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NATO and Kosovo - a just war?

On Tuesday 11 May, LM hosted the first public debate about the war with Yugoslavia. Tiffany Jenkins summarises some of the arguments


Mark Seddon
editor of Tribune and member of the Labour Party NEC

'Tribune was born in circumstances not totally dissimilar to these. There were people on the left who felt that democracy in Spain was being abandoned by the international community, and that nation states were prepared to allow fascism to prevail in Spain. Like many of the left, over the years we have campaigned for strong international intervention in places like East Timor and Rwanda.

'People who support taking action in Yugoslavia are not uncritical of what the United States of America has done. It turned a blind eye to the massive ethnic cleansing that began in Krajina and eastern Croatia. In Bosnia there was a grotesque failure of the international community to do anything about the destruction of a multiethnic state.

'I think the NATO campaign has been flawed and it has been very difficult to build up international support, because it has not been thought through and the ultimate option has not been put. At the time the West acted, we said that air strikes alone would not work. If you are serious about giving the right of self-determination to the Kosovo people, you start by preparing to use ground forces. But before that happens, we are determined to achieve negotiated settlements that mean the Serbs withdraw from Kosovo and the Kosovans are able to determine their own future.

'People like myself and Jonathan have been accused of being members of the "must do something brigade". I plead guilty to that. People like me have been campaigning for years to do something when human rights are abused in such an appalling way. This is the big test of our time. It is down to us to argue for some very basic values around human rights and self-determination, and to look at how the international community can stop this sort of behaviour occurring elsewhere in the world.'


Mick Hume
editor, LM magazine

'Perhaps it is not surprising that Mark has distanced himself from the war he is supposed to defend tonight. It's now clear that this war is a disaster for all concerned, with the exception of Tony Blair, who has used it to consolidate his position as first President of the Federal Republic of New Britain, and to have himself crowned King of Kosovo. Blair's war is a crusade. Its primary aim is to give his government an air of moral authority and a sense of mission, and the Kosovo refugees are a convenient stage army whose suffering can be used to justify intervention.

'This crusade has been given credibility by the "something must be done" club of liberal left journalists, artists, and politicians. No doubt people like Mark and Jonathan have the best intentions. But the assumptions behind the demand for intervention look like a new politics of superiority. The problem is always presented as "them over there", the solution is always "us over here". It is like President Clinton's argument about Kosovo: "what do you do to a child who does not do what he is told?" It sees a world of naughty children, where we have to go from playground to playground spanking them into order.

'At every stage in the Yugoslav tragedy, Western intervention has exacerbated tensions and intensified the conflict. When people demand "what's your solution?", the first thing we can do is not make things worse through yet more intervention.

'We hear a lot about the Balkan problem but little about a Balkan solution, where the people of the region sort out their own future. Mark talked about "self-determination". When did that come to mean that the destiny of the Balkans should be determined by Blair, Clinton and their Cruise missiles, or for that matter by the laptop bombardiers at the Tribune or the Guardian?'


Jonathan Freedland
Guardian columnist

'A laptop bombardier reporting for duty. The war as presently conducted is difficult to defend. But neither Mark nor I are defending the air war. From the beginning it should have been a ground war. We are fighting a just war, and we should pursue it by means that are not demeaning.

'Why is this a just war? Mick dismissed the parallels with Hitler, and he is right about that as a debating technique. But there is something too dismissive about calling the hundreds of thousands of people who have been chased and killed a "stage army". There is nothing fictitious about these people or what's happening to them. Surely you want a solution that allows people to make decisions about their lives?

'You may say we should have tried diplomacy, but there were nine years of talks with Milosevic and day by day there were killings. Should the UN have been the proper method? The UN mandate is too weak. We could do nothing, but what message does this send to future dictators? After the Pinochet ruling we say it no longer needs be like that: not that they are naughty children, but that there can be a universal standard of human rights, and when that is violated a mechanism is triggered for action. We do not have to say yes, dictators can kill in their own borders.

