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Omar Dahbour



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ANOTHER INVENTED ENEMY? A Call for a New Peace Movement

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Carl Lesnor









Omar Dahbour


Military intervention by the U.S. (and NATO) in Yugoslavia was justified at the time primarily on two grounds – that the Albanian inhabitants of the Kosovo region were being subjected to human rights abuses by the Yugoslavian government and/or that they had a national right to self-determination in any case. Neither of these grounds upon examination could have justified the attack on Yugoslavia.


Ending Human Rights Abuses

The documents in international law that mandate promulgation of human rights provide grounds for criticizing governments that violate these rights; but they do not justify "humanitarian interventions" that violate the sovereignty of states guaranteed under the UN Charter. While the actions to be taken to protect human rights are largely unspecified in these documents, it is assumed that such actions will not violate other standing principles of international law – in particular prohibitions on the use of force against sovereign states. Longstanding organizations such as Amnesty International use the tools of publicity and persuasion to influence governments to protect human rights. Agencies that act to ameliorate violations of peoples’ rights, such as the Red Cross/Red Crescent societies, do so through humanitarian relief aid. But military means have never been recognized, either legally or ethically, as a tool to achieve human rights.

When actions are taken to end rights abuses they must, first of all, be made in good faith – that is, without ulterior motive. This condition is not one that can be met merely by professions of rightful intent on the part of the intervening force; it must be consistent with past history and practice. But the US has shown itself interested in intervening in cases of rights abuses only against states with which it is already in conflict – for instance, in Cuba and Nicaragua. In countries such as Colombia, Turkey, Guatemala, and Indonesia, the US has aided and abetted rights abuses by friendly governments. As for NATO, it is a military alliance between a particular group of states, not an international organization, such as the UN, with the purpose of resolving conflicts and enforcing international law. There is every reason to suspect that the NATO intervention was designed, not to end human rights abuses, but to extend the military reach of that organization, in order to undermine the economic viability of societies still partially closed to global markets or to weaken or overthrow unfriendly states. Accordingly, claims by US or NATO spokespersons that the intervention was a result of concern for the rights of the Kosovar Albanians are, at best, disingenuous.

Second, there is no general justification for foreign military interventions in support of human rights (so-called "humanitarian interventions"). To attempt such interventions, according to a number of international legal experts, is to undermine the basic principles of international law that are designed to limit and restrict the use of force between states. The concept of humanitarian intervention provides a pretext for virtually any state to violate the sovereignty of others (as was shown when this reason was given by the Axis powers in the 1930’s for invading Czechoslovakia, Ethiopia, and China).

The reason for a prohibition on the use of force in cases of human rights abuses is that this provides some minimal protection against the conflicts and wars that would ensue were states entitled to intervene whenever they thought it justifiable to do so. In other words, there is ample historical evidence to suggest that military interventions almost always produce more human suffering and violations of rights than the lack of intervention would have done.

This does not mean that there might never be a case in which intervention would save lives. Perhaps the intervention of Vietnam against Pol Pot in Cambodia or of Tanzania against Idi Amin in Uganda would qualify. But not Kosovo. For one thing, during the Rambouillet negotiations, the US unilaterally vetoed a resolution of the crisis that would have involved supervision by the UN – one agreed to by the Yugoslavian government – preferring to act unilaterally. No such possibilities for an internationally supervised resolution of the conflicts were on the table in Cambodia or Uganda. For another, there is no hard evidence to indicate that a humanitarian emergency on the scale of these earlier cases (or of more recent ones, such as Rwanda or even Bosnia) was occurring in Kosovo – at least prior to the intervention, that is. In addition, NATO did not act to defuse a crisis within one of its member states, but intervened against a state outside of its legitimate sphere of action. Needless to say, such an intervention cannot be regarded as defensive – and violates NATO’s own mandate as a self-defense organization.

Given the lack of clear humanitarian justification, there is nothing to distinguish NATO’s attack on Yugoslavia from other acts of aggression that have been condemned under international law. Furthermore, considering the US veto of a potentially peaceful resolution of the crisis, it is reasonable to regard the intervention as having been motivated primarily by the foreign policy interests and agendas of the US and NATO, rather than by concern for human rights.


