Kosovo lessons

The hardest stage in Kosovo - building a stable, long-term peace - is just beginning. As NATO leaders face this challenge, they also need to plan better ways to deal with future large-scale human-rights crises.

The challenges of peace-building in Kosovo are rapidly becoming evident. The undermanned KFOR peacekeeping forces are increasingly caught in the middle, as ethnic Albanians seek to terrorize the province's remaining ethnic Serb civilians. An indiscriminate urge for vengeance seems to dominate the motives of many ethnic-Albanian gunmen. NATO leaders' hopes of building a stable, multiethnic democracy in Kosovo now look distinctly tattered.

I hate to say "I told you so" at such a tragic point. But in two columns this year, I warned that NATO's resort to massive military escalation would signal to local Kosovo actors that military might can define "right." The forces loyal to Slobodan Milosevic and now the ethnic Albanian irregulars both seem to have learned that lesson. It's hard to see what KFOR can do to prevent Kosovo's descent into warring ethnic enclaves.

It wasn't just the degree of force NATO used that was destabilizing. It was the way that force was brought to bear. By limiting itself to air power, NATO was incapable of providing the actual protection the ethnic Albanians needed in Kosovo during the crucial weeks of Mr. Milosevic's massive genocide against them. He and the other perpetrators of the genocide remain responsible for their actions.

But NATO leaders must acknowledge that although all of us knew what Milosevic was capable of, no one had assembled a viable protection force before the West threw down the gauntlet. The strength of NATO's inhibition against incurring pilot casualties multiplied the problems. It forced NATO pilots to fly at heights from which few strikes against the Yugoslav military had any chance of success. Rather than sticking to military targets, NATO bombed many other facilities that were, at best, "dual-use," but in many cases civilian in function. Administration officials even indicated that by striking "economic" targets, they hoped to provoke the Serbian public to rise up against Milosevic. That may seem clever. But any action that entangles civilians in military operations is forbidden under the laws of war. The 1977 "Protocol I" to the Geneva Conventions states that, "The civilian population ... shall not be the object of attack." It also says, "Indiscriminate attacks are prohibited ... [including attacks] ... which employ a method or means of combat which cannot be directed at a specific military objective."

Can we shrug and say, "Well, what's past is past"? No. Precisely because the US is such a major force in world affairs, we can't do that. How the US acts strongly influences other governments. The way the US-led coalition fought against Yugoslavia saved the lives of combatants at the inevitable cost of many noncombatant lives (both Serb and ethnic Albanian). This undermined the laws of war, and risks giving "international humanitarian intervention" a bad name.

What can we learn for the future? When faced with a Milosevic, can we find ways of sticking up for global human rights standards that don't just end up making things worse? Giving strong and steady support to citizen groups fighting repression overseas is one way. (In eastern Europe, it was unarmed local citizen groups, not NATO, that overthrew the Soviets.)

Forming large international squads of civilians capable of humanitarian interposition and nonviolent conflict resolution - like the OSCE monitors who were so disastrously withdrawn from Kosovo in March - could be another.

And in the meantime, what is needed in Kosovo is smart and sensitive diplomacy - certainly not more smart bombs.

*Helena Cobban writes on foreign affairs from Charlottesville, Va.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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