Kosovo: legality vs duty to save lives

22nd April 2018.

Image: Google maps

Image: Google maps

Brief history

  • Kosovo was an autonomous region of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FR Yugoslavia). FR Yugoslavia was comprised of Serbia and Montenegro, the last federal republics of Yugoslavia after its breakup in 1992.
  • Kosovo contains a wide range of demographic of ethnic groups (Albanians, Serbs, Slavic Muslims, Bosniaks, Gorani, Montenegrins, Croats etc.), but is largely comprised of Albanians (estimated 81% of the population in 1991, and 92.9% in 2011).
  • In early 1998, tensions escalated between Serbian forces and ethnic Albanian militias seeking independence. The President of Serbia at the time, Slobodan Milošević responded not by peace negotiations and not by attacking the armed militias, but directed his forces to expel or kill as many ethnic Albanians in Kosovo as possible.
  • By summer 1998, 200,000 Kosovars had been made refugees which amounted to 10% of the population.
  • Europe and the US were eager to act. Russia opposed, as they were a key ally of Serbia.

Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary General at the time wanted a united stance at the United Nations. He wanted to make clear that “the rights of sovereign states to non-interference in their internal affairs could not override the rights of individuals to freedom from gross and systematic abuses of their human rights.”

This is a controversial statement to make. Both sides of the argument can be looked at from these two points:

For standing back and respecting sovereignty:

  • A recognised government in Belgrade has the right to maintain order within its territory. It’s not for other states to bring to the fore the violation of human rights in Kosovo and urge for a forceful response.

Against standing back and disregarding sovereignty:

  • By maintaining blind neutrality in the face of recidivist behaviour, you allow the perpetuance of victims of atrocities.

The solution should always be to stand for the rights of the individual. The UN Charter’s first line reads “we the peoples of the United Nations” not “we the governments”.

When there are gross abuses of human rights and crimes against humanity around the world, our first reaction, as an individual (with the capacity to understanding suffering) are the rights of the people, not the rights of the state.

The UN Secretary General Kofi Annan talked about the situation in Kosovo in June 1998 at a NATO conference, impressing a sense of urgency.

By this point, the intense fighting in Kosovo and in particular the excessive and indiscriminate use of force by Serbian security forces and the Yugoslav Army resulted in civilian casualties and the displacement of over 230,000 persons from their homes. This led to Security Council Resolution 1199 in September 1998, demanding that:

  • All parties observe a ceasefire in Kosovo
  • All parties take immediate steps to improve the humanitarian situation to avert a catastrophe
  • Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and Kosovo to enter immediately in dialogue with international involvement.

Of the 15 members of the Security Council, 14 votes passed and 1 member abstained. China abstained due to stating the conflict was an internal matter for the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The US special envoy negotiated for 2,000 unarmed OSCE verifiers to monitor the cease-fire agreement which was granted.

  • After this resolution passed in September, violence still continued in October, and in early 1999, the violence intensified. This led to talks in France between the two sides. The Kosovars were willing to sign an agreement that allows them to have greater autonomy within the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The Serbs refused to sign it and focused on maintaining their aggression.
  • By March of 1999, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) verifiers were ordered to leave the country. This led to further discussions within NATO about an intervention. Something had to be done, as the Serbs had not complied with the demands of the UNSC. Military force was not authorised by the Security Council.
  • On the 23rd March 1999, NATO started a campaign of air strikes to drive the Serbian forces from Kosovo.

Setting the scene

A tyrant kills his own people, targeting an ethnic group in his country. They are unarmed civilians, non-combatants. Floods of refugees flee the country. Something so grave cannot be ignored. A resolution for dialogue and ceasefire was passed by the Security Council. It was ignored by Milošević. An agreement was next made in France, entitled the Rambouillet Accords. It was ignored. What happens next?

  1. Pass a resolution at the UNSC to authorise use of force to protect the population.
  2. Watch civilians die, there is nothing that can be done without UNSC resolution.

If nothing is passed at the UNSC, interventions are illegal. Yet still isn’t there a duty to save lives from death and oppression? Keep in mind here that NATO’s intervention came post-Somalia, post-Rwanda and post-Bosnia.

At the UNSC, Russia and China were firm in their opposition to the use of force.

Why were Russia and China opposed to it?

“Russia and China, in opposing military action to support Kosovar autonomy, reflected their own insecurity over Chechnya and Tibet. The veto is a metaphoric ritual like the lifting of a skunk’s tail. It signals “Proceed with care.” It therefore serves as a valuable aid to rational risk assessment.” [1]


“Whether it is Kosovo and the former Yugoslavia, or Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Georgia. They do so both on principle and also out of the fear that this could later be used as a precedent to change the status of Xinjiang or Tibet, not to mention Taiwan.” [2]

The question:

Should the international community allow the veto of two states to prevent military action that could put an end to suffering?

What happened:

The leaders of NATO resorted to the use of force without UNSC authorisation.

What NATO could have done:

Made more of an attempt to legitimise its authority to act pre-military engagement by invoking the “Uniting for Peace” resolution:

“Resolves that if the Security Council, because of lack of unanimity of the permanent members, fails to exercise its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security in any case where there appears to be a threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression, the General Assembly shall consider the matter immediately with a view to making appropriate recommendations to Members for collective measures, including in the case of a breach of the peace or act of aggression the use of armed force when necessary, to maintain or restore international peace and security.”

Why this is worthwhile:

NATO had the opportunity to see whether it was acting with the support of the international community by putting it to the UNSC to decide, and with the expectant vetoes of Russia and China, bringing it to the General Assembly.

For the purposes of:

  • A vote in the General Assembly on the situation in Kosovo.
  • Whilst the vote wouldn’t have the weight of a UNSC resolution, it would serve as an affirmation of NATO’s authority to preserve human rights and maintain peace and security in Kosovo.
  • As the Kosovo conflict had been on the agenda in 1998, there wouldn’t have had to be an emergency session arranged, it could have been put forward anytime before the General Assembly.

But instead:

-NATO began a campaign of air strikes that ultimately drove the Serbian forces from Kosovo to end killings and mass explusion of the civilian population of the province.

-By March 1999, the UNHCR estimated that more than 250,000 Albanians had been forced from their homes in Kosovo and 200,000 sought refuge in neighbouring countries. Over the next three months, almost one million Kosovars joined these refugees.

-On the 9th May 1999 a NATO air strike had hit the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. This enraged Beijing and casted doubts around the world on the value of the bombing campaign.

-By 18th May 1999, the UN Secretary General spoke at a peace conference in The Hague warning that the Security Council must be the sole source of legitimacy on the use of force, but equally important, unless the UNSC unite around large scale human rights violations and crimes against humanity, it would betray the ideals that established the United Nations.

The outcome:

Yugoslav President Slobodan Milošević along with others, were charged at the ICTY in The Hague with crimes against humanity including murder, forcible transfer, deportation, and "persecution on political, racial or religious grounds.”




[1] Re-examining Kosovo: The Role of Authority in legitimating armed humanitarian intervention

[2] European Parliament: The positions of Russia and China at the UN Security Council in the light of recent crises.

Kofi Annan “Interventions: A life in war and peace”, Penguin Books, 2012.