is that we had to do something: we
could not simply stand by as atrocities continued. That is never true.
One choice, always, is to follow the Hippocratic principle: "First, do
no harm." If you can think of no way to adhere to that elementary
principle, then do nothing. There are always ways that can be
considered. Diplomacy and negotiations are never at an end.
Recognised principles of international law and world order, solemn
treaty obligations, decisions by the World Court, considered
pronouncements by the most respected commentators - these do not
automatically solve particular problems. Each issue has to be considered
on its merits. For those who do not adopt the standards of Saddam
Hussein, there is a heavy burden of proof to meet in undertaking the
threat or use of force in violation of the principles of international
order. Perhaps the burden can be met, but that has to be shown, not
merely proclaimed with passionate rhetoric. The consequences of such
violations have to be assessed carefully. And for those who are
minimally serious, the reasons for the actions also have to be assessed
- and not simply by adulation of our leaders and their "moral compass".
* Professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). This text
was specially written for Le Monde diplomatique. Noam Chomski's writings
can be found on his website: http://www.zmag.org
Original text in English
(1) New York Times, 27 March 1999.
(2) Kevin Cullen, The Boston Globe, 22 February 1999.
(3) See Alain Gresh, "War without end against Iraq", Le Monde
diplomatique in English, January 1999.
(4) See Alain Gresh, "Holy war", Le Monde diplomatique in English,
(5) Samuel Huntington, " The Lonely Superpower ", Foreign Affairs, New
York, March-April 1999.
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED © 1999 Le Monde diplomatique
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