ISSUE 53 WINTER 2006-07

Peace Matters Index

in harm's way

ONLINE contents

- turn off the lights
- mince pies and missiles
- making room for peace
- in harm’s way
- positive response to conflict
- action for peace where you live
- playtime in the Lotz ghetto
- new kind of warfare

- compled issue pdf

‘Everyone has been reluctant, for very understandable reasons, to use force. There’s a lot of voices in the United States today that say “use force”, but they don’t have the responsibility for sending somebody else’s son or daughter into harm’s way. And I do. I don’t want to see the United States bogged down in some guerrilla warfare.’

The speaker: not George W but Bush père, debating NATO action in the Balkans back in 1992. That was the year when Serb artillery besieging Sarajevo targeted the city’s National Library, destroying 2m books: another way to harm people besides killing them. Sarajevo today is ringed by vast Muslim graveyards, clearly visible in the panoramic view from the surrounding heights. You can also pick out the market-place behind the Library, where in 1994 over 260 people were killed or injured by Serbian guns targeting them right here. The Bosnian-Serb general responsible for that attack was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment by the International Tribunal at The Hague in 2003.

It’s over a decade since the US-sponsored Dayton Accords were signed, ending civil war in Bosnia-Hercegovina, though more of a ceasefire than a peace agreement. Over 150,000 had died; more than half the population had been driven from their homes. The systematic slaughter in 1995 of around 7,000 Muslim men and teenage boys from the supposedly ‘safe haven’ of Srebrenica was one of the war’s last atrocities. It was carried out by Serb forces headed by Ratko Mladic; so far he’s evaded capture, but his henchman Radislav Krstic is now serving a 46-year sentence for his part in the massacre.

From 2004 Bosnia (now divided in two virtually autonomous halves, a Muslim-Croat Federation and a Serb Republic) has been monitored by peacekeeping forces from the EU. Like other countries once part of Yugoslavia, Bosnia wants to join the EU – which is now arguing within itself whether much more expansion is feasible or desirable. In elections in 2006 Bosnian Serbs voted against a unified state, preferring their close link with Serbia (the nationalists’ dream of a ‘Greater Serbia’ still lives), so membership of the European community looks unlikely – even though economics experts say it’s the only route out of crisis and poverty in the region.

There are some good signs. Traffic between the Balkan states is reviving. Croats cross the Danube daily to buy bread and cigarettes, which cost less in Serbia, and Serbs cross the other way for cheap electrical goods. You can buy Slovenian fridges, Croatian chocolates, Macedonian wines again. TV stations are linking up, communications restored.

But these small countries recovering after vicious civil war face many difficulties, and the help they are given isn’t always the right help. Unemployment, as one specialist remarks, is ‘the elephant in the room that international experts seem reluctant to tackle’. Plenty is ploughed into the free market, but the labour market, trade unions and cooperatives get little. There’s talk of ‘participation’ and ‘empowerment’, but privatisation has benefited the few at the expense of the many. Social welfare – crucial for reducing inequalities within civil society – isn’t being addressed. The market was supposed to provide, but it has other more selfish priorities, and NGOs haven’t enough resources to fill the gap. For venal reasons, peace-building in the Balkans isn’t the bottom-up process it should be.

In addition, says a reporter on the ground, ‘Serb, Croat and Bosniak thugs have exchanged ethnic hatred for cooperation in cigarette-smuggling and prostitution rings. Crime, not ideology, has become the wellspring of violence.’

And then there’s Kosovo, desperately seeking independence. Since June 1999 it’s been run as a UN protectorate. Many of the Serb minority have left; the 100,000 or so Serbs still there are living in enclaves and ghettos, with battalions from NATO-led military (Kfor) positioned to protect them from attack. There’s not much hope for the thousands of Kosovan Serb refugees in Serbia, either: a third of Serbia’s working population is unemployed. Meanwhile Serb professionals in Kosovo – such as teachers and health workers –get their salaries from Serbia, but have little actually to do. And across Kosovo there are daily difficulties to face, such as frequent power cuts and other demoralising shortages.

In times of discontent people may turn to causes that might lift them out of it. Nationalism has often been the Balkan cause of choice. Slobodan Milosevic came to power on the nationalist issue of Kosovo. Ex-paramilitary leader Vojislav Seselj, founder and still head of Serbia’s extreme right Radical Party, is in prison awaiting trial for war crimes, but his Party members have been gaining support among the Serbian electorate. Meanwhile Serbia’s government has announced that it’s looking for marketing advice. ‘No-one,’ says a Serb commentator, ‘dares to say we’re having to pay the price of the wars lost by Milosevic. Our leaders have no plan or strategy, which is why they talk about rebranding.’ Serbia, like Bosnia, can’t yet look to membership of the EU to improve its lot: the EU won’t even consider it until Ratko Mladic is handed over to the Hague tribunal. And of course Serbia refuses to countenance an independent Kosovo. In 2006 the Serbian government drew up a new constitution, approved by referendum. It contains a clause stating that Kosovo is an inalienable part of Serbia. A general election was announced for January 2007.

