How NATO’s “humanitarian intervention” in Kosovo
led to a humanitarian catastrophe
UK Labour leader, Ed Miliband, told the House of Commons on 21 March 2011 that “by taking action in Kosovo we saved the lives of tens of thousands of people” .
He was speaking in a debate on British military intervention
Miliband was not the only one to cite the “success” of
NATO’s “humanitarian intervention” in Kosovo in March 1999 as an indicator that
Today, NATO’s bombing of
The truth is that, far from saving “the lives of tens of thousands
of people”, as Miliband asserted, by bombing
After 78 days of NATO bombing, Serb forces withdrew from Kosovo. This was followed by the ethnic cleansing of nearly a quarter of a million Serbs and other minorities from Kosovo.
NATO’s “humanitarian intervention” in Kosovo led to a humanitarian catastrophe
Averting a humanitarian catastrophe
On 23 March 1999, Prime Minister Tony Blair told the House of Commons:
“We must act: to save thousands of innocent men, women and
children from humanitarian catastrophe, from death, barbarism and ethnic
cleansing by a brutal dictatorship; to save the stability of the Balkan region,
where we know chaos can engulf all of
The following day, the NATO bombing of
On 25 March 1999, UK Defence Secretary, George Robertson, described NATO’s military objectives to the House of Commons in the following terms:
“They are clear cut; to avert an impending humanitarian catastrophe by disrupting the violent attacks currently being carried out by the Yugoslav security forces against the Kosovar Albanians, and to limit their ability to conduct such repression in future. We have not set ourselves the task of defeating the Yugoslav army. We are engaged in an effort to reduce Milosevic's repressive capacity, and we are confident that we will achieve that.” 
It was never obvious how NATO air power could inhibit the
action of Yugoslav forces on the ground in Kosovo. It didn’t.
Within a few days, with reports of widespread killing of Albanians by
Yugoslav forces and hundreds of thousands of Albanians streaming out of Kosovo
At this point, NATO changed its war aims: the purpose of the bombing became to return to their homes these Kosovan Albanian refugees, the vast majority of whom were in their homes when the NATO bombing began and who would have remained in their homes had NATO refrained from bombing.
KLA vs Yugoslav forces
At that time, what was going on in Kosovo was a military campaign by the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA or UCK) for an independent state separate from Yugoslavia and military action by Yugoslav armed forces (police and army) to suppress that campaign.
Before 1998, the KLA military campaign was a sporadic affair but in 1998 it took off dramatically. Before 1998, there might have been 100 KLA attacks in total; in 1998 there were of the order of 2,000. The KLA attacked Yugoslav police, on patrol and in barracks, Serb civilians, and Albanian civilians who were deemed by the KLA to be collaborating with the Serbian regime.
The Yugoslav response was far from gentle. Albanian villages from which attacks on security forces emanated were shelled. Villagers had to flee and camp out in the open, sometimes for long periods. While there was some arbitrary killing of Albanian civilians, it was not widespread. There was also a certain amount of inter-ethnic killing but this cut both ways. Given the intensity of the KLA assault in 1998, the Yugoslav response was surprisingly moderate.
KLA killed more
One fact alone explodes the myth of widespread, largely unprovoked, killing of Albanian civilians, bordering on genocide, by Yugoslav forces. That is the fact that up to mid-January 1999 the KLA were responsible for more deaths in Kosovo than Yugoslav forces.
We have that on the authority of no less a person than the UK Foreign Minister, Robin Cook, who told the House of Commons on 18 January 1999:
“On its part, the Kosovo Liberation Army has committed more breaches of the ceasefire, and until this weekend was responsible for more deaths than the security forces. It must stop undermining the ceasefire and blocking political dialogue.” 
How many people had died? Blair told the House of Commons on 23 March 1999 that “since last summer 2,000 people have died”. However, he didn’t say how many had been killed by Serb forces and how many by the KLA. In fact, he didn’t mention the KLA in his remarks, which painted a picture of Serb “barbarism” in order to justify the imminent NATO bombing campaign against them. Indeed, absent any other information, his audience could be forgiven for believing that Serb forces were responsible for all 2,000 deaths.
