Kosovo Unstarred Question
Robert Skidelsky
Hansard | Tuesday, February 01, 2000

My Lords,
 
The occasion of this unstarred question is the publication on 6 December 1999 of the Report on Human Rights violations in Kosovo compiled by the OSCE verification mission. The Report covers three periods: from 1 November 1999 to 21-24 March 1999; from 21-24 March to 10 June (the period of bombing) and the post-bombing period till October. In the first and third periods, monitors were in place on the ground; during the bombing period, the evidence is taken from Serb refugees and expellees. It is by far the most authoritative account of human rights’ violations in this period.
 
Comment on the Report by the media was conspicuous by its absence. Publication was noted and a few extracts given from the Executive Summary. . This was particularly unfortunate, since the Summary failed to bring out the crucial break in trend in the level of human rights’ abuse between the pre bombing and post bombing periods.
 
I raise the matter this evening, because the factual evidence set forth in the Report casts serious doubts about the justification for the war consistently given by Her Majesty’s Government, and the NATO alliance as a whole. The government claims that the war was fought to avert an impending humanitarian catastrophe, and that it succeeded in its aim. The Prime Minister has use the words ‘genocide’ and ‘ethnic cleansing’ to describe what the Serbs were doing before the bombing started. It has been the government’s contention that the latter was the result of a deliberate, long-matured plan by Milosevic to empty Kosovo of its Albanian population. Most people in Britain probably believe some version of this story.
 
It does not need me to remind your Lordships that truth is the first casualty of war. The OSCE Report paints a very different, and to my mind, much more plausible picture of what was happening.
 
It is perfectly true that fears of an impending humanitarian catastrophe were well founded in the summer of 1998. UN aid agencies reported that 200,000 to 300,000 Albanian Kosovars had been driven from their villages into the hills in the Drenia region along the Albanian border. On September 23 Security Council Resolution 1199 demanded an immediate ceasefire and political dialogue, the scaling down of Serbian security forces, and the installation of observers to verify compliance. Russia vetoed the use of force to support this Resolution, but the NATO Council endorsed the use of aerial bombardment to do so.
 
Resolution 1199 led to the Milosevic-Holebrooke Agreement of 16 October. This provided for a ceasefire, a return to their homes of the displaced Albanian villagers, a scaling back of Serb forces to their pre-1998 levels, and the emplacement of 2000 international observers. The observers arrived at the start of November.
 
According to the Report, for the first two months progress was made on all the provisions. However, a ceasefire takes two to observe, and by the end of December, early January it became clear that the KLA had used the lull to arm and train. Fighting broke out in the north-east of the province, where the KLA had established positions athwart the supply routes from Serbia to Kosovo. There were also ‘a number of reactive operations by the Yugoslav/Serb forces against [KLA] infiltration along the Albanian border’.The observers reported ‘small scale ambushes’ and ‘individual’ atrocities by both sides.
 
What triggered off the events which led to NATO’s armed intervention was the discovery in mid-January of 45 Albanians, including some children, murdered, mostly at close range in village of Racak. Responsibility for this atrocity has never been established. The Serbs claimed that they were killed in fighting and their bodies arranged by the KLA to look like murder. Though this was an isolated event, in a situation otherwise characterised by low level skirmishing and sporadic atrocities, there is no doubt that it had an enormous impact on world opinion. It was assumed that this was part of a systematic campaign of reprisals by the Yugoslav/Serb forces.
 
As the Rambouillet conference neared breakdown in mid-March of last year, the Serbs started preparing for a war on two fronts –against NATO in front of them and the KLA behind them. For the first time the OSCE observers were denied access to the frontier areas. The escalation of violence was a direct response to the NATO build up.
 
The break in trend between the pre-war and the post-war period is captured in the following quotations from the Report. I dwell on them because their effect is cumulative.
 
‘The level of incidents of summary and arbitrary killing escalated dramatically after the OSCE withdrew on 20 March’.
 
‘Summary and arbitrary killing became a generalized phenomenon throughout Kosovo with the beginning of the NATO air campaign…on the night of 24-25 March’.
 
