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War in Kosovo: A Victory for Human Rights

John Palmer

FOR ALL WHO struggle for peace, democracy and justice throughout the world, the war in Kosovo marked a momentous milestone in the evolution of post-Cold War Europe. It is essential for socialists to understand the causes of this war, the manner in which it was fought and the meaning of its outcome.

First a "What If?" question. The year is 1941. The Nazi SS Einsatzgruppen are sweeping through the occupied towns and villages of the Baltic States. They are rounding up and either summarily executing or deporting Jews and other "undesirables". But just a few kilometres away the most powerful international military alliance the world has ever known has massive air and land forces at its disposal. In spite of its democratic pretensions this military alliance is reluctant to act (remember the "Final Solution" and the death camps have not yet begun their ghastly operations.) Indeed it tries to do business with those in charge of the death squads. Its leaders refuse to commit ground troops to confront the Einsatzgruppen directly. Finally, by using high level bombing alone, the SS squads are forced to withdraw after a campaign which takes a heavy toll of innocent civilian lives. What judgement would we make on the members of that alliance 60 years later?

After the Nazi holocaust the question was asked: "What – if anything – should or could the wartime allies have done to stop the liquidation of the Jews?" Given the sheer distance between the allied armies and the occupied Nazi territories at the time there was probably little that could have been done. But the situation this summer as Milosevic’s relentless ethnic cleansing of Kosovo’s majority Albanian population continued – sometimes within earshot of NATO troops in Albania and Macedonia – was very different. The organised slaughter and expulsion of Albanian Kosovars by the Serb military and special paramilitary squads posed an inescapable moral and political challenge not only to NATO but to socialists and democrats everywhere.

The first question is quite simple: "What would you do about the Serb ethnic cleansing if you rule out the use of force?" Some socialists pretended the question did not arise. Some actually defended the Milosevic regime ("Victory to Yugoslavia" proclaimed the one-time Marxist LM magazine.) Others, such as the Socialist Workers Party, refused to support the Kosovars’ right to full self-determination, saying it might "destabilise" the region. Some denounced as "liberal warmongers" international human rights organisations and journalists who, having witnessed the Serb oppression on the ground, called for NATO intervention.

Many on the left rightly pointed to the hypocrisy of NATO states who have a record of appeasing Milosevic in Bosnia. The US refused European Union calls for Kosovo to be included in the Bosnian peace agreement at Dayton. NATO has also been reluctant to condemn ethnic cleansing by one of its own members, Turkey, in its war against the Kurds.

Some in the anti-war camp argued for reliance only on economic sanctions against Belgrade. But even during the war, Russia and other states happily supplied Serbia with all the oil and supplies it needed. Others insisted that a purely diplomatic solution should be sought through the United Nations and/or the Russians. But they ignored the inconvenient fact that China and Russia even vetoed condemnation of Milosevic’s atrocities against the Kosovar Albanians on the UN Security Council. Moreover, the regimes in China and Russia continue to conduct their own ruthless national persecution of Tibet and Chechenya respectively. Diplomacy with Russia only became feasible when it became clear that Milosevic’s forces were already facing defeat.

Throughout Europe socialists voiced support for Kosovar independence, and some (correctly) called for the arming of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). But this meant calling on NATO to provide those arms. After all, there is no working class or socialist world power centre willing and able to aid those facing persecution. But the KLA not only called for NATO arms – they also repeatedly called for direct NATO military action against Milosevic’s army and paramilitary death squads.

There has also been much confusion over US and NATO ambitions in the Balkans. There are no oil or vital economic interests for the West in Kosovo. US policy is now directed towards disengagement in Europe where it sees no serious interests worth risking conflict for. Clinton never wanted any part of a land war to liberate Kosovo. He blocked European suggestions that Milosevic be threatened with the possible use of ground troops when the ethnic cleansing began (well before the start of NATO bombing) – giving Milosevic carte blanche to try and empty Kosovo of its ethnic Albanian population.

Many people who supported military action against Milosevic’s forces condemned the way in which the bombing campaign was run. There is a precedent for this. During the war against the Nazis, anti-fascist socialists, including those serving in the allied forces, publicly condemned the bombing of German civilians. Support for the military defeat of Hitlerism did not involve giving uncritical support to the way the war was waged. The same holds true for the war in Kosovo.

Talk of plans for NATO "colonies" in the Balkans are also very wide of the mark. It is true that the (partially) democratised former Yugoslav republics such as Albania, Bosnia and Macedonia all (like the Kosovars) desperately want to join the European Union in future. Can the left seriously oppose this? Surely we should demand full implementation of the new EU strategy put forward by the German Green foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, for Balkan reconstruction, aid for regional cooperation and the strengthening of democracy and the rights of all nationalities (including the Kosovar Serbs)?

Some fundamentalist theologians on the left may sneer at this as mere reformism. This is not the stand taken by socialists and trade unionists in either Kosovo or Serbia.

Socialists who want to change the world know that first they must understand and engage with the world as it is. Far from sneering at the beginnings of an international legal order based on respect for human rights (including the International War Crimes Tribunal), the left should be working to strengthen it and ensure that it has teeth. It should be used wherever genocide, ethnic cleansing and other atrocities occur in future.

Of course socialists know this is no more than a tiny first step. We know that only building a world economic and political system which eliminates exploitation, poverty and grotesque inequality will guarantee an end to crimes against humanity. But here and now no serious socialist can but rejoice if the Kosovar Albanians are finally rid of their tormentors.

This article first appeared in Scottish Socialist Voice. We are grateful to John Palmer for permission to reprint it.

From What Next? No.14 1999