This figure of 2,000 deaths prior to the NATO bombing is frequently quoted, for example, by Tim Judah in his book Kosovo: War and revenge, p226. I don’t know the origin of this figure.
In 1998/9, the Serb Ministry of the Interior published
detailed information about KLA activity in Kosovo on a website, www.serb-info.com,
which is no longer accessible. According
to this, the KLA killed 287 people in 1998 up to 27 December 1998, out of a
total of 326 killed by the KLA in the whole campaign up to that time. Of those
killed, 115 were said to be police and 172 civilians, of whom 76 were said to
be ethnic Albanians “loyal to the
There is no way of telling if these figures are any way accurate. It is difficult to believe that these are an understatement, since the Serb Ministry of the Interior did not have had an interest in understating the number of deaths caused by the KLA. If they are accurate and the KLA was responsible for more deaths than Serb forces up to mid-January 1999, then the total number killed in Kosovo up to the end of 1998 must have been six or seven hundred, and probably less than a thousand prior to the NATO bombing in March 1999, in other words less than half of the figure of 2,000 which is normally cited.
From March to September 1998, the war between the KLA and Serb forces went on with great ferocity. By the autumn, Serb forces had the upper hand. Considerable numbers of Albanians were displaced within Kosovo, perhaps as many as 200,000, of which an estimated 50,000 were in the open.
It wasn’t until September that the West reacted. On 23 September, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1199  which demanded, amongst other things, that
“all parties, groups and individuals
immediately cease hostilities and maintain a ceasefire in
Early in October, NATO approved a plan for bombing
Later (25 October 1998), NATO commander General Wesley Clark
and General Klaus Naumann, Chairman of
the NATO Military Committee before and during the conflict in Kosovo,
In addition, 2,000 international inspectors, the Kosovo Verification Mission (KVM), were to be allowed into Kosovo to monitor the ceasefire, under the auspices of the Organisation for Security Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), and NATO was to be allowed to make aerial reconnaissance flights over Kosovo.
That was a humiliating settlement for
It should be noted that no attempt was made to bind the KLA
to the ceasefire provisions of Resolution 1199 by a similar agreement. When asked why not, the usual excuse from
Note also that, by virtue of Security Council Resolution
1160  passed
31 March 1998, all UN members were supposed to be applying an arms embargo to
Tim Judah suggests (ibid, page 188) that one reason for
Milosevic doing a deal with Holbrooke was “because he was given to understand
that Western countries would now move to throttle the KLA’s sources of arms and
finance”. If so, he was misled: despite
the provisions of these UN resolutions, there is no evidence that any effort
was made to inhibit KLA training in Albania and their entry with arms into
Kosovo from Albania, or their fund raising in the Albanian diaspora, chiefly in
Switzerland, Germany and the US. On the
contrary, there is ample evidence that the
same time [October 1998], Milosevic gave an undertaking to the
On 7 June 2000, General Klaus Naumann, to whom Milosevic gave this undertaking, contradicted this assertion by Blair in evidence to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee as part of its inquiry into the Kosovo conflict . He said:
“I think it is fair to say that Milosevic honoured the commitment which he had made to General Clark and myself on 25 October 1998. He withdrew the forces and he withdrew the police. There may have been some difference as to whether there were 200 or 400 policemen more or less but that really does not matter. More or less he honoured the commitment. Then the UCK or KLA filled the void the withdrawn Serb forces had left and they escalated. I have stated this in the NATO Council in October and November repeatedly. In most cases, the escalation came from the Kosovar side, not from the Serb side.”
