War crimes and proconsulship in the Balkans

The logic of contemporary post-war intervention and proconsulship in both Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina is impossible to divorce from concepts of collective national guilt.

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Conflict Background


By Matthew Parish

Political liberalism is a tradition within international relations that finds its origins in the thinking of US president, Woodrow Wilson. An academic and an idealist, Wilson thought that relations between states could and should be based upon moral principles rather than the brutal and ever-shifting vaguaries of the balance of power that characterised European diplomacy in the nineteenth century. This ideology has recurrently infected US politics, from the drive to promote decolonisation in the aftermath of World War II to the fight against communism in Indochina. It has also been a pervasive theme of western foreign policy in the Balkans since the end of the Cold War. As Yugoslavia disintegrated into bloody violence, US President Bill Clinton’s team of advisors determined that some sides were more responsible than others. The Serbs and to a lesser extent the Croats were brutal butchers, while Bosnia’s Muslims and Kosovo’s Albanians were for the most part victims of aggression inflicted by others.

This factual conclusion shaped the US administration’s moral vision of how post-war Balkan political geography ought to be configured. Bosnia’s Serbs and Croats must not be rewarded for their aggression. Bosnia must remain a unified, multi-ethnic country, notwithstanding the efforts of two of its three ethnic groups to tear the territory apart. By contrast Serbia must be dismembered, because Serbs cannot be trusted to treat their Albanian minority properly. This inference – from atrocity to moral outcome – would have suited Wilson’s reasoning admirably.

The premise of this argument – that Serbs in particular where disproportionately barbarous – is contested, but significant empirical evidence in its favour exists at least in the Bosnian case. Atrocities committed against Muslim civilians in Srebrenica, Brcko, Omarska, Zvornik and other places were broadcast around the world and shocked the conscience of the international community. The siege of Sarajevo is cited as another heinous war crime, and the arbitrary shelling of a city of half a million people for three and a half years was a shocking cruelty. Sieges usually are so. The majority of commentators accept that Serb forces were disproportionately responsible for the carnage of the Bosnian war. Whereas the population of Bosnia in 1991 was 44% Bosniak, 31% Serb and 17% Croat, the number of deaths in the Bosnian war were 66% Bosniaks, 25% Serbs and 8% Croats. Thus relative to population sizes, Bosniaks suffered disproportionately while Croats were disproportionately fortunate.

Nevertheless to attribute the relative greater suffering of Bosniaks to the inherent wickedness of the other two groups would be an unfortunate caricature. Rather the statistical disparity arose because Bosniaks had access to fewer armaments. Serbs could kill more people because they had better weapons. To suggest things would have been otherwise had the relative military power of the sides been reversed is to engage in insensible racial stereotyping of a kind depressingly frequent in the political narratives of the Western Balkans. The historical record suggests that all three sides were capable of committing war crimes in significant quantities when the opportunity to do so presented itself. The language of good and evil is a tempting, but also a lazy and ultimately unsatisfying explanation of the horrors of war.

Assertions of moral inequality are still harder to maintain in the context of the dispute between Serbia and Kosovar Albanians that led to the NATO bombing of Serbia in April 1999, Kosovo’s subsequent occupation by an international peacekeeping force and the province’s eventual unilateral declaration of independence, with western support, in 2008. Ethnic unrest escalated in Kosovo in early 1996 with the formation of the Kosovo Liberation Army, a violent secessionist movement. Its activities led to a cycle of reprisals by Serbian security forces. Accurate figures are hard to confirm, but before NATO intervention began in April 1999 several hundred Serbs and perhaps a thousand Albanians had been killed. The narrative, common at the time, that Serb forces must be bombed into submission because they were uniquely evil is therefore difficult to sustain. In terms of numbers of casualties, Kosovo was no Bosnia. Equally the notion that a bombing campaign was necessary to save lives, although superficially tempting in the face of media reports that Kosovo was a locus for atrocities, was false. Far more people died after the bombing campaign began (perhaps a further 10,000) than before it, as the air attacks killed civilians directly and intensified the antagonists’ mutual carnage.

“The responsibility to protect”, an international legal doctrine drawn up amidst the Kosovo conflict, assumes the existence of great evil which the international community must intervene to prevent. This is troubling in the Balkan context, because the rigid ethical distinctions one might seek to draw between wrongdoers (Serbs) and victims (Bosniaks / Albanians) becomes less certain with scrutiny. It is the moral judgment of mass media and journalists looking for dramatic stories, not that associated with careful gathering of facts. Nevertheless these simplistic analyses are essential premises in the arguments for international intervention. The differential conclusions drawn by the international community about the necessary future political geographies of Bosnia and Kosovo are justified by moral arguments. Bosnia must be held together because that is what the Bosniaks want and they were the victims; Kosovo must be independent because that is what the Albanians want and they were victims. Republika Srpska was a genocidal creation and hence its independence agenda must be undermined; Kosovo was not and hence its independence agenda should be supported. The differential treatment of Bosnian sovereignty and Kosovar independence cannot be justified otherwise.