‘Indiscriminate attacks on populated areas, sporadic prior to 24 March 1999, became a widespread occurrence after that date’.
 
‘The loss of life of large numbers of Kovoso Albanian civilians was one of the most characteristic features of the conflict after 24 March…’
 
‘Once the OSCE…left on 20 March 1999 and particularly after the start of the NATO bombing of the FRY on 24 March, Serbian police and/or the VJ, often accompanied by paramilitaries, went from village to village and, in the towns, from area to area, threatening and expelling the Kosovan Albanian population’.
 
‘Between March and June 1999 the FRY and Serbia forcibly expelled 863,000 Kosovo Albanians from Kosovo’.
 
The government wants us to believe that this dramatic escalation in the level of violence and scale of expulsions had nothing to do with the withdrawal of the observers and the start of NATO’s bombing. What is more they want us to believe that it was only the NATO intervention which stopped it! ‘I have no difficulty in justifying this action’ wrote the Prime Minister in the Observer on 16 May. ‘We fought for an end to ethnic cleansing’ said the Prime Minister in Pristina on 31 July.
 
What hypocrisy! What is the evidence? There is one slender branch in the OSCE Report for the Prime Minister to cling to: ‘At the end of February and beginning of March lists were believed to have been drawn up in Belgrade with the assistance of Kosovo town halls targeting houses of rich Kosovars for looting’.
 
Now, My Lords, for the results. Nothing, of course can bring back to life, the thousands of Kosovars killed by the Serbs during the period of the NATO bombing, and the hundreds and perhaps thousands of Serbs killed by NATO bombs. We can at least claim to have reversed the ethnic cleansing which started after 24 March: about 600,000-700,000 of the 863,000 Kosovars expelled in the bombing period have been returned to their homes, and live in much greater security than before under the protection of the UN forces.
 
Now, under the protection of the UN, the ethnic cleansing is done by the other side. In a BBC interview given by the Foreign Secretary on 24 June 1999, Mr. Cook said:
 
‘When we met the leaders of the Albanian community yesterday, including the leader of the KLA, they all said that they want to create a multi-ethnic society, open to all the people of Kosovo and indeed Hashim Thaci, leader of the KLA, did say he appealed to the Serbs to stay. Over two-third of them have stayed and some of them are coming back…’
 
In the lexicon of fatuous pronouncements made by our Foreign Secretary, this surely takes the prize. Taking an average of different estimates, it looks as if there are between 60,000 and 80,000 Serbs left out of a pre-bombing population of about 250,000. Milosevic expelled about half of the Albanians under war conditions; under the eyes of the UN’s 50,000 armed troops, about 2/3rds of the Serbs have been expelled. In the capital Pristina, the OSCE reports that ‘A pattern has arisen of Serbs being forced to sign over rights to their property in standard contracts before fleeing. In many cases Albanians have moved in within minutes of their departure’. The exodus has been brought about by the usual mixture of arbitrary killings, house attacks, attacks on minorities with small arms, abductions and disappearances –all creating a pervasive atmosphere of fear.
 
My Lords, let me say in conclusion that the last thing in my mind in bringing this Report to your attention is to whitewash Milosevic. He has brought untold damage to former Yugoslavia and to his own people in the sole interest of hanging on to power. The sooner he is removed the better. Nor would I want to deny that at some point military intervention might have been right and proper. What I do want to claim is that the reasons given for the intervention, when it occurred and in the form it took, do not stand up to serious scrutiny. I don’t myself believe that the avoidance of a humanitarian disaster was uppermost in NATO’s mind when they embarked on their maladroit diplomacy at Rambouiillet which led inevitably to the start of the bombing.
 
I believe that having threatened bombing back in October 1998, its leaders convinced themselves that the credibility of the Alliance was at stake if they did not bomb. And here I ask: credibility for what purpose? Perhaps the noble Minister will give us an answer.
 
What I mind above all is the lying. On such a basis no durable settlement for the Balkans can be built. And if we live in a world in which statesmen cannot distinguish between truth and falsehood, that is a dreadful omen for the future.