Gabriel Keller, a deputy head of the Kosovo Verification Mission (KVM), concurred, saying:
“… every pullback by the Yugoslav army or the Serbian police was followed by a movement forward by [KLA] forces [...] OSCE's presence compelled Serbian government forces to a certain restraint [...] and UCK took advantage of this to consolidate its positions everywhere, continuing to smuggle arms from Albania, abducting and killing both civilians and military personnel, Albanians and Serbs alike.” (see Masters of the universe?: NATO's Balkan crusade, edited by Tariq Ali, p163)
As did Wolfgang Petritsch, the EU’s special envoy to Kosovo, speaking on the BBC programme, Moral Combat: NATO at War broadcast on 12 March 2000 (transcript here ):
“The KLA basically came back into old positions that they held before the summer offensive.”
Blair’s account is also significantly different from the regular reports on Kosovo to the House of Commons in late 1998 by his Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook. For example, on 19 October 1998 reporting on the Holbrooke deal, he said:
“We also expect the Kosovo Liberation Army to abide by its commitment to honour a ceasefire. Over the weekend, there have been several breaches of the ceasefire by the Kosovo Liberation Army, including the murder of four policemen. Such continuing acts of hostility serve only the interests of those who wish to undermine the political process and return to war.” 
And on 27 October 1998:
“Since my statement to the House
“There has been a significant return of refugees to settlements in the valleys, and the UN estimates that numbers on the hillsides have fallen from 50,000 to around 10,000.” 
A month later, on 27 November 1998, he made a statement which included the following:
“In Kosovo, there has been steady progress on implementing some elements of the Holbrooke package. There has been a marked improvement in the humanitarian situation. Within two months, the number of refugees on the open hillside has fallen from 50,000 to a few hundred. There has been a substantial reduction in the presence of the Serbian security forces, which have been cut, as agreed, to the level that existed before the conflict began.” 
His statement was silent about KLA activity but in response to a later question he had to admit:
“The killing continues in Kosovo. I regret to report that most of the killings since the Holbrooke agreement have been carried out by the Kosovo Liberation Army. Since the Holbrooke package was signed, 19 members of the Serbian security forces have been killed. Five Kosovo Albanians are known to have been killed – all of them in the full uniform of the Kosovo Liberation Army. I cannot stress too strongly that a ceasefire will hold only if both sides cease firing.” 
It is clear therefore that the Holbrooke agreement allowed the KLA, which had been under severe pressure in the autumn of 1998, to retrieve its position as Yugoslav forces withdrew in fulfilment of the agreement. Instead of maintaining a ceasefire as required by UN Security Council Resolution 1199, the KLA went on the offensive.
On the morning of 16 January, 45 bodies of what appeared to
be Albanian civilians were discovered in the
Despite the fact that, up to this point, the KLA was responsible for more deaths than the Yugoslav security forces (as Robin Cook admitted to the House of Commons a couple of days later), what happened in Racak was taken to be the ultimate proof of Serb barbarism, from which Albanians had to be saved by NATO bombing.
Did Serb forces massacre 45 Albanians in Racak on 15 January 1999? The BBC programme broadcast on 12 March 2000 said of these events:
“Even now, more than a year on, important questions about what happened here remain unanswered.” 
According to the BBC account, the KLA had been using Racak as a base to launch operations against police and had killed 4 policemen in the general vicinity. In response, the police attacked the KLA at Racak on 15 January 1999, by which time most of the villagers had fled. A battle ensued in which 15 KLA personnel were killed and the KLA withdrew from the village. All this was observed by international monitors from safe high ground and when the battle was over, and the KLA had withdrawn, KVM personnel who came down to the village reported nothing unusual. It was not until the following morning, after the KLA had re-entered the village, that the bodies were discovered.
(This BBC account is broadly in line with that of French journalist, Christophe Chatelot, who was in Racak on the afternoon of 15 January 1999 after the Yugoslav forces withdrew from the village and observed nothing out of the ordinary. He reported this in an article, entitled Were the Racak dead really massacred in cold blood?, published in Le Monde on 21 January 1999. See  for an English translation.)
