As we enter the twenty-first century, human rights form one of the dominant paradigms of our world. But, in my region of the globe, I have recently witnessed an alarming transformation in the political function of human rights.
NATO’s intervention in Kosovo, in the name of human rights, decimated whole communities throughout the Balkan region. Yet the Western public was given few opportunities by the international media to sympathize with these communities. The besieged people of Serbia—left without electricity, water, transportation, medicine, and food—were driven to the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe. The population of Montenegro was also victimized, and the conditions of armed conflict further exacerbated racist prejudice and persecution of the Roma (Gypsies). Against the backdrop of war, pogroms against the Roma were carried out on a mass scale, including killing, torture, abductions, looting, and rape.1
We in the Balkans wonder whether the citizens of Western democracies shared our disgust when a NATO spokesman in Brussels referred to the previous day’s bombing in terms of a tennis match: “We won the game, we are about to win the set, we will surely win the match.”
Significant segments of the human rights communities in both the West and Eastern Europe remained silent, confused, and ineffective in influencing the public debate on the Kosovo intervention, insofar as such a debate even existed. To the extent that human rights organizations and activists took part, they did not demonstrate the strength and conviction expected of them on such a critical issue.
I believe that initially the silence on NATO’s bombing campaign from Western human rights groups reflected a common fear that the status quo imposed by Milosevic—an ethnically cleansed Kosovo—would prevail and Milosevic would be handed victory if NATO stopped its offensive. Many of us in Eastern Europe initially shared this fear as well. But we soon came to believe that if the bombing went on—and even if NATO completely reversed the ethnic cleansing—the price of such a victory would be unjustifiably high: hundreds and probably thousands of further deaths and devastated lives. As the days passed, it appeared to us that all that mattered to NATO was how to proclaim victory, regardless of human cost. Therefore, the continuation of military action could no longer be justified in the name of human rights.
Following the first week of NATO bombing, dozens of human rights activists in Eastern Europe were questioning the efficacy of continued military strikes. But beyond reporting on human rights violations, they made no public statements. No one was speaking out on what the Western alliance ought to do next. Most human rights defenders did not want to abandon the principle of political neutrality required by standards of professionalism.
Three additional factors overwhelmed the judgment of human rights organizations in Eastern Europe. First, many Eastern European states had opted for NATO membership. The human rights community in these countries was therefore afraid of compromising their respective national chances of being admitted to the alliance if they criticized NATO. Second, the very status and jobs of most human rights activists were made possible by the generous support of Western, and particularly American, donors. Without their continued support, the future of the human rights movement in Eastern Europe would be uncertain. Third, the human rights community in our region was caught in the sinking ship of cold war logic. Human rights activists feared that whatever they said would immediately place them in one of two camps— for or against NATO. If one is against NATO, one sides with Russia and China and therefore is an enemy to democracy.
By not speaking out, human rights groups in Eastern Europe excluded themselves from the decision-making process, leaving the question of whether to continue air strikes in the hands of the military and political elites of NATO. Their silence was in large part determined by the lack of leadership from the more powerful and better-positioned international human rights groups in the West. These groups seemed to be more preoccupied with the possible ways in which NATO could extricate itself from Kosovo and save face than with formulating a consistent and convincing human rights demand. Their criticism of NATO was moderate and never included an appeal to stop the bombing campaign.
Many human rights advocates, myself included, were having a difficult time deciding what position they should take throughout the war in Kosovo. Most of us believed that when an abusive government engages in gross and systematic human rights violations, the international community must intervene, if necessary, by military force. However, when NATO’s intervention started to cause severe human rights violations because of an irresponsible strategy of bombing from high-flying aircraft, we as human rights defenders had a responsibility to appeal for an immediate stop to the bombing.
Human rights advocates failed to make human rights count during the war in Kosovo. Their silence I fear is indicative of an ongoing transformation of the political function of human rights around the world. In the past, human rights worked more effectively as a challenge to power structures, oppressive regimes, economic inequalities, and various practices of corruption. Today, citizens and their organizations seem to be—through conscious choice or not—less militant, less confrontational, and more cooperative with democratic governments and intergovernmental organizations than they were a decade ago. I would argue that this is because the human rights discourse and agenda have gradually been usurped by governments and intergovernmental organizations. That governments have taken on human rights is a sign of the great progress made by the human rights movement. However, this progress is a double-edged sword. Nongovernmental advocates of human rights, especially in democratic and transitional societies, are less and less a force of progressive social change.
There were no easy solutions to Kosovo. Nevertheless, the NATO “victory” has had a deleterious effect on the credibility of human rights in the Balkans, where human rights discourse was used to morally justify the loss and destruction of thousands of lives. For us in the Balkans, the human rights language, paradigm, and call to action have become problematic. In the aftermath of Kosovo, the soul of human rights is in search of a new embodiment.
1. See Roma Rights, No. 2, 1999 (European Roma Rights Center).