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Recovering from Kosovo

LONDON – Kosovo’s recent unilateral declaration of independence brought back memories. I publicly opposed NATO’s attack on Serbia – carried out in the name of protecting the Kosovars from Serb atrocities – in March 1999. At that time, I was a member of the Opposition Front Bench – or Shadow Government – in Britain’s House of Lords. The then Conservative leader, William Hague, immediately expelled me to the “back benches.” Thus ended my (minor) political career. Ever since, I have wondered whether I was right or wrong.

I opposed military intervention for two reasons. First, I argued that while it might do local good, it would damage the rules of international relations as they were then understood. The UN charter was designed to prevent the use of force across national lines except for self-defense and enforcement measures ordered by the Security Council. Human rights, democracy, and self-determination are not acceptable legal grounds for waging war.

Secondly, I argued that while there might be occasions when, regardless of international law, human rights abuses are so severe that one is morally obliged to act, Kosovo was not such a case. I considered the “imminent humanitarian disaster” that the intervention was ostensibly aimed at preventing, to be largely an invention. I further argued that non-military means to resolve the humanitarian issue in Kosovo were far from being exhausted, and that the failed Rambouillet negotiation with Serbia in February-March 1999 was, in Henry Kissinger’s words, “merely an excuse to start the bombing.”

This view was vindicated by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Report on Human Rights Violations in Kosovo , published in December 1999. The report showed that the level of violence fell markedly when OSCE monitors were placed in Kosovo following the Holbrooke-Milosevic agreement of September 23, 1998; and that it was only after the monitors were withdrawn on March 20, 1999, in preparation for the bombing that general and systematic violation of human rights began.