War and humanitarianism: From Kosovo to Libya?

The three western governments that have, with a little help from two Arab governments, been undertaking very lethal military action against Libya in the past eight days have worked to “justify” those acts of war largely in the name of either ending an existing humanitarian crisis or preventing one that was extremely imminent. In line with the too-common parlance in western countries, this war has thus been described as a “humanitarian intervention”– although war itself is anywhere and always an intrinsically anti-humanitarian undertaking.
In wars, the combatants may try to restrict their killing to members of the opposing army, but there is always a high risk of the “collateral” killing of noncombatants (as 9.5 years and counting of US-led war in Afghanistan depressingly continue to demonstrate.) In wars, too, when the armed forces of one side incapacitate roads, bridges, power lines, ports, airports, telephone systems or any of the other infrastructure of modern life– infrastructure that may or may not have military utility but that is always a necessary underpinning of normal, modern, civilian life– then civilians can very speedily be pushed into a complex humanitarian emergency in which hundreds or thousands of lives are lost.
In Kosovo/Serbia in early March of 1999, the NATO leaders “justified” their bombing of Belgrade and other locations inside Serbia as being necessary in order to halt ongoing ethnic cleansing, mass expulsions, and other linked atrocities that, NATO leaders alleged, the Serbian government forces were committing inside Kosovo at the time. However, that account of what was happening was always deeply flawed. Until a few days before the NATO bombing of Serbia began, there had been an OSCE monitoring teams inside Kosovo investigating and reporting on all allegations of atrocities; and they had been reporting that the situation had been easing somewhat over what it had been before… But as the Clinton administration and its allies decided they needed to ratchet up the tensions and prepare for a possible war, they managed to persuade OSCE to pull its monitoring teams out.
Then, once the NATO bombing of Serbia started (with Tomahawk missiles and various forms of navy-launched bombardment, much of it coming out of Italy… sound familiar?), one of the immediate responses of Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic and his supporters was to launch in earnest that exact same ethnic cleansing campaign inside Kosovo that the bombardment had allegedly been designed to forestall! Given the tensions that had long simmered between Serbs and Kosovars inside Kosovo, Milosevic’s reaction was entirely predictable. Hundreds of thousands of terrified Kosovars fled their homes and made the difficult trek to Albania. Photos of that ‘trail of tears’ were widely circulated in the west as a way of “justifying” the war.
Given what is happening in Libya today, it is definitely worth going back to study the history of the NATO war for Kosovo. As Wikipedia tells us, in mid-May 1999, around 6 weeks into that 10-week war, Clinton’s “Defense” Secretary William Cohen told CBS that,

    “We’ve now seen about 100,000 military-aged men missing… they may have been murdered.”

The allegation there was that Milosevic’s forces had quite possibly killed those 100,000 Kosovar men. However, Cohen’s alarmism turned out to be a great exaggeration (if it was, indeed, based on any firm evidence at all.) Wikipedia tells us that

    In the 2008 joint study by the Humanitarian Law Center (an NGO from Serbia and Kosovo), The International Commission on Missing Person, and the Missing Person Commission of Serbia made a name-by-name list of 13,472 war and post-war victims in Kosovo killed in the period from January 1998 to December 2000.[72][73][74] The list contained the name, date of birth, military or civilian status of victim, type of injury/missing, time and place of death. There are 9,260 Albanians and 2,488 Serbs, as well as 1,254 victims that can not be identified by ethnic origin.[75]

