Kosovo intervention ethics

There are four main ethical problems with the 1999 military intervention in Kosovo (air campaign and later KFOR-enforced protectorate). The Kosovo war developed into a crusade for NATO values, the values of the European liberal-democratic tradition. This return to 'ideological warfare' was possibly the greatest historical significance of the Kosovo war, which prefigured the invasion of Iraq. Revised December 2004.

The ethics of the NATO itself

The first ethical issues concern the NATO itself, and pre-date the Balkan wars. They are set out in Why is NATO wrong? Summarised, the NATO is a secession-preventing, boundary-fixing organisation, which prevents innovation in state formation. It usually does this at the expense of a minority. It is conservative in the strict sense of the word, and it is unjust. As a security alliance of nation states, NATO enforces their existence. In doing so, the NATO enforces the following characteristics of nation states:

The ethics of other interventions

A second ethical problem relates to other possible interventions. The NATO excluded other possible interventions in Kosovo, and other possible geopolitical structures. This point is ignored in standard assessments of humanitarian intervention - most of them simply assume US-led intervention. In the case of Kosovo, for instance, the NATO tolerated no 'International Brigades', and no non-governmental intervention. The NATO restricted military access to airspace, and to the Albanian and Macedonian land approaches. Most obviously, NATO restricted access by anti-western powers, such as Iraq or the former Taliban regime.

If there is a moral obligation to support military intervention, it does not attach to any specific intervention - unless there is only one possible intervention. Certainly, if the NATO itself deliberately limits the choice of possible interventions, it can no longer claim an obligation to support its own intervention.

The ethics of conditional rescue

The third ethical issue was, in contrast, widely publicised. Indeed, it dominated the western public image of the intervention, at least at the start. The Kosovo war was seen as a rescue intervention, legitimised by the suffering of ethnic Albanians, and with atrocity stories as a a reference point. The atrocity stories, in themselves, resulted in demands for western intervention. Such demands are often accompanied by the claim that there is only one possible set of universal moral values - the values of the liberal market-democratic tradition. These values are said to stand in opposition to atrocities: all atrocities are then claimed to morally oblige support for globally-enforced liberal values.

Any failure to support this claimed absolute truth is classified as 'relativism'. A 1995 defence of interventionism, The Ethics of Globalism, uses this fallacy:

"...at a more practical level, even the [moral] relativists balk in the face of the morally atrocious - human sacrifice, ritualistic mutilation, slavery, genocide, apartheid, concentration camps, gulags, and gas chambers. To explain why such atrocious behavior is immoral invariably requires reaching for universals, and when presented with such behavior most relativists accordingly reach out..."

The implication is that in the face of atrocity stories, they will drop their opposition to liberal-democratic values, and support a western military intervention. This was indeed a typical reaction to the Kosovo crisis - self-identification with the NATO as the vehicle of personal revulsion and anger at atrocities in Kosovo. This was a decisive factor in generating public support for the war: remember that there was no 'September 11' to provide a self-evident casus belli. However, if the premise is accepted, that 'our values' are the answer to all atrocities, the original legitimation for any such war will soon be forgotten, and it will become a crusade.

Remember, that people in western Europe were not asked to intervene in person: they were asked to support the operations of a military alliance. That alliance has a specific political character: the NATO has been a pillar of the European right for two generations. Does a moral obligation to help others extend into acquiescence in the policies and values of such an organisation? Is there a moral obligation to become right-wing?

The formal ethical question is this: if there is an obligation to assist persons in danger, and I can not assist them myself, may a third party, the Rescuer, impose conditions? Am I then obliged to meet those conditions, in order to fulfil my moral duty to the person in danger? Especially if the Rescuer chooses the nature of the assistance, and it includes aspects that I can not accept as being help. Remember that there is no neutral or universal definition of 'help'. Consider these two hypothetical examples:

Are both of these actions 'rescues'? Are both groups being 'helped'? That is impossible - and it is not simply a question of cultural relativism. Even in western countries there are conservative Christians, who also think that women should not work, and that it is a 'liberation' if they remain at home to care for the children. Even within one culture, there is simply no consensus on what constitutes 'help or 'rescue' - certainly not in complex and politicised actions. For instance the arrival of US troops at German concentration camps in north-western Europe is referred to as 'liberation'. In reality, the US enforced its own values. True 'liberation' would imply freedom to choose, and there was none. In effect, US forces and their allies arrived at the gate of the concentration camp, and said: "We'll rescue you, but only if you accept the market economy: take or leave it!"