Having visited Racak on 16 January 1999, William Walker announced
at a press conference in Pristina that a Serb massacre of Albanian civilians
had occurred. However, before making his
The pressure was ratcheted up by calling the Yugoslav Government to a conference in Rambouillet in February 1999. With the renewed threat of NATO bombing hanging over its head, the Yugoslav Government accepted proposals for the near independence of Kosovo within the Republic of Serbia, the withdrawal of Yugoslav forces from Kosovo (apart from guards on the borders with Albania and Macedonia) and an international peace-keeping force in Kosovo to supervise implementation.
However, it baulked at Appendix B, on the Status of Multi-National Military
Implementation Force, in the proposed agreement, because Clause 8 of it allowed NATO to occupy not just Kosovo but
the whole of
“NATO personnel shall enjoy, together with their vehicles, vessels,
aircraft, and equipment, free and unrestricted passage and unimpeded access
throughout the FRY [
The Yugoslav Government refused to sign up to this complete surrender of sovereignty.
To do its job, the implementation force only needed access
to Kosovo, which it was granted in Article VIII 3(d); it didn’t need access to
the rest of
Lord Gilbert (former Labour MP, John Gilbert) was a Minister of State in the UK Ministry of Defence before and during the NATO bombing and was closely involved in the day to day conduct of operations. After the event, he was very critical of the inability of NATO to agree to bomb civilian infrastructure from the outset.
Here is what he said about the Rambouillet agreement in evidence to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee on 20 June 2000:
“I think certain people were spoiling for a fight in NATO at that time … . If you ask my personal view, I think the terms put to Milosevic at Rambouillet were absolutely intolerable; how could he possibly accept them; it was quite deliberate. That does not excuse an awful lot of other things, but we were at a point when some people felt that something had to be done, so you just provoked a fight.” 
Henry Kissinger’s view of Clause 8 was as follows:
“The Rambouillet text, which called
Prime Minister Blair’s justification for bombing
A report to the UN Security Council by Kofi Annan dated 17 March 1999 (S/199/293)  based on information supplied by the OSCE gives an overview of the situation on the ground in the previous two months after Racak. It speaks of “persistent attacks and provocations by the Kosovo Albanian paramilitaries” and “disproportionate use of force, including mortar and tank fire, by the Yugoslav authorities in response”. But there was no evidence that Serb forces were engaged in, or were about to engage in, arbitrary killing, bordering on genocide, against Albanian civilians.
Dietmar Hartwig, a German army officer, was the head of the European Union Monitoring Mission (EUMM) in Kosovo from November 1998 until 20 March1999, when the mission was evacuated because of the impending the NATO bombing.
He wrote a letter to German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, on 26 October 2007 describing the situation in Kosovo prior to the NATO bombing. The following is an extract:
“Not a single report submitted in the period from late November 1998 up to the evacuation on the eve of the war mentioned that Serbs had committed any major or systematic crimes against Albanians, nor was there a single case referring to genocide or genocide-like incidents or crimes. Quite the opposite, in my reports I have repeatedly informed that, considering the increasingly more frequent KLA attacks against the Serbian executive, their law enforcement demonstrated remarkable restraint and discipline.
“The clear and often cited goal of the Serbian administration was to observe the Milosevic-Holbrooke Agreement to the letter so not to provide any excuse to the international community to intervene. …
“There were huge ‘discrepancies in
perception’ between what the missions in Kosovo have been reporting to their
respective governments and capitals, and what the latter thereafter released to
the media and the public. This discrepancy can only be viewed as input to
long-term preparation for war against
“Until the time I left Kosovo, there never happened what the media and, with no less intensity the politicians, were relentlessly claiming. Accordingly, until 20 March 1999 there was no reason for military intervention, which renders illegitimate measures undertaken thereafter by the international community. The collective behavior of EU Member States prior to, and after the war broke out, gives rise to serious concerns, because the truth was killed, and the EU lost reliability.” 
See also Hartwig’s evidence in
the Milosevic trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former
NATO provoked a humanitarian catastrophe
If a humanitarian catastrophe of the kind predicted by Prime Minister Blair had been in the offing on 24 March 1999, it was inconceivable that it could have been significantly inhibited, let alone averted, by the NATO bombing.
