Canada and the Crisis in Yugoslavia

Tasneem Jamal

Briefing 99-3

NATO bombing

The NATO bombing must be stopped. Not because it lacks Security Council approval. Not because that would end the killing and ethnic cleansing. Not because NATO’s assault could not eventually crush the regime the Yugoslav regime of President Slobodan Milosevic. And certainly not because Canada and the rest of the world should not get involved in the continuing crisis in Yugoslavia.

The bombing must stop because it utterly fails in bringing protection and safety to the vulnerable people of the region. Bombing doesn’t work. It is incapable of delivering protection, only additional danger and destruction. When Security Council approval was used to bless the bombing of Iraq, it didn’t and couldn’t work there either. It fails in its claimed humanitarian objective, and it fails equally in its political objective of deposing or disciplining criminal regimes – Saddam Hussein and Milosevic are only the most recent examples.

To date NATO has not found failure a sufficient reason to change course. But it must do so. No one claims that an end to bombing would end the suffering or quickly restore peace, but it would remove one of the sources of destruction and one of the obstacles to the pursuit of alternatives.

Ground Troops

NATO must also not now compound the folly of bombing by sending ground combat forces into Yugoslavia to take up expanded war against the regime. It is true that the only way to protect vulnerable people is to stand with them, to be on the ground with them, to offer physical protection. But such protection cannot be brought in the context of war. Priority number one is to stop the fighting. NATO’s unilateral withdrawal from combat is now the only tolerable option within a range of tragic choices.

NATO’s withdrawal from combat will not stop the killing, but it will open the way for the international community, in action that is politically and legally legitimized by the UN or an organization within the UN system, such as the OSCE, to intensify efforts to meet its obligation to place peacekeeping forces on the margins of the arena of armed conflict. The mandate of those protective forces should be narrowly confined to providing support and protection in safe havens outside the main arena of full-scale armed combat.

The attending political priority is to seek the broader cease-fire that will facilitate a more comprehensive deployment of peacekeeping forces to monitor the cease-fire and support humanitarian efforts to bring aid to the victims.

The costs of NATO withdrawal

There are no guilt-free options available in the present crisis. All have negative consequences. For example, the refusal to use ground forces in Kosovo to attack the armed forces of Yugoslavia in effect abandoned defenceless Kosovars to marauders. The price is being paid in human lives. What makes opposition to such military combat intervention defensible is not that the alternatives avoid all horrible consequences, but that alternatives hold greater promise for constructive resolution of the crisis.

It is the responsibility of the international community to pursue actions that do the least harm, that are most likely to rescue and bring protection to the vulnerable, and that help set the stage for post-conflict recovery and reconciliation. All the options currently and apparently available promise some tragic consequences, but the compelling evidence is that NATO combat action fails most grievously to carry out the responsibility of the international community – NATO bombing could not prevent the dislocation of and assaults on people of extraordinary proportions; it has left the vulnerable more vulnerable than ever; and it promises a post-conflict environment of exacerbated physical destruction and entrenched bitterness.

Diplomatic activism

The diplomatic pursuit of alternatives and a cease-fire must now become the focus of Canadian diplomacy. Those of us outside government do not know the full extent of such activity already underway. It is also difficult for those of us not at the table to have a full appreciation for which diplomatic initiatives might be the most feasible, or which are essentially futile. But some basic principles present themselves.

It should be a high priority to reach out to Russia, to draw it more actively into the search for the elusive diplomatic breakthrough, and to encourage its continued overtures to Yugoslav President Milosevic. Similarly, it is urgent to move the political focus of diplomacy out of NATO and into the Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), whose membership includes all of NATO as well as Russia and Yugoslavia (currently in suspension). As a regional security agreement within the framework of the United Nations, the OSCE can also help to recover a priority role for the UN. Canada needs to take advantage of its hard won position on the Security Council, calling on the Council to perform the central overseeing role in the diplomatic and humanitarian response to the crisis. If a sub-text to this crisis is preserving the credibility of international institutions, then it is the UN, not NATO, that must be the focus of that concern.

The voices of the international civil society also need to be brought more directly into the search for next steps in the current crisis — to explore and invent options that are now not readily apparent. Canada should consider funding and hosting an ongoing conference of strategic analysts, peace researchers, peace advocates, and humanitarian workers, from the Balkans and more broadly from the international community, to generate an ongoing source of analysis and policy options.

Recommitting to human security

Above all, Canada must not be deflected from the activism and interventionism of human security. The impulse to intervene is the correct one. Much of the current opposition to NATO involvement in Yugoslavia is not based so much on an aversion to bombing as on an aversion to becoming engaged in conflicts where one’s own security interests are not directly at stake. Don’t get involved in a conflict that is not ours, we are advised, rather confine the objective to containing the conflict, build a fence around it, and just let the Balkan peoples do to each other what they have always done.