Neither the post-1945 market democracies in Europe, nor the entry of KFOR into Kosovo, nor a NATO-OSCE protectorate in Kosovo, can be considered a 'liberation' in any real sense. This remains an an ethical issue, since the protectorate continues to justify itself by reference to the atrocities it ended. NATO supporters would compare KFOR entering Kosovo, to the Allied troops that entered concentration camps in 1944/1945. However just as there can be no consensus on the legitimacy of either rescue, there can be no consensus on the subsequent policies of the rescuers either. A military intervention can never be a simple rescue, like pulling a drowning person out of a lake. It will inevitably include actions which some people do not see as help. Can an 'obligation to help' oblige anyone to support an intervention package, with hundreds of military and diplomatic goals - and perhaps a long-term plan to model an entire society?

The NATO was not, in any case, prepared to attempt a full rescue operation of all threatened persons in Kosovo. It was willing to take some military action, to limit or reduce extreme repression - a limited rescue. On such 'rescue' interventions, NATO certainly imposes at the following conditions...

  1. NATO makes rescue conditional on exclusion of military assistance by others. A NATO intervention is a NATO-only intervention. (NATO in practice also limits non-military assistance by others, if NATO thinks it is a cover for political activity).

  2. NATO makes rescue conditional on unified control of the operation - by NATO of course. Not even recognised pro-western organisations (such as Amnesty International) are allowed to participate in decision making at the NATO - it is rigidly restricted to the defence and foreign policy elites. No form of participatory decision-making has ever been tolerated for NATO military operations. The condition on NATO control of any rescue is a de facto limitation on the grounds of social class, gender, language and other factors. In practice decisions will be taken entirely by English-speaking males from middle-class and upper-middle-class backgrounds.


  3. NATO makes rescue conditional on a monopoly of armed force. It specifies especially the geopolitical composition of the intervening forces: the USA, together with its allies. Not only does it not tolerate any other armed intervention, it will not lose control of its own weapons either. It prevents any other armed rescues, and will not facilitate them (with arms or ammunition), even if it has no operational objection. Even if the intervention has achieved its goal, the NATO will not voluntarily surrender or redistribute its weapons.

  4. NATO makes rescue conditional on a single type of rescue. This is the most politically significant condition. The Dayton accords are an example: they impose a particular geopolitical, political, social and economic structure in Bosnia. In addition, they imposed a de facto protectorate, with a High Representative who can impose further conditions. In Bosnia the High Representative (Carlos Westendorp) determined among other things the typeface used on driving licences, the design of the Bosnian flag, and the content of TV news bulletins. In Kosovo the OSCE has the task of 'implementing democracy'. In practice this means imposing a pro-NATO local elite, often described as 'civil society'. In other words, NATO not only imposes conditions on the nature of future society, but imposes an open-ended condition to accept future conditions.

  5. NATO therefore makes rescue conditional on acceptance of the result of such an intervention, in the medium and long term. The long-term result is that Kosovo will be a liberal-democratic nation state, with a free-market economy. It will trade with other nation states, in a Europe of the nation states. In other words, it will also be an expression of the NATO's geopolitical values. Daniel Goldhagen's 1999 proposal A New Serbia advocated a complete military defeat and occupation, not just of Kosovo but of all Serbia. This strategy became unnecessary after the fall of Milosevic, but Goldhagen exemplifies the desire to occupy a territory and remodel society according to liberal values - with an educational system teaching "Enlightenment values". Goldhagen is not the NATO, but he exemplifies the widespread belief in the absolute superiority of liberal-democratic societies. Certainly, the NATO would never agree to abandon liberal democratic values, in order to meet objections of conscience to its actions in Kosovo.

  6. NATO apparently makes rescue conditional on acceptance of the political, social and economic structures in the home states - the member states contributing troops to the rescue. This is the least explicit of the conditions, which is why I write "apparently". It was certainly often implied that criticism of the NATO, or its values, was an effective collusion in genocide in Kosovo.

This last type of condition expands the 'obligation to help' far beyond the original inter-personal obligation. The social reality was that no civilian in western Europe was asked to go to Kosovo and personally rescue anyone: they were asked to blindly trust their governments and armies.

A fictional but not unrealistic realistic example... During the Kosovo war, an ethnic Albanian woman A, is raped by an ethnic Serb soldier B of the Serbian paramilitary police in Kosovo. On the same day pilot C of the Royal Air Force accidentally bombs hospital X in Sombor while attempting to hit the headquarters of ethnic Hungarian commander D of the Yugoslav Federal Army, who has never been in Kosovo. The bomb kills civilians E, F, and G: none of them have been in Kosovo either. A British citizen H, demonstrating with others against the hospital bombing, criticises the NATO in a television news interview. However, the next day the woman A gives an account of her rape on television. Tony Blair is asked to comment, and says that citizen H is morally obliged not to criticise the NATO, in order to help the woman A, and others like her.

