Human Rights Dialogue (1994–2005): Series 2, No. 5 (Winter 2001): Human Rights in Times of Conflict: Humanitarian Intervention: Articles: A Credibility Problem in Kosovo: The Undermining of Local Human Rights Culture

Jan 6, 2001

“Like rabbits,” the old man exclaimed, pointing to a hill behind his house, “they sit up there and shoot at us like rabbits!” The man was a Kosovar Albanian. His house was in a small village just south of Mitrovica. He was talking about the way in which Serb hooligans would harass Albanians. The year was 1993. At that time, international policymakers were just beginning to wake up to the fact that Kosovo was a volatile area, but most people had no idea what was happening there.

Today, thanks to the NATO intervention, everyone knows something about Kosovo. Most readers of the major newspapers even know something about Mitrovica. They have read about it as a Serb enclave and a site of vicious revenge killings—the incidents are mainly Albanian against Serb, but they are also Albanian against Roma and Serb against Albanian. These readers think they know a lot about this messy place called Kosovo, but they do not know the man who compared his plight to that of rabbits.

He, like all Kosovar Albanians I spoke with during that time, was eager to testify about human rights abuses committed against his family and people. They all deeply believed that, once heard outside their provincial borders, the “truth” about human rights would set them free. This man, like many Kosovar Albanians, was waiting for the American airplanes to save him. With Albanian and American flags displayed on the walls of his sitting room, he calmly told me that the Americans will have to “do something” to end the abuses.

He never saw the airplanes. Two years before the NATO intervention, this man was shot and killed while working in his yard. If he had lived, he would have been forced to flee to Macedonia with his family and hundreds of thousands of other Kosovars. I am told that his house no longer exists. It was destroyed either by Serb forces or by NATO bombs. It doesn’t really matter what happened. He and his house are gone forever, and so is the image of Kosovo Albanians as patient victims waiting for an American rescue.

I spent two years in the early 1990s living in Belgrade, taking frequent clandestine trips to Kosovo. I was amazed by the degree to which Kosovar Albanians were living and thinking human rights. These were a people who taught their children that just because they are human, they are entitled to some fundamental rights, such as freedom of movement and freedom from torture and police harassment. These were a people who decried the legitimacy of the Serbian constitution and looked instead to the Universal Declaration on Human Rights as a source of guiding principles for their lives. These were a people who believed that the international community would come to their rescue if only it understood the extent of human rights abuses perpetrated against them.

To be sure, some Kosovars never bought the notion of “passive resistance,” but many more had their hope grounded in a patient human rights struggle. Within intellectual circles they quietly debated whether their Gandhi-inspired strategy would suffice in stripping the Serbian regime of its power over them, or whether an international military intervention would be necessary to enforce human rights. As time passed, adherents of “passive resistance” gradually lost their followers and the cries for armed intervention eclipsed all other strategies.

So did the eventual humanitarian intervention vindicate this struggle for human rights? No. On the contrary, the timing and method of intervention greatly crippled human rights interests in Kosovo. There are several reasons for this ironic result. First, the intervention came too late. The international community should have supported human rights groups in Kosovo and Serbia at an earlier date. While the Soros Foundation and other private organizations aided Albanian and Serbian media and other aspects of civil society throughout the former Yugoslavia beginning in the early 1990s, the United States and other major powers did not do all they could have to support civil society. They might have offered financial and technical support to independent Serbian and Albanian journalists, opposition political parties, and civic organizations of all stripes, from women’s health groups to farmer’s organizations. Most important, they could have fostered feelings of economic security by bolstering private businesses and by using potential funding of government projects as inducements for concrete change on pressing human rights issues. Instead, the United States imposed economic sanctions against Belgrade, a move that only stoked Serbian feelings of victimization and solidified Milosevic’s power.

Reports of human rights violations had been coming out of Kosovo for years and had had little impact on international decision making. NATO allies turned a blind eye to these reports, issuing the occasional empty threat to the Milosevic regime. The United States and other NATO countries decided to take up the human rights flag only after the emergence of the Albanian paramilitary organization, the Kosova Liberation Army (KLA). At that point, it appeared as if the conflagration in Kosovo could result in a massive population displacement that would spill across country borders, disrupting trade and social relations among NATO countries. Kosovar Albanians got the message: the international community would respond only to guns, not to rights claims.

When NATO did intervene, the Clinton administration explained its actions in Kosovo by mixing human rights talk with messages about the need for regional stabilization, national security concerns over a long war and a large refugee flow, the need to protect NATO’s reputation, and America’s interest in preserving prosperous and secure trade with Europe. At the same time, the Clinton administration and its NATO allies failed to offer a clear legal justification on human rights grounds for the bombing. While a case could be made for the legality of the air strikes under the UN Charter—specifically, that through gross human rights violations Serbia had waived its claim to sovereignty, and hence intervention was needed under Articles 55 and 56 of the UN Charter—this argument was never clearly and consistently articulated.

Finally, the intervention itself was not conducted in line with human rights principles. The NATO bombing was designed to avoid any allied casualties, and to do so entailed a greater risk that civilians would be hit. The Geneva Convention IV and Protocol I provide that civilians shall be protected against “indiscriminate attacks” that “employ a method or means of combat which cannot be directed at a specific military objective” or “employ a method or means of combat the effects of which cannot be limited as required.” In addition, Protocol I requires military planners to “take all feasible precautions in the choice of means and methods of attack with a view to avoiding, and in any event minimizing, incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians and damage to civilian objects.” It is not within the spirit of these provisions to greatly increase the risk of civilians in order to avoid casualties to one’s own military. Unavoidable and unplanned damage to civilian targets incurred while attacking legitimate military targets would have been within international law. Yet the action’s proportionality became questionable when it became apparent that the bombing was not advancing military objectives as quickly or effectively as anticipated, and that the effects of the bombing were felt mainly by Serb civilians.

The international community’s failure to respond earlier to human rights violations, its refusal to explain its actions in terms of human rights motivations, and its intervention that was out of step with human rights principles all served to undermine the legitimacy of human rights in Kosovo. In place of the once-principled human rights culture, life in Kosovo is defined these days by cynical instrumentalism—a “whatever it takes” attitude. It is defined by an attitude of individual self-help—“everyone for oneself and one’s own family” instead of for the greater good. Local human rights activists still persevere in Kosovo, but this new attitude hampers their ability to organize. Activists face great difficulty in garnering popular support for any project that entails long-term thinking and brings few tangible rewards in the short term. A human rights approach, which by its nature requires patience and principles, is a now a hard sell in Kosovo.

When I was in a Kosovar refugee camp in Albania in May 1999, a four year-old boy ran up to me and hit me in the back as hard as he could. His mother scolded him, “No! She is not one of them!” She apologized to me—the boy thought I was a Serb who was coming to take her away. He had already lost his father, who had been pulled out of a long line of refugees leaving their town. No one knows what happened to him.

Whenever I think of the future of Kosovo, I think of this four year-old boy. He returned to a land whose people were steeped in the desire for revenge, not in a faith in human rights. What impact did the NATO bombing have on him? It certainly helped secure a peace accord and the end to Serbian government-orchestrated human rights abuses against Albanians. It did not, however, leave a strong human rights legacy in Kosovo that could help build a more just society for this boy and his people.

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