On September 23, 1938, German Chancellor Adolf Hitler wrote to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain that ethnic Germans in Czechoslovakia had been “tortured,” that 120,000 had been “forced to flee the country,” that the “security of more than 3,000,000 human beings was at stake,” and that they had been “prevented from realizing also the right of nations to self-determination.” Hitler was laying the basis for humanitarian intervention: a claim to intervene militarily in a sovereign state because of claimed human rights abuses. Although NATO is obviously not Hitler, the example illustrates the mischief caused when countries assert the right to use force on such a basis: It is often a pretext for acting in their own geopolitical interests and it sets a dangerous precedent—other governments can do the same.
Hitler’s assertions were not the first time a country has used humanitarian excuses to mask social, political, and territorial goals. It is a frequent occurrence, whether the Russians in the Balkans in the 19th century, the Japanese in Manchuria in the 1930s, or the United States in Vietnam, the Dominican Republic, Grenada, and Panama.
International law professors Thomas Franck and Nigel Rodely concluded in a 1973 study that “[i]n very few, if any, instances has the right [to humanitarian intervention] been asserted under circumstances that appear more humanitarian than self-centered and power seeking.” They further pointed out that the failure of countries to intervene when real humanitarian atrocities take place—such as those in Nazi Germany, South Africa under apartheid, and Indonesia (and today we could add the Tutsis, the Kurds, the Timorese, and others)—should make claims of humanitarian intervention “highly suspect.” They conclude that countries have no legal right of humanitarian intervention under international law.
This historical background should make us very skeptical regarding current U.S. and NATO claims that the war against Serbia is to stop “ethnic cleansing,” let alone “genocide.” President Clinton says the bombings were necessary to prevent a “humanitarian catastrophe,” to end “instability in the Balkans,” and “to prevent a wider war.”
But the evidence is otherwise. The NATO countries, as the historical record predicts, appear to be acting primarily in their own self-interests. To date, the bombings have created the very evils President Clinton claims he is trying to prevent: Over 500,000 refugees have fled Kosovo. Montenegro, Macedonia, Albania, and even Bosnia are being destabilized, and Russia is threatening a wider war.
The administration claims that Serbia was planning this ethnic cleansing and that it would have occurred even without the NATO attacks. But even if this were the case, it was the NATO attacks that gave Serbia the opportunity to carry out its alleged plans, particularly in a circumstance when all of the monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe were withdrawn. Nor should it be overlooked that the bombing itself probably caused many of the refugees to flee their homes. NATO had to have realized that its massive bombing campaign had the potential to create a serious humanitarian crisis, yet incredibly it had made no preparations for housing, feeding, or caring for the refugees. Had humanitarian concerns been at the forefront of NATO policy or even a serious concern, such plans would have been a priority.
If the U.S. and NATO really believed that Serbia was planning “ethnic cleansing,” then the bombing was the absolute worst strategy; it was almost guaranteed to bring about that result. If the goal was really to prevent expulsions of people from Kosovo, there were other peaceful alternatives that should have been undertaken. A sticking point in the negotiations with Yugoslavia was the deployment of 28,000 NATO troops in Kosovo; a compromise could have been worked out by making that force an international force of the United Nations or one that at least included Russian troops.
What is remarkable, and almost completely ignored in the Western press, is that shortly before the NATO bombing began, the Serbian Parliament supported the idea of U.N. forces to monitor a political settlement. But the U.S. and NATO, bent on either an occupation by NATO or bombing, never even acknowledged such a proposal. Had these and other peaceful means been employed, there is a fair chance that the human tragedy unfolding in the Balkans could have been avoided.
Once again it appears that the claim of humanitarian intervention is a pretext for countries acting in their own self-interest and for their own geopolitical reasons. Western countries are ensuring that it is they, not Serbia and Russia, who will be the dominant force in the Balkans; NATO is pushing Europe’s borders into the edge of Asia. A NATO military base in the region cannot be far behind. Also at play here is the broader underlying interest of the United States to mold the world to its will through a policy of coercive diplomacy. Under this doctrine, when the United States tells another country to do something, it must buckle under or suffer the consequences.
That is what the U.S. told Yugoslavia: Sign the Rambouillet agreement or get bombed. It is not a way to negotiate and certainly not a way to create a safer world. That is why after World War II, the nations of the world through the Charter of the United Nations mandated that only the Security Council could authorize the non-defensive use of force; unlike the current U.S./NATO bombing, force was to be used in the interest of the international community and not individual states.
Jules Lobel is a professor of international law at the University of Pittsburgh Law School; Michael Ratner is an international human rights attorney who works with the Center for Constitutional Rights.