William Blum on the Abortive Prosecution of NATO Leaders for War Crimes in Yugoslavia

Many people would like to see Tony Blair indicted for war crimes for his part in the illegal invasion and carnage inflicted on Iraq and its people. This isn’t the first time there has been serious consideration of putting the former British premier in the dock for crimes against humanity. In one section of his book, Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower, William Blum describes the attempt by Canadian human rights activists, along with their fellows from the UK, Greece and the American Association of Jurists in March 1999 to have 68 leaders , including Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright, William Cohen, the Canadian PM, Jean Chretien, and the NATO officials Javier Solana, Wesley Clark and Jamie Shea, brought before the International Criminal Court in the Hague for war crimes against the Serbs during the war in the former Yugoslavia. This collapsed, as the court’s prosecutor, Louise Arbour, was frankly biased towards NATO, and the efforts by her successor, Carla Del Ponte were successfully stymied by NATO leaders. Blum writes:

Yugoslavia – another war-crimes trial that will never be

Beginning about two weeks after the US-inspired and led NATO bombing of Yugoslavia began in March, 1999, international-law professionals from Canada, the United Kingdom, Greece, and the American Association of Jurists began to file complaints with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague, Netherlands, charging leaders of NATO countries and officials of NATO itself with crimes similar to those for which the Tribunal had issued indictments shortly before against Serbian leaders. Amongst the charges filed by the law professionals were: “grave violations of international humanitarian law”, including “wilful killing, wilfully causing great suffering and serious injury to body and health, employment of poisonous weapons and other weapons to cause unnecessary suffering, wanton destruction of cities, towns and villages, unlawful attacks on civilian objects, devastation not necessitated by military objectives, attacks on undefended buildings and dwellings, destruction and wilful damage done to institutions dedicated to religion, charity and education, the arts and sciences.”

The Canadian suit named 68 leaders, including William Clinton, Madeleine Albright, William Cohen, Tony Blair, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, and NATO officials Javier Solana, Wesley Clark, and Jamie Shea. The complaint also alleged “open violation” of the United Nations Charter, the NATO treaty itself, the Geneva Conventions, and the Principles of International Law Recognized by the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg.

The complaint was submitted along with a considerable amount of evidence to support the charges. The evidence makes the key point that it was NATO’s bombing campaign which had given rise to the bulk of the deaths in Yugoslavia, provoked most of the Serbian atrocities, created an environmental disaster, and left a dangerous legacy of unexploded depleted uranium and cluster bombs.

In June, some of the complainants met in The Hague with the court’s chief prosecutor, Louise Arbour of Canada. Although she cordially received their brief in person, along with three thick volumes of evidence documenting the alleged war crimes, nothing of substance came of the meeting, despite repeated follow-up submissions and letters by the plaintiffs. In November, Arbour’s successor, Carla Del Ponte of Switzerland, also met with some of the complainants and received extensive evidence.

The complainants’ brief in November pointed out that the prosecution of those named by them was “not only a requirement of law, it is a requirement of justice to the victims and of deterrence to powerful countries such as those in NATO who, in their military might and in their control over the media, are lacking in any other natural restraint such as might deter less powerful countries.” Charging the war’s victors, not only its losers, it was argued, would be a watershed in international criminal law.

In one of the letters to Arbour, Michael Mandel, a professor of law in Toronto and the initiator of the Canadian suit, stated:

Unfortunately, as you know, many doubts have already been raised about the impartiality of your Tribunal. In the early days of the conflict, after a formal and, in our view, justified complaint against NATO leaders had been laid before it by members of the Faculty of Law of Belgrade University, you appeared at a press conference with one of the accused, British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, who made a great show of handing you a dossier of Serbian war crimes. In early May, you appeared at another press conference with US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, by that time herself the subject of two formal complaints of war crimes over the targeting of civilians in Yugoslavia. Albright publicly announced at that time that the US was the major provider of funds for the Tribunal and that it had pledged even more money to it. 14

Arbour herself made little attempt to hide the pro-NATO bias she wore beneath her robe. She trusted NATO to be its own police, judge, jury, and prison guard. In a year in which General Pinochet was still under arrest, which was giving an inspiring lift to the cause of international law and justice, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, under Arbour’s leadership, ruled that for the Great Powers it would be business as usual, particularly the Great Power that was most vulnerable to prosecution, and which, coincidentally, paid most of her salary. Here are her own words:

I am obviously not commenting on any allegations of violations of international humanitarian law supposedly perpetrated by nationals of NATO countries. I accept the assurances given by NATO leaders that they intend to conduct their operations in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in full compliance with international humanitarian law. I have reminded many of them, when the occasion presented itself, of their obligation to conduct fair and open-minded investigations of any possible deviance from that policy, and of the obligation of commanders to prevent and punish, if required. 15

NATO Press Briefing, May 16, 1999:

Question: Does NATO recognize Judge Arbour’s jurisdiction over their activities?

Jamie Shea: I think we have to distinguish between the theoretical and the practical. I believe that when Justice Arbour starts her investigation [of the Serbs], she will because we will allow her to. … NATO countries are those that have provided the finance to set up the Tribunal, we are amongst the majority financiers.

The Tribunal – created in 1993, with the US as the father, the Security Council as the mother, and Madeleine Albright as the midwife – also relies on the military assets of the NATO powers to track down and arrest the suspects it tries for war crimes.