What happened next proved that: the NATO bombing provoked a
humanitarian catastrophe, which it was powerless to inhibit, let alone avert. A substantial
number of Albanian civilians were killed by Yugoslav forces just after the
bombing began and hundreds of thousands were either driven from their homes by Yugoslav
forces or fled and became refugees in
None of this would have happened had NATO not
embarked on a bombing campaign against
The bombing campaign began by attacking military targets but went on to attack civilian infrastructure, including power plants, bridges and factories – and the headquarters of Serb Radio and Television in Belgrade, and the Chinese embassy.
According to Human Rights Watch, the bombing campaign itself killed at least 500 civilians (see report Civilian deaths in the NATO air campaign ). About 100 of these took place in Kosovo, where in one incident a convoy of Albanian refugees was attacked, killing 73 of them and injuring 36.
As many as 150 civilians died in various
incidents involving the use of cluster bombs until 13 May, when the
A quarter of million ethnically cleansed
After 78 days of bombing, an agreement was reached with the Yugoslav Government along the lines proposed at Rambouillet, but without NATO forces having free access to the whole territory of Yugoslavia – which lends further weight to the view that presence of such a provision in the Rambouillet text was to make sure that the Yugoslav Government wouldn’t sign up to it.
Under the agreement, Yugoslav forces withdrew from Kosovo and the NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR) entered. With 50,000 troops, it was supposed to keep the peace but in reality the KLA were now in control of the most of Kosovo.
An Amnesty International report, Prisoners in our own homes, published in April 2003, describes what happened to ethnic minorities in Kosovo over the ensuing months and years:
“In July 1999, following the signing of the Military Technical Agreement (Kumanovo
Agreement) by the North Atlantic
Treaty Organization (NATO) and the governments of Serbia and the Federal
Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY), all Federal and Serbian police, military and
paramilitary forces were withdrawn from the province before the end of July
1999. By the end of August, the majority of ethnic Albanian refugees who had
fled or had been forcibly expelled to
“Fearing retribution, thousands of Serbs and Roma fled to Serbia or Montenegro or took refuge in mono-ethnic areas in Kosovo as murders, violent attacks, abductions, rapes and attacks on property were perpetrated against Serbs as well as Albanians, Roma and others accused of ‘collaboration’ with the Serb authorities. By the end of August 1999, an estimated 235,000 Serbs and other minorities had left Kosovo; those who remained were concentrated in enclaves and pockets, frequently guarded by KFOR.
“Although not all the violence was ethnically motivated, minorities – particularly, but not exclusively, Serbs and Roma – were both individually and indiscriminately targeted, on the basis of their identity - and irrespective of their individual responsibility for human rights violations, including war crimes perpetrated by Serbian forces. By 10 December 1999, KFOR had reported the murders of 414 individuals - 150 ethnic Albanians, 140 Serbs and 124 people of unknown ethnicity – since the end of June.
“These attacks forced minorities
that remained in their pre-war homes to move into enclaves, or to leave for
Nearly, a quarter of a million people were ethnically cleansed – and there wasn’t a squeak of protest from the West about this humanitarian catastrophe, which took place under the noses of 50,000 NATO troops.
Some of the Serbs forced out had been ethnically cleansed
once before, when an estimated 200,000 Serbs were forced out of the Krajina
No independent Kosovo
The agreement that brought the bombing to a halt was
enshrined in Security Council Resolution1244 ,
passed on 10 June 1999 by 14 votes to 0 (with
“the commitment of all Member States to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and the other States of the region, as set out in the Helsinki Final Act and annex 2”.
Annex 2 envisaged:
“A political process towards the establishment of an interim political framework agreement providing for substantial self-government for Kosovo, taking full account of the Rambouillet accords and the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and the other countries of the region, and the demilitarization of UCK.”
The territorial integrity of
Well, times change.
On 17 February 2008, Kosovo declared itself to be an independent
republic, and was immediately recognised by the