“Nationalist thug terrorises, massacres civilians in drive to crush separatists.” A story from southeast Europe a decade ago, which brought fearful retribution on the head of Yugoslavia’s president, Slobodan Milosevic. A NATO bombing campaign rained down ordnance on his country for 78 days, and he ended up in The Hague on war crimes charges.
Ten years on, it’s been replayed in south Asia, with the bloody end game of Sri Lanka’s war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who waged an indiscriminate campaign of violence for a quarter of a century. Their counterparts in Serbia were the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), seen by many in the West as a plucky little group of rebels, but known locally for attacks on civilian representatives of the federal government such as police and postal workers. A UN report found they had elbowed their rivals, the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), out of power in town halls, instructing officials to join them instead and shooting those who refused.
The task of brokering a deal to recognise the aspirations to self-determination of the Albanian Kosovars was taken up by a Contact Group, comprising the foreign ministers of the US, UK, Russia, Italy, France and Germany. The deal they put on the table in Paris would have led to Kosovo’s independence - the red line for Milosevic, and one they knew he would not cross. John Gilbert, a defence minister in the British government, later told a committee of MPs, inquiring into the sequence of events that led to war, that the talks “set the bar deliberately too high” to get an agreement.
The Norwegian government tried to facilitate a peace deal in Sri Lanka, their efforts being rewarded by a ceasefire agreement in 2002. But Mahinda Rajapaksa’s narrow presidential election victory three years later sent the process into reverse. Like Milosevic, he forged alliances with right-wing nationalist parties, opposed to any concessions. Their agreement included revisions of the ceasefire to give the military broader powers against the LTTE, as well as ruling out any devolution to the Tamil people: the red line they could never cross.
The logical conclusion of that political gambit has just been played out, with Rajapaksa and his supporters in Colombo celebrating a military victory. The UN estimated the number of civilians killed, between January 20 and May 7, at more than 7,000, with 16,700 wounded. We can only guess how many more perished in the final, desperate ten days. That statistic, along with the dangerous conditions in camps run by the military for those who fled the fighting, amounts to a humanitarian disaster. I use the phrase in a deliberate echo of the debate over Kosovo. It was to forestall such an outcome, we were told, that NATO warplanes took to the skies.
In Sri Lanka, however, there was no outside military intervention. The British, fierce foes of Belgrade back in the 1990s, this time confined themselves to volleys of words, leading calls for a ceasefire that went unheeded.
Why things have changed
All states are obliged to take positive action to uphold human rights, under Chapter IX of the UN Charter on economic and social co-operation. Article 55 commits the world body to uphold the “universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all”, and, according to Article 56, “all Members pledge themselves to take joint and separate action in co-operation with the Organization for the achievement of the purposes set forth in Article 55”.
Then UK Prime Minister Tony Blair set out the case for that commitment to apply, also, to measures provided for under Chapter VII, the use of force, which the Security Council can approve in circumstances when - according to Article 42 - “international peace and security” are at stake. In a speech in Chicago, in April 1999, as Britain’s Royal Air Force was helping its American buddies to bomb and strafe the Serbs, Blair adumbrated what he called “the doctrine of the international community”. When “oppression produces massive flows of refugees which unsettle neighbouring countries”, he said, the UN’s basic principle of “non-interference” should be set aside.
Not long afterwards, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty began considering these issues. Its co-chairperson was Gareth Evans, the former Australian foreign minister. In his new book, he recalls a one-on-one “arm-wrestling” session with the US representative, Congressman Lee Hamilton, over one crucial issue: should such interventions require explicit UN approval, to be seen as legitimate? NATO’s attack on Yugoslavia was never put to a vote in the Security Council, where it would have run into a certain veto from Russia.
In the event, the ICISS report, The Responsibility to Protect, hedged its bets. The Evans-Hamilton formula was, in effect, that the Security Council was the best authority for such interventions, but that it “should take into account in all its deliberations that, if it fails to discharge its responsibility to protect in conscience-shocking situations crying out for action, concerned states may not rule out other means to meet the gravity and urgency of that situation”. It could have been drafted to avoid ruling NATO’s attack on Yugoslavia “offside”: and, Evans’ book confirms, it was.
The R2P report set out four “precautionary principles” to govern such interventions. They must be primarily motivated by a desire to protect threatened populations, it says, even though other, more selfish aims might also be present. Military intervention must be a last resort, it must be proportionate and it must be likely to do more good than harm.
The NATO allies professed their humanitarian concern, but the massive refugee flows to which Blair referred were triggered by their own bombing, and then by its cessation, with a net exodus of some 200,000 non-Albanians from their homes in Kosovo.