CHICAGO: NATO's stated reason for bombing Yugoslavia is to enforce international law prohibitions on war crimes, crimes against humanity, and perhaps even genocide. United States officials in particular justify NATO's attacks in legalistic terms. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright maintains that NATO is bombing "to uphold the law." The U.S. Senate is pressuring President Clinton to ensure that the war crimes tribunal in The Hague indicts Slobodan Milosevic. David Scheffer, the U.S. Ambassador for War Crimes, proclaims NATO's unprecedented enforcement of human rights to be a "watershed" for international law.
The problem with these legalistic arguments is that NATO itself is flouting international law. The NATO operation shows how the efficacy of international human rights law depends on its selective application. NATO is violating international law in order to uphold it, and NATO would not be upholding international law if it were subject to it.
Most egregiously, NATO has violated the United Nations Charter. In large part out of concern for human rights, the Charter prohibits one nation's use of force against another unless the Security Council authorizes the attack or unless the attack is a self-defensive response to armed aggression across recognized borders. NATO's attack satisfies neither pre-condition. The illegality of NATO's attack, combined with NATO's destruction of civilian targets, might also constitute war crimes.
Yugoslavia is pressing many of these legal claims before the International Court of Justice. In addition, as the UN's chief human rights officer recently noted, NATO's possible war crimes fall within the jurisdiction of the same war crimes tribunal that might indict Mr. Milosevic.