There appeared to be no more happening with the complaint under Del Ponte than under Arbour, but in late December, in an interview with The Observer of London, Del Ponte was asked if she was prepared to press charges against NATO personnel. She replied: “If I am not willing to do that, I am not in the right place. I must give up my mission.”

The Tribunal then announced that it had completed a study of possible NATO crimes, which Del Ponte was examining, and that the study was an appropriate response to public concerns about NATO’s tactics. “It is very important for this tribunal to assert its authority over any and all authorities to the armed conflict within the former Yugoslavia.”

Was this a sign from heaven that the new millennium was going to be one of more equal justice? Could this really be?

No, it couldn’t. From official quarters, military and civilian, of the United States and Canada, came disbelief, shock, anger, denials … “appalling” … “unjustified”. Del Ponte got the message. Her office quickly issued a statement: “NATO is not under investigation by the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. There is no formal inquiry into the actions of NATO during the conflict in Kosovo.” 16 And there wouldn’t be, it was unnecessary to add.

But the claim against NATO – heretofore largely ignored by the American media – was now out in the open. It was suddenly receiving a fair amount of publicity, and supporters of the bombing were put on the defensive. The most common argument made in NATO’s defense, and against war-crime charges, was that the death and devastation inflicted upon the civilian sector was “accidental”. This claim, however, must be questioned in light of certain reports. For example, the commander of NATO’s air war, Lt. Gen. Michael Short, declared at one point during the bombing:

If you wake up in the morning and you have no power to your house and no gas to your stove and the bridge you take to work is down and will be lying in the Danube for the next 20 years, I think you begin to ask, “Hey, Slobo [Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic], what’s this all about? How much more of this do we have to withstand?” 17

General Short, said the New York Times, “hopes that the distress of the Yugoslav public will undermine support for the authorities in Belgrade.” 18

At another point, NATO spokesman Jamie Shea declared: “If President Milosevic really wants all of his population to have water and electricity all he has to do is accept NATO’s five conditions and we will stop this campaign.” 19

After the April NATO bombing of a Belgrade office building – which housed political parties, TV and radio stations, 100 private companies, and more – the Washington Post reported:

Over the past few days, U.S. officials have been quoted as expressing the hope that members of Serbia’s economic elite will begin to turn against Milosevic once they understand how much they are likely to lose by continuing to resist NATO demands. 20

Before missiles were fired into this building, NATO planners spelled out the risks: “Casualty Estimate 50-100 Government/Party employees. Unintended Civ Casualty Est: 250 – Apts in expected blast radius.” 21 The planners were saying that about 250 civilians living in nearby apartment buildings might be killed in the bombing, in addition to the government and political party employees.

What do we have here? We have grown men telling each other: We’ll do A, and we think that B may well be the result. But even if B does in fact result, we’re saying beforehand – as we’ll insist afterward – that it was unintended.

This passage comes from a longer piece, ‘War Criminals – Ours and Theirs’, attacking American double standards in supporting politicians, governments and military commanders guilty of horrific crimes against humanity when it serves their interest. This can be read at:

https://williamblum.org/chapters/rogue-state/war-criminals-theirs-and-ours

I realise that this may be hugely controversial. Slobodan Milosevic and his government were responsible for terrible atrocities in the former Yugoslavia, including the organised genocide of Bosnian Muslims. Mike spent a week in Bosnia staying with a Muslim family, as part of an international project to document the terrible aftermath and consequences of the war. However, the Muslims and Croats were also guilty of committing atrocities themselves, though I was told by a former diplomat that in general, most of the massacres were committed by the Serbs.

Blum argues that the NATO intervention in Yugoslavia had little to do with the raging civil war and human rights abuses, except as a pretext. He argues in his books that Milosevic’s regime was really targeted because they resisted the mass privatisations that international capitalism was attempting to foist on them. I don’t know if this is quite the case. Private Eye reviewed Geoffrey Hurd’s book on diplomacy over a decade ago, and commented on how much Hurd left out or attempted to smooth over of his own grotty career. Like how he was the head of the commission by one of the British banks to privatise the Serbian telecommunications industry under Milosevic.

I’ve also read other books, which have made similar allegations. In one book I read on the 7/7 bombings, the author argued that the reports of some of the atrocities supposedly committed by the Serbs were fabricated in order to whip up public support for military intervention. The goal, however, wasn’t to safeguard the innocents being butchered, but to establish firm NATO military control of the oil pipelines running through the country. This control has not been relinquished since.

Again, I have no idea if this is true or not. Ordinarily, I’d suspect claims that reports of war crimes by despotic regimes have been falsified as another form of holocaust denial. You can find any amount of material arguing that the Serbs were innocent of these atrocities on the various ‘Counterjihad’ anti-Islam sites. The book’s author had a very Muslim name, and its central argument was that the 7/7 bombings were deliberately orchestrated by the secret state to create further public outrage against Muslims, and thus more support for the wars in the Middle East. This seems wrong. Incompetence is far more likely. But it’s well argued and footnoted, with the original documents its author obtained under FOIA reproduced. This is complete with blank pages or passages where they were redacted, just like the Watergate report in America.

Regardless of the ultimate responsibility for the atrocities during the war, it seems that there were very strong geo-political reasons for NATO’s entry into the conflict against the Serbs, which are not at all altruistic. And however controversial this episode and its treatment by Blum are, he has a point: if the NATO leaders were guilty of war crimes, then Clinton, Albright, Blair, Chretien et al should be in the dock. If international justice is to live up to its ideal, then it must also be equally binding on the victor. Unfortunately, you’re not going to see it under the present squalid international order.

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