A good war?

Human rights groups battle over whether NATO's Kosovo mission can be defended on humanitarian grounds.

Published May 19, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

The future of Yugoslavia is not all that's at risk thanks to continued NATO bombings. The fallout from the Balkan conflict could well change the definition of universal human rights, as well as the way the world's rights advocates think about the notion of a "just war."

With various human rights groups both defending and opposing the bombings for humanitarian reasons, clearly the rhetoric of human rights is already being exploited to meet political ends. Wayward allied bombing attacks, which have hit Yugoslav civilians buildings and killed Kosovar Albanian refugees, have only intensified the debate and worsened the cleavage between human rights organizations around the world.

"If we are bombing Serbia in the name of the human rights of the Kosovars, what about the rights of the Serbians whose rights are ignored by our bombs?" said Margot Light, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics and Politics. "Indeed, what are Kosovar rights if there are hundreds of thousands more refugees now, as a direct and indirect result of the airstrikes?"

International relations and human rights scholars like Light are worried that claims for universal human rights will be much harder to prove after the war. They are responding not only to a potential backlash against the NATO bombing but to a prominent 1990s debate launched by Asian governments and Western cultural relativists, who argue that human rights as defined by the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights are culturally specific and based upon Western traditions of Enlightenment philosophy, Christianity and individualism.

Also high on human rights defenders' worry list is whether the NATO campaign can be deemed a legal war, as it is being waged without the authorization of the U.N. Security Council or any other international governing body. "Now NATO has become a competing force that may circumvent the United Nations -- which includes China and Russia, the 'less friendly members'--in wars and interventions," said Micheline Ishay, human rights director of the Graduate School of International Studies at the University of Denver.

The question of legality is complicated, however, by whether the NATO intervention can be deemed a just war, since the laws of the United Nations abetted bureaucratic wrangling rather than a stop to the bloodshed. "[W]hen the drafters of the U.N. Charter set its limits on state power, they responded to the crises precipitating World War II," University of California Davis Law Professor Michael Glennon wrote in the recent issue of Foreign Affairs. "The recurrent problem today is intrastate violence, which is not addressed effectively in the Charter."

Bryan Hehir, a professor at both the Harvard Divinity School and its School of International Affairs, agrees that the events of the late 20th century call for a reevaluation of the laws of war. He believes that atrocities in the former Yugoslavia and the failure of the international community to prevent them have obligated the United States and its allies to take action for moral and ethical reasons. "My support of Kosovo as a just cause is part of a larger argument, which calls for recasting the moral-legal-political calculus of policy in the direction of justifying some interventions for humanitarian reasons," he argued.

Yet many human rights defenders are convinced that the United States and its allies are not capable of this kind of humanitarian arbitration. Jan Olberg, director of the Swedish Transnational Foundation for Peace, has said: "One is increasingly led to believe that the whole catastrophe was caused by leading decision makers ignoring early warnings from the region and top-level military expertise, by the U.S. president being 'distracted' and by bad judgment and a gross underestimation of the complexity of what is at stake. Or, you may say, by a dangerous combination of hubris and human folly, of too much military power combined with too little intellectual power."

There is also fear that NATO's campaign may set a precedent for a dangerous and propagandistic form of military humanism. Noam Chomsky has warned: "The right of humanitarian intervention is likely to be invoked in coming years, now that the Cold War pretexts have lost their efficacy. There is no serious doubt that the NATO bombings further undermine what remains of the fragile structure of international law."

The human rights community is certainly tearing along political and philosophical lines, but nowhere are divisions more acute than along geographical ones. Southeastern European human rights groups, such as the Greek Helsinki Monitor, have denounced NATO and are calling for a cessation to the bombings. And members of human rights organizations in the new NATO countries of Central Europe are questioning whether the traditional human rights position of neutrality may be outmoded if the NATO campaign leads to the permanent expulsion of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo, or worse, a wider Balkan war.

Dimitrina Petrova, a former member of the first post-communist parliament in Bulgaria who now heads the European Roma Rights Center in Budapest, said:

The human rights community in the region is confused. We have been trying not to abandon our traditional political neutrality, but we must not overlook that our silence on the issue is interpreted as continued support for NATO military strikes. At this stage, I strongly oppose further military action of whatever kind. The continuation of the NATO air campaigns--and even more so a follow-up of ground forces in Kosovo -- is likely to cause a greater loss of life and more severe violations of human rights than if an immediate cease-fire is opted for today.

Not surprisingly, human rights advocates in the Balkans, and especially Serbia, are most outspoken in their condemnation of the NATO intervention. Vojin Dimitrijevic, former vice-chairman of the UN Human Rights Committee and spokesperson for the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights, wrote in an open letter:

We regard NATO's decision "to use violence for humanitarian reasons" as a sign of the incompetence and impotence of the U.S. and EU policies in regard to Kosovo, rather than an unavoidable move after all other efforts have failed. The airstrikes erased in one night the results of 10 years of hard work of groups of courageous people in nongovernmental organizations and the democratic opposition.

"Obviously you cannot bomb people into democracy," said Dusan Makavejev, the Belgrade-born film director and human rights advocate. "Let us recall that the Berlin Wall fell from inside and by itself."

In light of these arguments, American human rights defenders are finding themselves in the uncomfortable position of either endorsing the NATO bombing mission in the hope that it will lead to a diplomatic resolution -- as Physicians for Human Rights and Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights have done -- or remaining neutral, like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, while witnessing an increasingly conflicted humanitarian mission led by their country.

"The intervention can be regarded as a double-edged sword," said Karis Hall, a member of the Balkans Coordination Group of Amnesty International. "To the extent it is regarded as successful and fair, it will further the possibility of such interventions in the future. If, however, NATO uses the human rights issue to justify actions that are viewed as excessive or flawed, future international human rights initiatives will be tarnished."

By Tamara Straus

Tamara Straus is a San Francisco freelance writer and magazine editor.

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