First of all, note the long period of time covered by those figures. Then, remember that they are counting deaths of both combatants and noncombatants.
Clearly, Cohen was exaggerating. (In the prosecutions that the ICTY launched after the war, members of the NATO-supported Kosovo Liberation Army were convicted, along with many Serbian leaders. In case anyone’s interested in all that… )
… So what was the situation in Libya in the run-up to NATO’s present war? From early February on there had been civilian street protests in several Libyan cities, some of which were met with force from the army. Then fairly early on, the rebels in Benghazi and I believe other eastern cities managed to bust into armories and pull out and distribute large amounts of weaponry for their own use; and they were also winning defections from numerous members of the government forces. Those armed rebels adopted a pre-revolutionary flag to fight under and started to advance toward Tripoli.
Not surprisingly, during those weeks of mounting civil unrest, many of the foreign migrant workers in the country became increasingly scared until they started to flee the hotspots. There were many reports that black Africans, in particular, were treated very badly by the rebels. But by about March 7 there certainly was a large-scale, existing humanitarian emergency: the flight of the migrant workers who tried to reach and succeeded in reaching the borders with Tunisia and Egypt. Once over the border, their situation remained very dire until those two host governments, with some help from local NGOs and a lot from international aid organizations and foreign governments, were able to provide tents, basic humanitarian supplies, and onward transport to their home countries.
That is what a humanitarian emergency looks like. I have seen no allegations at all that the Libyan government did anything to prevent or block the arrival of the humanitarian supplies that were needed to deal with that flood of refugees.
In addition, however, during the week of March 12, the Libyan government forces started to make rapid advances in the counter-attack they launched against the rebel forces that had been trying to reach Tripoli from the east, and managed to advance quite far toward the east. Libyan tanks and perhaps some planes launched ordnance against rebel-held cities. The rebel leaders and spokespeople expressed understandable concern that if the government forces were able to retake eastern cities like Benghazi or Tobruk, they would undertake mass atrocities against the residents of those cities.
In other words there was a (probably, but not necessarily, well-founded) fear of imminent mass atrocities against the residents of those cities. And it was based on those fears of future atrocities, much more than on any convincing evidence of significantly scaled past atrocities that Presidents Obama and Sarkozy and PM Cameron launched their war.
Indeed, if you go into the web archives of the International Committee for the Red Cross, which is the international (though Swiss-based) organization that is charged both with being the guardian of the whole body of the international laws of war and with taking a lead role in responding to humanitarian crises that arise in times of war, then you will find the following important report dated March 18:

    Geneva/Benghazi (ICRC) – Two days after its temporary relocation to the city of Tobruk in eastern Libya, a four-member team from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) returned to Benghazi today to resume its humanitarian work.
    “The improved security situation made it possible for us to return to Benghazi today,” said Simon Brooks, the ICRC’s head of mission in Libya. “We are eager to carry on supporting hospitals, visiting detainees in Benghazi and elsewhere and working with the Libyan Red Crescent to help civilians. At the same time, we continue to urge both parties to let us access other cities and areas, so we can assist other people affected by the fighting.”
    The ICRC is moving more food and essential household items into Libya so that it can help tens of thousands of people if the need arises. The organization shipped 180 tonnes of relief goods to Benghazi last Tuesday and seven trucks carrying 145 tonnes of rice, sugar, oil, lentils and salt are on their way from Egypt to Tobruk.
    The ICRC continues to help people at the Egyptian and Tunisian borders contact their families. Together with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, it is supporting the work of the Egyptian and Tunisian Red Crescent Societies, which are providing them with essential services.

In other words, as of March 18, the ICRC’s people were reporting that the humanitarian situation inside Benghazi was getting a little better, not worse.
The following day, Obama and his allies launched their war.
Now, I will grant that Muammar Qadhdhafi and his sons had all made some very bellicose and anti-humane threats against the rebels and the residents of Benghazi in the preceding days. But crucially, it seems to me, there was a clear window, after the Security Council’s passage of resolution 1973 on March 17, when its two first crucial, “political” provisions– which called urgently for a ceasefire and internationally supervised negotiations aimed at defusing the conflict– could and should have been energetically pursued.
In them, the Security Council said that it,

    “1. Demands the immediate establishment of a ceasefire and a complete end to violence and all attacks against, and abuses of, civilians;
    “2. Stresses the need to intensify efforts to find a solution to the crisis which responds to the legitimate demands of the Libyan people and notes the decisions of the Secretary-General to send his Special Envoy to Libya and of the Peace and Security Council of the African Union to send its ad hoc High-Level Committee to Libya with the aim of facilitating dialogue to lead to the political reforms necessary to find a peaceful and sustainable solution.”

But Obama and his pals never gave negotiations a chance.
Now, it is extremely unclear what the political upshot of all this will be in Libya. In Kosovo, Washington ended up midwifing a tiny, landlocked little statelet that is a hub of organized crime at the heart of the Balkans, and whose people have a very stunted quality of life.
How will Libya look, 12 years hence? Will it be one state, or two, or three? Will its people still be locked in an unresolved and very damaging civil war or a situation of longterm political conflict? Will the Libyan people finally have the chance to have a well-run, transparent, and accountable government? I don’t think anyone in the Obama administration has any idea what Libya will look like– or, how it might get from its present situation of war-wracked division and NATO-inflicted infrastructural breakdown to anything that might be desirable.
And how on earth do they expect Libyans or anyone else to look at what NATO (and Qatar and the UAE) are doing in Libya today and to take away the lesson, which is so essential to the building of any decently functioning democracy, that when you have political differences with others– even sharp ones– the only acceptable way to solve them is through a commitment to nonviolence and to the nonviolent practices of deliberation, discussion, social solidarity, and voting?