It is precisely that misplaced aversion to involvement that keeps the international community from constructive engagement in places like Rwanda — and it is the opposite of the requirements of human security and of what the international community needs.

The problem is not that Canada and the international community get drawn into regional conflicts, the problem is the failure to get involved more intensely in regional conflicts, in Sudan, in Turkey, and so on and on. The issue is not whether to get involved, but how — and bombing, whether of Belgrade, or Iraq, or a Sudanese pharmaceutical plant, is not the answer. Canadians should not accept the argument that Canada should stay out of Yugoslavia/Kosovo because Canadians can be sent into harm’s way only if Canadian interests and the safety of Canadians are at stake. Canadians need to affirm the human security ethic or imperative that requires the international community to come to the aid and protection of those who are imperilled, wherever they are and whatever their nationality. In other words, Canada rightly pursues an interventionist foreign policy that urges, indeed requires, the international community to intervene in the domestic affairs of states if those states fail in their duty to uphold minimal standards of human rights and maintain minimal order, and which, in failing to uphold rights and maintain order, allow their citizens to fall into great peril.

An interventionist foreign policy requires resources. Above all, it requires long term resources to help advance respect for human rights and democracy and to build the social and economic conditions needed to avert the crises that seemingly remove all options but military attack.

Authorizing intervention

If the international community is to live up to the requirements of human security — that is, to the principle that all people, wherever they are, are entitled to protection — it must, through the United Nations, meet the daunting challenge to develop a decision-making mechanism for authorizing intervention that is timely, politically credible, and legally legitimate (lawful). When states fail to meet their minimal obligations, under the Charter of the UN, to maintain a civil order of safety and respect for human rights, the international community must have the capacity to intervene and over-rule the prerogatives of sovereignty through a consistent and politically supportable decision-making process in order to come to the support of vulnerable people. Sovereignty is not a legitimate barrier of access to people in grave peril.

That the Security Council is not operating effectively as such a mechanism is clear. The Security Council’s failure to respond to the needs of vulnerable people around the globe is due less to deference to international law regarding national sovereignty than to the fact it is guided by the particular and often conflicting interests of the five permanent members. Nevertheless, even though it is appropriate to refer to the Security Council as dysfunctional in that regard, in the absence of a more effective mechanism there is an unambiguous obligation to challenge the Council to become more consistently engaged early on in political and humanitarian interventions to respond to the needs of populations in peril — and to guide and authorize any military interventions occasioned by the failure of preventive measures.

The limits to military force

Given that protection can be provided only through presence — by being with people — another challenge is to devise methods and conditions for on-the-ground military interventions that are capable of bringing protection to the vulnerable and least likely to deteriorate into all-out warfare. The model for such interventions are domestic police interventions that are designed to protect people and preserve order to permit a judicial and social process to get engaged. The great danger of forced intervention is that it will become part of the conflict – a military belligerent fighting on one side or the other.

To avoid the latter requires us to learn some lessons about the limits of military force in pursuing humanitarian and political objectives. NATO (or its members operating outside the alliance command) has been using force (in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Sudan, Afghanistan, all in the past year), not to protect and defend the vulnerable, but to punish particular rulers. It is thought of as part of a sensible carrot and stick approach to diplomacy, in which military force is not deployed to meet particular military objectives (e.g., like securing a town, pushing back an advancing attacker, and so on), but to advance political objectives by threatening to bring great pain to those who stand in the way of those objectives, and then inflicting such pain if the threat is not heeded.

It is a military strategy learned from the logic and conduct of nuclear deterrence. Nuclear weapons are incapable of advancing military objectives, their only function is to threaten unacceptable pain and destruction. They cannot offer protection, and their great danger is that the day may come when some in their wisdom conclude that they have no option but to make good on the threat and to use the stick. The use of the nuclear stick would be fatal in a spectacularly fateful way.

In Kosovo, NATO is now enacting the same dynamic, first brandishing the stick, and then, when the threat failed to work, concluding that there was no option but to use the stick to avoid it becoming a hollow gesture. Thus, military force has been turned to once again, with only political, not military, objectives defined. After having described Milosevic as a cunning, wicked tyrant, NATO launches a military action against him, the success of which depends entirely on this cunning, wicked tyrant deciding to do the decent thing, to think first about the welfare of the people under his care, and to reverse his wicked ways. Military action that ignores the obligation to protect the vulnerable in favour of punishing their rulers, invariably ends up weakening the vulnerable and strengthening their corrupt leaders.

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