Is Blair right in this fictional example, which accurately reflects his attitude during the war? Does the obligation to help extend in long chains, to include actions by and against third parties, categorised by their ethnicity, by geopolitical units, by function, by residence, and combinations of these? And since this would make any 'help' so complex, that it could only be given by a entire society, does it also imply a general obligation to accept society, and abandon social criticism?

These conditions imposed by the NATO reflect the reality of a geopolitical organisation, a military alliance of nation states. Wars between nation states are fought on the assumption that each nation is a unit, and that its citizens act as robots controlled by the government. In reality, a war could not be fought on the basis of person-to-person moral obligation to help. It is impossible to show that bombing an electricity transformer is an act of personal assistance, to someone raped or tortured 500 km away, a month before the bombing. If the NATO had to give its pilots this kind of justification for every raid, then it would never bomb anything. When politicians suggest that there are moral obligations to support the NATO, as a form of personal assistance, that is simply war propaganda.

An organisation can not, as a general principle, claim the moral obligations of other people as its 'property'. The NATO can not say "you are obliged to rescue others from danger, we rescue others, therefore you must support us". By imposing conditions on a specific rescue, the rescuer in effect takes that rescue out of the category of pure assistance. It can therefore no longer be included in any moral obligation to assist persons from danger: such an obligation only applies to true assistance itself. This applies especially to organisations which are built on such contested foundations as the nation state. Obligations of one person to help another person, can not be extended into the realm of geopolitics, state formation, legitimation and loyalty.

In western Europe, aid to civilian victims quickly became the main legitimation of the NATO intervention in Kosovo. However, there is no absolute moral obligation, for humans to help other humans. Human beings are not 'help-robots', and should not be made into help-robots. It is legitimate to deny help, when denial of help is good. There is no general moral obligation to respond to an appeal for help either. The appeals for help, in the context of Kosovo, are far from simple. They included political demands by Kosovo secessionists, that the 'help' should take the form of Kosovan independence, and their demands for weapons. The 'help' consisted, almost by definition, in killing others. The 'help' sought included demands to support certain (anti-Serbian) political parties, or to cease social or political opposition to the government of the intervening powers. It included implicitly, and in some cases explicitly, a general demand to accept liberal market democracy. However, no society can legitimately claim loyalty from its citizens, simply on the grounds that the government helps, assists, or rescues some people.

Supporting nation-state geopolitics

The fourth ethical problem concerns the geopolitics of intervention in nationalist campaigns. Unlike Bosnia, there are only two competing visions of the future of Kosovo: as part of Serbia, and as part of Albania. A possible independent Kosovo is seen only as transitional, a prelude to a Greater Albania. That made the ethics of intervention clearer. The purpose of the Serbian repression was to keep Kosovo in Serbia, the purpose of the UCK (Kosova Liberation Army) was to put it in Albania, in the long run.

Intervention means taking sides. Any military intervention against one side, hinders the other. This is true, even if the military action is called a humanitarian intervention - even if it does in fact protect and help civilians. No neutral 'ending of suffering' is possible. There was no volcano or flood which equally affected all ethnic groups: in such conflicts, all the suffering is caused by armed forces. The only way to stop them, is to attack them: and any attack on one side, is an advantage for the other. It is now clear, that NATO provided some air support to the UCK (Kosova Liberation Army) during the Kosovo war, an action with dishonourable historical precedents...

aus: Jens REUTER (1982) Die Albaner in Jugoslawien
München: Oldenbourg Verlag [32-33]

Nach der Kapitulation Jugoslawiens (17.4.1941) wurde Kosovo in drei Besatzungszonen eingeteilt...der größte Teil der Region [kam] unter Italienische Kontrolle. Deutschland sicherte sich den Nordzipfel Kosovos mit dem bedeutenden Blei- und Zinkbergwerk Trepca bei Kosovska Mitrovica, während Bulgarien die östlichen Distrikte zugesprochen wurden.

Am 12.8.1941 wurde die italienische Besatzungszone vom Mutterland annektiert und mit diesem zu "Großalbanien" von Mussolinis Gnaden vereinigt. Nach der Kapitulation Italiens (September 1943) wurde "Großalbanien" und damit auch die Kosovo-Region von deutschen Truppen besetzt. Deutschland erklärte, es respektiere das "unabhängige und freie Albanien"; die deutschen Truppen seien gekommen, um das albanische Volk von italienischer Knechtschaft zu befreien.

Sowohl die italienische wie auch später die deutsche Besatzungsmacht verstanden es sehr geschickt, die Jugoslawische Partisanenbewegung bei den Kosovo-Albaner in Mißkrediet zu bringen. Die wenigen Anhänger dieser Bewegung unter den Kosovo-Albaner wurden als russische und serbische Agenten diffamiert, die sich zum Ziel gesetzt hätten, Großalbanien zu zerschlagen und die Kosovo-Region erneut unter großserbische Herrschaft zu bringen.