14 thoughts on “War and humanitarianism: From Kosovo to Libya?”

  1. Helena,
    Do you think that life in Kosovo is somehow worse than it was before NATO’s intervention? Was Kosovo somehow NOT a landlocked hub of organized crime prior to the intervention? Were its people experiencing some sort of non-stunted quality of life?
    The answer, of course, is that life was far worse for Kosovars under Serb rule than it is now. Serbia’s defeat in the war led directly to Milosevic’s downfall and the midwifing of democracy in Serbia, so it also helped lead to a much better life for Serbs as well as Kosovar Albanians.
    Now if Milosevic had been allowed to perpetrate another brutal mass murder in Kosovo and to perpetuate his mafia rule, do you think that life would have been any better off for the vast majority of Serbs or Kosovars?

  2. Just by reading your article, the wankering and the waffling – I must say you are quite some douchebag and a moral charlatan. You give the decent left a bad name and I hope you grow up.
    Thanks god that Prof Cole has something sensible to write. F.O. douchebag.

  3. Whatever you make of Helena Cobban’s opinions, Karim, your choice of execrable language attacking her personally renders your own opinion less than worthless.
    Helena consistently objects to killing for “peace.” So do I. You, on the other hand, may find killing (a particular group of) foreigners both useful and laudable. How much of this killing you have personally done, you do not say. Ostensibly, you take it for granted that someone else will do this laudable killing for you and pay all the associated costs. Professor Cole presently seems to agree with this laudable killing for peace — at least so far as the killing in Libya concerns Libyans of whom he does not approve. Consequently, I find his current opinions on Libya both unprincipled and opportunistic. And I have told him so.
    Personally, I know of no Libyan who has attacked the United States of America, so I find no justification whatsoever for the current American President to personally launch an undeclared war on some Libyans rather than others. This does not mean that I do not “care” for either Libyans or “freedom.” It simply means that I do not countenance trashing my own country’s Constitution or further depleting our exhausted treasury in the name of bombing “freedom” and “peace” into some Libyans because some other Libyans seem incapable of winning these achievements for themselves.

  4. of course, life in yougoslavia was better for people before US/Western strategy decided to exploit historical, religious, ethnic and economic differencies to instigate “balkanization”.basically the only perspective the people of these statelets have economically is to cooperate again in the EU and guess what Kosovo’s chances are compared to Slovenia. For people living in Kosovo, it means they have all kind of problems to get work permits outside of their mini-regions, not to mention equal rights within Europe. Moldavia is another example where the workforce gets exploited by Europe and is forced to work in the conditions of illegal work.

    President of the Russian Federation Medvedev DA
    Prime Minister of Russian Federation VV Putin
    from citizens of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, working and living in Libya
    March 24, 2011, Tripoli, Libya
    Dear Mr. Medvedev and Vladimir Putin,
    You said that citizens of the former Soviet Union were destined to become today citizens of different Slavic CIS countries – Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. Despite this, we all believe that it is Russia as successor to the USSR, which is our SOLE safeguard for the interests of our countries and the security of our citizens. Therefore, we appeal to you for help and justice.
    Today, there is blatant external aggression of USA and NATO against a sovereign country – Libya. And if anyone can doubt this, then we say this obvious fact is well known, because all this is happening before our eyes, and the actions of U.S. and NATO threaten the lives of not only the citizens of Libya, but to us who are on its territory. We are outraged by the barbaric bombing of Libya, which is currently carried out by a coalition of U.S. and NATO.

  6. humanitarian bombing…improving on Hitler:
    here is Cynthia McKinney on Libya and Obama
    ‘The reason Muammar Qaddafi is a target is because he has been a thorn in the side of anti-revolutionary forces since he took power in Libya, overthrowing the King and nationalizing the oil industry so that the people could benefit from their oil resources.
    Libya’s Revolution brought free health care and education to the people and subsidized housing. In fact, students in Libya can study there or abroad and the government gives them a monthly stipend while they are in school and they pay no tuition. If a Libyan needs a surgery that must be done overseas, then the government will pay for that surgery. That is more than the soldiers of the United States military can say. While Libyans enjoy subsidized housing, members of the U.S. military risk foreclosure while they serve their country abroad. Money from oil is directly deposited into the accounts of every Libyan based on oil income. As one Libyan told me recently, the idea is that if people have what they need, then they don’t have to deny rights to or harm others and the Revolution believes that it is the responsibility of the government to provide the basic needs of its citizens.