Supporting Self-determination

Another justification that could be given for the intervention is that it supports a legitimate war of national liberation by the KLA, which is fighting to secure the Kosovo Albanians’ right of national self-determination. Viewed in this way, Kosovo may be seen as claiming a right to national independence that other groups within Yugoslavia such as the Slovenians and the Croatians had claimed before them. But it is essential to see that national self-determination is no more legitimate in the case of Kosovo than it was in the cases of Slovenia and Croatia – and that it was not legitimate in those cases either.

The earlier secessions of the Slovenian and Croatian republics from Yugoslavia were of questionable legality in terms of the Yugoslavian constitution, and were clearly illegal under international law. Yugoslavia was certainly legally justified in attempting to use military means to put down a rebellion within the country, just as so many other countries (including the US) have done.

The only clear ethical justification for allowing such secessions – a justification that would have certain legal precedent internationally – would have been under conditions of severe political repression or human suffering. For instance, when East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) seceded from Pakistan in the 1970’s, the central government had voided local elections and instituted a military campaign of attacks on the population. But in the Slovenian (and later, the Croatian) case, it was the Slovenians themselves who walked out of the Yugoslavian parliament and announced their refusal to participate in their own constitutionally elected government.

Similarly, in Kosovo, it was not the Yugoslavian government that suspended local self-rule in the region, but Albanian secessionist groups (particularly the KLA) who boycotted elections and refused to participate in provincial and federal government institutions. In international law, self-determination is considered a legitimate claim only if some particular condition of oppression or domination applies that would justify the claim – and even then it would not automatically justify an independent state.

International law does not recognize – for good reason – a general right of national groups to their own states. The Albanian population of Kosovo has no standing in international law – they are considered Yugoslavs. Legally, it is only non-self-governing peoples – in particular, colonized peoples – who have a generally recognized right of self-determination. Such peoples have the legal status of dependents – that is, they lack self-rule of any kind – and it is this that enables them to legitimately claim a right of self-determination.

The reason that a right of self-determination is limited in this way is that, if international relations is not to consist of endless wars and conflicts between national and ethnic groups over territory, what a "people" is must be understood in accordance with existing countries and borders. Those peoples within existing states (or their colonies) who lack self-government (for instance, because of political disenfranchisement or discrimination) are entitled to self-determination. But other groups within countries which allow for political rights and participation of some kind are regarded as already having self-determination as citizens of those countries.

Consequently, the inhabitants of Kosovo cannot legitimately claim that they lack self-determination, since the Yugoslavian government has not taken measures to deny them their political rights. Asserting such a claim has only led to a tragic increase in interethnic violence and civil war.

This is entirely predictable – and was in fact the case in earlier secessions from Yugoslavia, as well as in many other countries. The reason is that to make a claim to national self-determination is not simply to call for the political independence of a group of persons – it is also to claim exclusive possession of a specific territory. But, on nationalist principles, any national group can lay claim to any territory if it views it as part of its national homeland. So Serbians have just as much "right" to Kosovo as Albanians do – which is to say that neither does. Those that assert such rights exacerbate existing ethnic conflicts over territory by laying claim to lands that others may just as rightfully think is theirs.

In such cases, the intervention of outside parties will inevitably appear simply as partiality for one group or another. For instance, in the case of Kosovo, NATO’s intervention seems to have favored the creation of a "greater Albania" over a "greater Serbia." The human costs of such favoritism have almost always outweighed the supposed benefits of asserting putative rights of national groups to self-determination. The Kosovo war is just one more example of this tragic propensity for people to suffer as a result of nationalist ambitions – in this case worsened by the intervention of an imperial power.



Omar Dahbour, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Hunter College of the City University of New York. He is editor of Philosophical Perspectives on National Identity, coeditor of The Nationalism Reader, and author of articles on self-determination, nationalism, global ethics, and critical theory.