...Nach der Kapitukation Italiens wurde im Kosovo-Gebiet auf deutsche Initiative hin die nationalistische "Zweite Liga von Prizren" und ein Albanisches "Kosovo-Regiment" gebildet. Diese Truppen beherrschten die Region Urosevac, Pristina, Kosovska Mitrovica, Pec, Prizren und sorgten dafür, daß hier kein kommunistischer Widerstand entfalten konnte. Mitte Februar 1944 setzte die Winteroffensive deutscher und nationalistischer albanischer Truppen gegen den Hauptstab der Partisanen ein, der sich in Djakovica Malesija befand...Das erklärte Ziel dieses Angriffs...wurde jedoch nicht erreicht.

So is there any non-paradoxical moral position? Yes, there is. Each of the possible futures results in two nation states, Serbia and Albania. Both already exist: the geopolitical options under discussion will change their border, nothing more. But nation states have no moral claim to their own territory, let alone other territory. So no border conflict can be morally legitimate, no matter how it is resolved. None of the parties has legitimate claims, none of the geopolitical options has moral legitimacy. If there is any military action in such cases, it should be directed against all the parties, including the NATO. There was, and is, no army, which is willing and able to do that. It was therefore morally legitimate to do nothing: to sit and watch the war on television.

Intervention ethics: conclusion

In conclusion, there was no moral obligation to support a NATO intervention in Kosovo. Such an intervention may be judged on its own inherent qualities. As a NATO action, in support of NATO aims, goals and values, it was wrong. No NATO action can ever be right, and the NATO itself has no moral obligation to intervene anywhere, since all its interventions are wrong. There is never a moral obligation to do evil: the only moral obligation that NATO has, is to dissolve itself.

However, it would be wrong to ignore here the political reality in Europe. The most emotional reactions during the Kosovo crisis, often had no direct connection with Kosovo. NATO attracts support from the European right, who feel they are vindicated by proven atrocities. (In a similar way, Belgian conservatives felt that they have been 'proved right' by the crimes of Marc Dutroux). In some way - without saying so explicitly - western conservatives feel that foreign atrocities have been committed by their domestic political opponents, that criticism of the free market in some way causes murder of children, rape camps, and other atrocities. But they will not say that explicitly, for they realise it sounds absurd.

Without the kind of abstract arguments I have considered above, it is impossible to answer that underlying emotion, and the distorted politics it produces. Certainly, I think it is wrong to make excuses for atrocities - even for atrocity stories that later turn out to be false. But many people prefer to do that, rather than face an unpleasant possibility: that the difference in response to real atrocities is too great for a single national community. It is socially more acceptable to say "There is no evidence for rape camps", than to say "The free market is worse than rape camps". But it is an evasion of the truth. There are underlying fundamental differences within western liberal democracies, about the existence rights of those societies.

The consequences of the Kosovo war for political philosophy and theory are becoming visible. Perhaps the politics of the Kosovo war were the late expression, of the post-1989 triumphalism among supporters of liberal market democracy. Most young people in western Europe have grown up with the idea, that their own societies are preferable to all others. The same applies in most cases to their parents, and often their grandparents as well. Since 1989, the claim that all alternatives to market democracy are self-evidently wrong, has been dominant in European political thought. This is the background, I think, for the emergence of an assertive interventionist liberalism - clearly a factor in the later invasion and occupation of Iraq.

This re-ideologisation of liberal-democracy is a double-edged sword. When Tony Blair justified the Kosovo war by claiming that the NATO is bombing for its values, that is an implicit invitation to others with different values, to bomb for their values. Which they did, on 11 September 2001. Interventionist liberalism is fundamentally different, from the liberalism of the last two generations in Europe. It sees the world as a war between good and evil, where there can be no compromise or discussion with evil. It demands a continuing war against evil, in support of absolute values such as human rights and democracy. It considers these absolute values beyond discussion, and finds that states may legitimately enforce these values by war. The opponents of these values have become a 'legitimate target' for the violence of liberal-democrats. Ultimately, such a hardening of attitudes is an important destabilising factor in Europe. Note this atrocity story from the Kosovo war, and try to imagine a Europe, where every adult believes, that anyone who disagrees with them kills babies...

UNITED NATIONS, May 24 - A new U.N. report on Monday documents extensive rapes of Kosovo women in at least three villages....according to the report prepared by French psychologist Dominique Serrano-Fitamant for the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA)
....In the town of Berlenitz, women told of soldiers separating men from their wives and children. Young boys had their ears and noses cut before their throats were slit. "The torturers sharpened their knives in front of the women. They then cut open the stomachs of many pregnant women and skewed the fetus on their blades," the report said.

Genocide, world order, and state formation
The logic of the war in Bosnia