As reports mount of Serbian forces and paramilitary gangs committing widespread slaughter of ethnic Albanians, the US is deliberating whether genocide is being committed in Kosovo.
Should it officially declare such an assessment, the US may be forced to reconsider its refusal to send troops into the embattled province.
Officially, the US and its allies still insist there are no plans to dispatch ground forces. They say the expansion Sunday of the five-day air war from air defenses and large military targets to Serbian police, army, and irregular units in Kosovo is designed to halt the alleged atrocities.
But some US officials say NATO could begin reviewing other options, including the use of troops, should bombs and missiles fail to stop the pogroms, mass executions, and expulsions being reported by refugees and recorded by aerial surveillance of Kosovo. "The next 48 hours - and how effective [air attacks] are - will determine whether or not there are discussions on changing strategy closer to ground operations," says one US official. "If things don't work, then we'd take another look."
Pressure to reconsider the use of ground forces is likely to rise amid assessments by governments and independent experts that the alleged atrocities and ethnic cleansing constitute genocide.
"Genocide is starting here," German Defense Minister Rudolph Scharping declared Sunday in a television interview.
The US official says State Department experts began this weekend looking at whether the alleged slaughters and expulsions constitute genocide under a 1948 international treaty prompted by the Holocaust.
Obligation to halt genocide
The United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide - signed by virtually every nation - not only requires signatories to prosecute the most egregious of war crimes. They must also prevent them, an obligation some experts say mandates intervention in Kosovo by NATO troops.
The convention requires that signatories intervene in conflicts in which people are targeted "in whole or in part" for their faith, nationality, ethnicity, or race. The definition goes beyond mass murder to encompass forced expulsions, mass rapes, and incarceration in inhumane conditions.
Doing what's possible
"If you have the means to prevent genocide and don't do it, you are legitimatizing it," says Claudio Grossman, an international law expert at American University in Washington. "We are in the presence of genocide now and it's important to ... do everything we can to stop it."
Yet because of political priorities, the Clinton administration and its allies did not invoke the convention twice this decade - in Rwanda and Bosnia -- where mass killings were generally described as genocide. Indeed, it was only in his March 24 television address as airstrikes were under way against Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic that President Clinton for the first time acknowledged that ethnic cleansing by Belgrade-backed Bosnian Serbs constituted genocide against Bosnian Muslims and Croats.
It is unclear what determination the administration's deliberations on Kosovo will produce.
Just as in Bosnia and Rwanda, Mr. Clinton is deeply reluctant to dispatch American troops. Not only is there no direct threat to the country's security, but there is little support for such an operation in the Republican-controlled Congress. Furthermore, there are differences within the government over interpreting the genocide convention, with some experts insisting it obliges nations to halt genocide only within their own borders. This was an interpretation that provided Clinton with an escape hatch in the case of Bosnia, says Paul Williams, a former State Department legal expert who participated in those deliberations.
"Legal niceties, that's what they were arguing about, and I fear that's what they are arguing about now," worries Mr. Williams, who advised the ethnic Albanians at the recent Kosovo peace talks in France. "But I would say that most international law lawyers hold that states parties are obliged [by the treaty] to prevent genocide wherever it may occur."