Human Rights and Humanitarian Intervention in Kosovo
By Bruce Kochis

The current catastrophe in the Serbian province of Kosovo can be viewed from one or more familiar points of view: historical, political, philosophical, economic, etc. I would argue, however, that one of the most productive might be that of human rights because it defers the almost futile search for causes and focuses instead on policy, in fact, on policy that could end the crisis and prevent a recurrence in Kosovo proper and a spread of the problems to neighboring regions. But to understand the human rights perspective, it is necessary to keep some caveats in mind.

First, a human rights agenda rejects an explicitly nationalist application of human rights conventions, covenants, and laws. Though we may adopt short-hand terms like "the rights of the Kosovar Albanians," or the "rights of the Serbian people" we do not mean to imply that these rights exist only in that group or that other groups do not have the same rights. People have a right to a nationality but the nationality itself does not have a right.

Secondly, human rights work does not address crime per se, but usually only that crime committed or permitted by governments. For example, if a paramilitary group commits an atrocity, that act would fall under the purview of human rights work only if they were ordered to perform the atrocity, or if the government fails to prosecute the perpetrators or does not take steps to prevent the crime from being committed again.

Third, the human rights agenda is not the same thing as pacifism; it does not automatically mandate non-intervention. Human rights are a moral/legal order that ultimately is backed up by force. The International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia arrests and imprisons. To be sure, on balance the human rights movement favors non-violent approaches to solving problems, and the less violent over the more violent when the first alternative is not available, but that does not automatically preclude armed intervention in extreme cases.

With these caveats in mind, what would a human rights analysis say about the situation in Kosovo?

The first thing it would say is that there are no heroes here. This does not imply an amoral relativism. It just means that a Serbian individual has the exact same rights as a Kosovar individual and the violations of these rights is equally condemned. Torture, summary execution, rape will be prosecuted in exactly the same measure, regardless of the reasons leading up to the violation. A human rights perspective does not tolerate a winner's mentality or legality.

According to Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, the government of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia has been guilty and continues to be guilty of numerous violations of basic human rights and humanitarian law. It has on numerous documented occasions denied people their right to life through summary executions, compounded in some instances with torture.

Nearly 100,000 Kosovar Albanian men of military age are missing and unaccounted for.

Violations of the Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees are now numbered in the hundreds of thousands.

Violations of civil and political rights include: illegal detention, violations of privacy and personal security, violations of freedom of thought and conscience, and the promulgation of propaganda for war. These violations have been made against all populations in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, including Serbian.

The Kosovo Liberation Army emerged in 1996 in response to the FRY’s ethnic apartheid and in part out of frustration with the non-violent policies of the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) led by Ibrahim Rugova. The KLA opted for violent confrontation and set about arming itself with the help of interests in Albania. According to HRW, "By early 1998, the KLA was taking credit for a series of attacks on policemen and ethnic Albanians it considered collaborators." Credible reports also accuse the KLA of violations of the rights of the Roma minority.

Credible reports indicate that the KLA has been involved in the taking of hostages, summary executions, torture, and disappearances. Near Glodanje FRY officials discovered the bodies of 39 individuals, some of them ethnic Albanians. There were also allegations by FRY officials that the KLA was responsible for the death of 22 people near Klecka; at this site a kiln was also discovered purportedly used by the KLA to cremate the bodies.

On more than one occasion the Montenegrin government has closed its border to refugees. This is in clear violation of the Convention and Protocol Relating to Refugees. So also was their forced expulsion of 3200 Kosovo refugees to Albania. Like Montenegro, Macedonia has also violated the rights of refugees by closing its borders, expelling Kosovars to Albania, and refusing relief agencies access to the refugees.

The nineteen nations of NATO are also accused of human rights abuses in Kosovo.

It is alleged that NATO has violated Article 2 of the UN Charter prohibiting the use of force against sovereign states not engaged in outside aggression; in its threats to the FRY at Rambouillet it has violated the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties forbidding the use of force to compel any state to sign an international agreement; and the Helsinki Accord Final Act guaranteeing the boundaries of European states.

In particular, the US has committed military forces without invoking the War Powers Act, and certainly in defiance of some of the democratic traditions of the U.S.

"Collateral damage," sometimes a euphemism for the death of innocent civilians, is in violation of Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions and has been documented in Belgrade, Aleksinac, Juzna Morava, Surdulica, Nis, and now most notoriously the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. Estimates of the deaths of innocent civilians might be as high as 300.

What might a human rights policy look like in respect to this war?

The first action would be to call on all parties to adhere to Security Council Resolutions 1160 and 1199, which call for a cessation of all hostilities and compliance with all agreements reached in the negotiations of the crisis.

Second is to call on all parties to the dispute to adhere to the human rights and humanitarian law as articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, the International Convention on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, the Geneva Conventions, and the conventions relating to torture, refugees, discrimination against women, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Taken in total, these constitute a "robust" human rights regime that is growing sharp teeth each new day.

In addition, policy would call on all parties to submit their complaints to the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia and allow its jurisdiction to prevail in cases of violations of human rights and crimes against humanity. Vigilante action on the part of any country is forbidden.

The refugee crisis dictates that all parties immediately cease military operations around displaced persons and instead offer all food, shelter, and medical assistance necessary for their survival and well being. These are just a minimum.

What can one do? From a human rights perspective there are several things that a university community can do.

  1. Intensify the promotion of international studies. The ignorance of U.S. citizens in global issues is astounding and needs to be reversed because ignorance in world affairs is as dangerous as ignoring global warming.
  2. Familiarize ourselves with the international law of human rights and hold governments accountable to its provisions. Build this knowledge into our curriculum.
  3. Argue for the financial, political, legal support of those international institutions created for the express purpose of monitoring and enforcing human rights.
  4. Donate to any charity helping the victims of the crisis and lobby for as much government humanitarian aid as it takes to restore the dignity of all those who have suffered in another catastrophe of a catastrophic century.

Bruce Kochis is the Director of the Human Rights Education & Research Network
University of Washington Bothell Campus.