The West Winks at Serbian Atrocities in Kosovo

As published in the International Herald Tribune
(August 5, 1998)

by Fred Abrahams
Researcher at Human Rights Watch

Through all the confusion about the current crisis in Kosovo and U.S. foreign policy, one unfortunate fact has emerged: serious human rights violations are being tolerated in favor of short-term geopolitical interests in the Balkans.

This week, Serbian special police forces and the Yugoslav Army launched their largest offensives to date against the ethnic Albanian insurgency known as the Kosova Liberation Army (KLA). Details remain sketchy, since the police have restricted access for diplomatic observers, journalists, and humanitarian aid workers, but initial reports suggest that Serbian forces used disproportionate force, attacked civilians, and systematically destroyed villages. At least 100,000 people are internally displaced, many hiding in canyons and forests, and 20,000 have fled the region altogether.

Despite this, NATO is now farther from taking action than it was a few months ago when the fighting was less intense. The U.S. government has expressed only mild criticism, mostly because the KLA had become an annoying threat that it could not control. Some diplomats in Kosovo are telling journalists that the West has turned a blind eye to the abuses in order to force the KLA to the negotiating table.

The U.S. position is aptly presented by Secretary of Defense Cohen who recently said that NATO "does not want to see" Yugoslav President Slobodon Milosevic's troops attacking civilians or using disproportionate force, but that NATO does not want to take action that "could be construed as lending support, either moral or military, to those seeking independence," meaning the KLA. The events of the last week show how the latter of these two concerns will take precedence over the former.

Such a position spells disaster for the people in Kosovo and the region. Milosevic's troops are committing serious abuses, and there is no indication that the atrocities will stop. Human rights groups have documented five villages where summary executions have taken place since February 1998. Hundreds of Albanians have been arrested and abused; many villages have been totally destroyed. The total death count remains unknown, but surely many civilians have died from indiscriminate artillery fire or sniper attacks.

Where is the threshold? At what point will the Clinton administration decide that they have seen enough? And then will it be able to act decisively without conveying the message it is so afraid to convey?

Understandably, Washington is concerned about the destabalizing effects an independent Kosovo might have on neighboring Macedonia, with its sizable ethnic Albanian population, and on the fragile peace in Bosnia, where 20,000 U.S. soldiers are still on the ground. But unchecked violations by the Serbian police -- like attacks on civilians, disappearances, and extrajudicial killings -- and the predictable KLA response, will create a refugee outflow that could ignite an already dissatisfied and increasingly radical Albanian community in Macedonia. Albania could be destablized and, as oft predicted, Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey could get involved.

Most importantly, Washington is missing the fundamental point that there will be no stability in the Balkans as long as Milosevic stays in power. Considered a war criminal by many for committing serious atrocities in Croatia and Bosnia, American diplomats like Richard Holbrooke, Presidential envoy Bob Gelbard, and U.S. Ambassador to Macedonia Chris Hill, still regard Milosevic as the man who can stop the fighting.

The same "man with the reigns" argument was used by Holbrooke when Milosevic signed the 1995 Dayton Accords which stopped the fighting in Bosnia. But the international community's failure to punish Milosevic for crimes in Croatia and Bosnia sent the message that he would be allowed to get away with such crimes again. It is now obvious that the man who started these conflicts cannot be trusted to stop them.

There will be no lasting peace in the region as long as Yugoslavia remains an undemocratic state with Milosevic at the helm. Even if the Albanians agree to autonomy, as the U.S. government is pressing them to do, there is no guarantee that Milosevic would end his repressive rule in Kosovo, or that he would not revoke Kosovo's status some time in the future, as he did once already in 1989. A criminalized and abusive government in Belgrade will be a constant threat to the region.

The first priority for U.S. policy should be the indictment of Milosevic. For those who questioned whether he could be linked directly to the crimes in Bosnia and Croatia, a look at the Yugoslav chain of command leaves no doubts as to his responsibility for crimes against humanity in Kosovo, which is clearly within the mandate of the International Tribunal for War Crimes in the Former Yugoslavia.

Second is the continued cultivation of democratic alternatives within Serbia and Montenegro, with an emphasis on building institutions like independent courts and depoliticized police. Of great importance is the independent media, like radio stations B92 and the Association of Independent Electronic Media, which provide an antidote to the nationalist hate speech of the state TV. Even if an indictment of Milosevic is not possible at this time, enhancing U.S. support for these institutions will strengthen Serbia's voices of dissent.

Third is a rethinking of Washington's fear of "sending the wrong message." This is not an argument for Kosovo's independence, but a call for a foreign policy based on stopping atrocities and supporting democracy, which is the only way to guarantee long-term stability in the region. All options for Kosovo's political status should be considered as long as they include guarantees for the rights of the local population, both Albanians and Serbs.

Admittedly, strong action against Milosevic, and the implicit support for the KLA that such action implies, is a bad message to send armed insurgencies with separatist agendas around the world. But equally bad is the current message to Milosevic and other aggressive dictators that their violence and disrespect for human life will be tolerated by the international community in the name of territorial integrity.