As a result, UN talks on the future status of Kosovo were abruptly halted. Their predicted conclusion: since neither Serbs nor Albanians look likely to compromise, a decision on Kosovo will be made – and imposed (how?) – by the international community. The chairman said he would make a statement after the elections in Serbia. Tension has begun to rise.

In 1995 President Clinton, as reluctant as his predecessor had been, authorised NATO planes to bomb Bosnian Serb forces, aiming to end the Serb campaign of what was newly termed ‘ethnic cleansing’ against Bosnian Muslims. In 1999 NATO planes were sent out again, this time against Serb military attacking Kosovan Albanians. (The reminder ‘Don’t forget we have fought in support of Muslims’ crops up from time to time in discussions of the so-called ‘war on terror’.)

NATO leaders in March 1999 were convinced a couple of days’ bombing would achieve surrender. But the Serb forces responded by stepping up their attacks. Hundreds of Albanians were murdered, thousands more driven out of their homes, and whole villages set alight. The NATO strikes continued for over 3 months, and could be said to have worsened the plight of the people they were supposed to protect.

In 1914, just after the First World War began in Sarajevo, an eminent historian wrote to the British Foreign Office. He foresaw big trouble ‘unless the southern Slav question is solved…. Only by treating the problem as an organic whole, by avoiding patchwork remedies, can we hope to remove one of the chief danger areas of Europe.

Today, peace specialists give similar advice. ‘If one lesson can be learned from Kosovo, it is that non-military intervention must occur with greater effort at an earlier date…. By ignoring the troubles in Kosovo, the international community sent a message to Albanians: We will do nothing to help you until you take up arms. The NATO campaign could never do what non-military intervention could have done in the 1980s: prepare Kosovo to be a functioning democratic society…. NATO helped perpetuate the belief in the Balkans that power comes only through violence.’

So much, then, for ‘good’ excuses for military action, articulated by leaders like Tony Blair in language that has grown increasingly hollow over the years: ‘This war was fought for a fundamental principle: that every human being regardless of race and religion or birth has an inalienable right to live free from persecution’. ‘Humanitarian intervention’ was the preferred term for the war against Serbia. But what is war if not persecution? How can destructive violence form any part of ‘humanitarian’ action?

In fact, the international community was again forced to confront a humanitarian disaster at least partly the result of its own neglect. When Milosovic cracked down on Kosovo at the end of the 1980s, Kosovo’s leader, Ibrahim Rugova, called for nonviolent resistance. Visitors to Kosovo in the early 1990s were deeply impressed by the Albanian Kosovars’ pacific stoicism, patience and ingenuity in running their lives and institutions, despite intense Serb pressure and hostility. Yet in 1995 nobody invited Ibrahim Rugova to the Dayton peace talks, where Kosovo wasn’t even mentioned. As a result, radical Albanians in Kosovo lost patience and began attacking Serb police and other officials. The Kosovo Liberation Army was founded, and a path was set towards violence – violence that could easily have been prevented by intelligent, forward-thinking diplomacy.

From the day the first bombs were dropped from an aircraft (probably over Libya in 1911) air attacks have become a favourite military strategy for nations that can afford it – not least because it limits loss of military lives. No planes were shot down during the 1945 incendiary raid on Tokyo. The Enola Gay returned safely from Hiroshima. No airmen died in the 74 days of air strikes on Kosovo. Nowadays openly targeting civilian areas is frowned on, but the grim fact remains: whatever the stated or intended targets of air attacks, they almost invariably turn out to be most destructive to civilians, and society itself becomes the target.

In that sense bombing from the air (no moral high ground up there) is anything but ‘precise’, whatever the claims made for it. Countries targeted by such ‘surgical’ strikes could justifiably accuse their attackers of the very barbarism for which ‘smart bombs’ are a punishment as well as a supposed deterrent. The physical distance between the bomb and its target also creates a psychological distance between attacker and the grim reality of the attack, often fatal for civilians, on the distant ground below.

It’s obviously tempting for a nation with an air force to regard air power as ‘clean’. But such ‘surgery’ can kill; does kill. The damage done is as brutish as if we had hacked civilians to pieces with our own hands, personally dismembered their children, poisoned their water, laid waste their land and trashed their homes.

Tackling harm by committing harmful actions can never be right; and any argument that suggests it is morally defensible has no moral foundation. There are other roads to take in dealing with conflict. Because they often seem hard to find, or need to be newly laid, they tend to be the roads not taken; but there’s no excuse for that. There are techniques for resolving conflict without violence; potential strife can be predicted and prevented. But for political and military reasons – as well as economic and social ones – people in power don’t dare to think imaginatively, ‘outside the box’. It’s down to us, the civilians, to find representatives who have had enough of threats and violence in the world arena. There are other ways than harm’s way, and here’s one mentioned earlier: ‘non-military intervention, with greater effort, and at an earlier date.’

Margaret Melicharova


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