  7. karim and the incoherence of the incoherent
    Diana Johnstone makes the connection: east Libya and kosovo:
    ‘Last year, incidentally, former British MP George Galloway recounted how, in contrast to the Egyptian government’s obstruction of aid to Gaza, his aid caravan had had its humanitarian cargo doubled during a stopover in Libya. Qaddafi long ago turned his back on the Arab world, considering its leaders hopeless, and turned to Africa.

  8. I am inclined to disagree with Helena on the Libya intervention. but, I do see the validity of her arguments and I admire her consistency with her Quaker principles. I feel that we simply could not sit back and allow Quadaffi to use planes, tanks, and artillery against the other side. On the other hand I am concerned that we don’t really know who the rebels are or what they want. And I strongly disagree with their turning the protests armed and violent. I also believe that we should have intervened in Bahrain to prevent the use of heavy military equipment and foreign troops against the (for the most part) non-violent protests there. As usual, I am grateful for the information and opinions of others on this blog with much more knowledge on the issues than I and for the generally serious and respectful tone of the discussion (Karim, get a grip).

  9. “I feel that we simply could not sit back and allow Quadaffi to use planes, tanks, and artillery against the other side.”
    What is astonishing to me, Jack, is that those who share your point of view appear to believe that “we” decide whether to sit back, intervene or whatever.
    Were that the case we would be at a loss to explain why “we” are sitting back and watching what happens in Saana or Bahrain. Or sat back and watched what happened in Gaza or Lebanon.
    But “we’ didn’t sit back did we? We had no choice. We weren’t asked.
    The only difference is that In the Libyan war “we” are tempted to affect to be agents choosing the course of policy rather than impotent proles whose place is not to reason why but to do and die.
    Or at least not to reason why unless we come up with the same conclusions as Mrs Clinton and the Kings called Abdullah. And, if not quite to do and die, then at least pay for the munitions and the cost of arming not only the enemies of Ghadaffi but the agents and proteges of the Sauds and Sarkozys, not to mention Berlusconi and the White House.
    Don’t people look around at these group shots and wonder how they came to hold the same views as all these fascists and criminals, bloodstained adventurers and Kings who know nothing of constitutions but more about Bastilles and dungeons than the Bourbons ever dreamed of?

  10. @ bevin — Didn’t Tallyrand say of the Bourbons (or some ruling claque like them) that “they learned nothing and they forgot nothing”?
    Sounds like a fairly apt description of the last half-century of American governments. Personally, I think that America should change its national ornithological symbol from the Eagle to the Ostrich.

  11. I really appreciate the comments of Helena even though Juan Cole is my 1st read daily. The reason is that I learn great stuff from both of them and they are both fact based. In my view the US was very late
    and awkward Re:Libya AND Egypt. As a result I expect
    a great humanitarian disaster on the Gaddafi side because there will soon be no food and no fuel in Libya. US Taxpayers will be fighting over the bill for this for a long time.

  12. Yes, This Is A Humanitarian War — That Is What Makes It So Deadly
    No more terrible fate can befall nations like Libya than to become objects of Western liberal pity.
    By Brendan O’Neill
    April 01, 2011 “Spiked” – — They’re back. Having spent the past 10 years pretending to be anti-war – describing the attack on Iraq as ‘criminal’ and the war in Afghanistan as ‘a trifle ill-judged’ – the liberal and left-wing set that originally invented the idea of ‘humanitarian warfare’ in the 1990s are once more at the forefront of public debate. They’ve cast off the anti-imperialist garb that they temporarily donned to make their disappointment with Blair and their snobbish disdain for Bush appear principled, to reveal that, underneath, there lurk the same old laptop bombardiers keen to visit their moralistic fury upon some wayward nation. This time they have Libya in their sights.’
    ‘The international isolation of Gaddafi’s regime, the description of him as ‘evil’ (far more evil than those carrying out massacres in Bahrain apparently), creates a situation where he has little left to lose. Transformed into a pariah, he is starting to act like one,’
    what? what would you do if your couutry was under attack by enemies foreign(US/NATO invaion) or domestic( jihadi insurgents) This sort of thinking is part of the problem..Gadaffi is quite right to defend his country from enemies FORIEN and DOMESTIC (well known american forumula)

  13. I’m a little late to this set of comments so instead of my 2 cents here is a link to Adam Curtis’ blog at the BBC outlining the original of this lovely new liberal fetish “humanitarian intervention”:
    Incidentally I agree with 1 of the above commentators re Juan Cole i.e. he’s an opportunist an a very useful idiot.

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