Even if we accept that one side in a war acted disproportionately barbarously, the inference that therefore the west should step into a conflict and shape the rivals’ future political relations, by cutting some states apart and holding others together, does not follow. It is questionable as a matter of moral logic, because it assumes a doctrine of collective responsibility. Why should the political future of an innocent Serb be determined by the actions of other Serbs who have acted reprehensibly? Surely innocent Serbs should be entitled to pursue a common political agenda; denying them the right to do this must be premised upon the notion that they are morally responsible for the wrongdoing of others with whom they have an ethnic association.

Contemporary Bosnian Serb politicians were not involved in the atrocities of the 1992-95 Bosnian war. Nevertheless their explicit agenda for dissolution of the country is decreed illegitimate by the international community due to the actions of other wartime Serbs in pursuing ethnic cleansing. The logic of contemporary post-conflict intervention is impossible to divorce from concepts of collective national guilt. This was understood by Paddy Ashdown, Bosnia’s most activist international proconsul (2002-2006), when he said “[t]he major burden of guilt is on the Serbs … [t]his country is about history, and unless the Serbs in particular come to some understanding of this history, we cannot build a stable state”.

An even more fundamental objection to the logic of post-conflict intervention is the assumption that anything the international community does can change political facts created by war. By the end of the fighting it is usually too late. Hence international involvement, if it occurs, must take place early. Western intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo neatly illustrates this thesis. In Bosnia, international reaction before late 1995 was weak. UNPROFOR failed in its mandate because it lacked adequate resources or political will. The country was divided into a patchwork of mono-ethnic bantustans as a result of forced population movements in the early months of the conflict.

An attempt was made to compensate for this inaction at the end of the war, by imposing an international governor upon the country with a mandate to rebuild central multi-ethnic institutions and undermine the authority of regional government entities. This project failed because the Office of the High Representative had neither the military nor civilian resources that would have been necessary to reintegrate the country’s divided populations and achieve returns of refugees in any significant numbers. Mono-ethnic local politics had ingrained itself during the conflict and central government had collapsed. This proved impossible to revitalise at the end of the war because there were no multi-ethnic political constituencies left and hence moderate politicians without nationalist agendas were incapable of election. Only through threats and oppression could Bosnia’s High Representatives create a façade of central government, which would subsequently evaporate once the international community withdrew its interest in the country.

By contrast in Kosovo, international intervention was military in nature and had a decisive impact. Serbia was bombed into submission until it withdrew from its rebellious province. A NATO military force then entered Kosovo and secured the territory’s de facto independence. De jure independence followed almost a decade later but was always inevitable. Nevertheless Kosovo’s international civilian administrators achieved little. Their mandate was to rebuild government institutions, reintegrate the Serb and Albanian populations and protect the Serb minority from Albanian domination. None of these things was achieved with any measure of success. The country’s government structures remain exceptionally frail and corruption is rife. Serbs are now confined to a handful of ghettos in which the central government has little influence. As in Bosnia, rival ethnic groups could not be forced to live together or to share political space by virtue of international decree.

Proconsulship, in the form of a team of international administrators rebuilding a shattered society after civil conflict, has a poor track record in the Balkans. Wars are fought for political goals, and whatever their outcome it is exceptionally difficult for foreign powers to intervene once the outcome of war is settled. This calls into question the notion of state-building, understood as civilian administration supported by international peacekeeping troops. Such adventures may be tempting, driven by abhorrence of civilian casualties made explicit by modern mass media. Srebrenica was genocide, and the international community would intervene after the event to ensure such atrocities did not yield political dividends. But it is always better to intervene decisively in a conflict before the political landscape has been irreversibly altered.

Nations are often reluctant to use force to intervene in another country’s ethnic disputes, as the current Syrian crisis illustrates. Both Iraq and Afghanistan illustrate the perils of doing so precipitously. But if military intervention is unpredictable, expensive and potentially open-ended, the industry of post-conflict reconstruction is still less attractive, at least so far as the receiving state is concerned. To the extent international administration is intended to change the natural political dynamic of a post-conflict society, it is unlikely to succeed. Domestic officials will just wait until the international administrators leave, and subsequently revert to their original agendas. The idea that ethnic hostility can be undermined by foreign supervisors inculcating liberal political values seems naïve indeed. If those values already existed within the society, then ethnic civil conflict would presumably never have occurred. Imposing liberalism is a contradiction in terms, and attempting to do so after war has intensified ethnic hatreds defies common sense. Political values take centuries of inculcation, and state-building missions try in vain to prove themselves exceptions to this iron rule.

In civil wars, neighbours kill neighbours. No moral lens is sufficiently discriminating to parse the horrors of harrowing ethnic conflict. The suggestion that foreign powers might impose their rudimentary ethical perspectives upon the post-war politics of a nation riven by racial animosities they can barely understand is fanciful and pernicious. For western foreign policy, it is a fatal conceit.

Matthew Parish is a partner with the international law firm Holman Fenwick Willan in Geneva. He was formerly the Chief Legal Advisor to the International Supervisor of Brcko. He is a frequent writer and commentator on Balkan affairs.

His first book, ‘A Free City in the Balkans: Reconstructing a Divided Society in Bosnia, is published by I.B.Tauris, and his second book, ‘Mirages of International Justice: The Elusive Pursuit of a Transnational Legal Order, is published by Edward Elgar. His third book, ‘Ethnic Civil War and the Promise of Law’, will be published by Edward Elgar in 2012. www.matthewparish.com

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