'There is a chance here to make the new world of the twenty-first century less dark and bloody than the world we are leaving behind. This is a test for our generation, for time, for confidence in Europe, and for the left. The test is before us - will we let it pass?'


Edward Pearce
Scotsman columnist

'It is no good saying we wanted the right thing only it's gone wrong, but we are still morally right, in the middle of the rubble. You cannot separate competence from morality: you are going to be judged on the whole thing.

'Stroppy professional soldiers are very reluctant to go into war - they know about burning flesh and they know about boring technical difficulties like rain. This is terribly disappointing to the "want to do something" brigade. What is it that these liberals get wrong? They don't understand the complexities. They see wickedness, want to address it and they don't recognise how to do it.

'The idea is large in liberal minds that there ought to have been a big multiethnic Bosnia. But if you have only 66 percent of people voting for it, it is going to fail. And it is not good to use force. Morals based on the wrong facts are the means that kill the wrong people. We should have asked what we wanted, in Bosnia. We should have wanted what solved the problems between Turkey and Greece in 1918-1922, and in Cyprus in 1974: exchanges of population under UN supervision.

'What would I have done about Kosovo? I would have wasted time, balanced the killing that was going on with the calamity that was going to happen and has happened, the exile which would not have happened without the bombing by NATO. I would have put troops on the border, with no intention of making war but with no intention of letting Milosevic know that. Then I would have brought in the Russians because they can speak to the Serbs. And while I waved the stick, I would have chopped up a carrot and handed it around.'

Nazi business?

One key issue in the debate was whether it is legitimate to compare events in Kosovo with the Nazi experience. Mark Seddon argued that there was an important question of the scale of the violence, but that this did not mean that a comparable situation could not arise in the Balkans. 'Didn't the persecution of the Jews start with Kristallnacht, did it not begin by shooting people in Russia and Poland?', he said. 'It was not planned until the Final Solution was organised. What is to stop this madness continuing on to this kind of thing?'

Mick Hume responded that a recourse to the language of the Holocaust distorts what is happening in the Balkans today. 'Saying the Serbs are like Nazis is an excuse for ignorance: we don't have to understand anything, and any action against them is justified. It also rewrites history and belittles the real horror of the Holocaust. There is a difference between driving people out of their homes and genocide, the systematic extermination of a race.'

Jonathan Freedland accepted that it was wrong to talk about Nazis and Holocausts in Kosovo, but mistrusted the motives behind a refusal to accept any comparisons with the atrocities of the past. 'There is a "say it ain't so brigade" who wish the reports of the atrocities away. They wish it wasn't true. They put their hands over their ears and look for elaborate alternatives.'

Global policing

The panel also discussed the rights and wrongs of international intervention around the world. 'The concept of sovereignty is changing with a globalised world', said Jonathan Freedland. 'Countries are sovereign to a point. I would suggest a global universal standard applied to all, and if that were crossed there would be a recourse to international action. This should be partly contingent on whether these countries are democratic. Democracies can choose how they are run but there could be a bill of rights to prevent them from going too far.' He used the example of Colorado, which in 1992 voted effectively to persecute homosexuals. This right was overturned by the Supreme Court.

Mark Seddon argued for an internationalist order not based on Britain or the USA, but on a common standard of human rights. 'The West has a selective approach to intervention: this is why the argument for an internationalist order is powerful', he said. 'Based on human rights it would mean a systematic process of intervention.'

Mick Hume characterised these schemes as a new kind of 'PC imperialism, where the typical empire-builder is not Cecil Rhodes but Clare Short. The question is, who will set these international standards of behaviour? The law lords? The UN security council? Those with the power to dictate to the rest of the world.' A model for what might result, he suggested, would be the new UN protectorate of Bosnia, 'run by a UN-appointed official who decides who can stand in elections and what they can stand for, amongst other things'.

Reproduced from LM issue 121, June 1999

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