The tragic blunder in Kosovo by James Bissett, Canada's former
ambassador to Yugoslavia
We led the way in Suez, so why didn't we know better than
to be led into a flagrant violation of international law,
asks James Bissett, Canada's former ambassador to Yugoslavia
Monday, January 10, 2000
The bombing of Yugoslavia in the closing days of the 20th century has
raised disturbing and unresolved issues about international security that
must be addressed. Hailed as a victory for the North Atlantic Treaty
Organization, the bombing, on closer analysis, can be seen as an
unmitigated failure with far-reaching implications for world peace. Canada
must demand more of its political leaders before they lead us into another
Canada's participation in this undeclared war against a sovereign state was
carried out without public awareness or debate in Parliament. The bombing
was conducted without the approval of the United Nations Security Council
and was a direct violation not only of the UN Charter but also of Article 1
of the NATO Treaty itself, which requires NATO to settle any international
dispute by peaceful means and to refrain from the threat or use of force,
"in any manner inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations."
Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy and Defence Minsiter Art Eggleton have
assured us this flagrant violation of international law was necessary to
stop ethnic cleansing and human-rights violations against the Albanian
population of Kosovo.
Six months have passed since the end of the bombing. Now the war is over,
it's time for sober analysis about why it was fought. The public has been
bombarded with NATO propaganda, not only about the reasons for the
intervention but also about its results. I believe we have been subject to
duplicity and misleading information. The first casualty of the war in
Kosovo has been the truth.
Our political leaders and much of the media have said that the bombing of
Yugoslavia was launched to stop ethnic cleansing and atrocities. This is a
myth. All the evidence shows that there were approximately 2,000 casualties
in Kosovo up to the time of the NATO bombing -- by any standard, not an
extraordinary number considering that a civil war had been raging since
1993. By contrast, the number of Yugoslavian civilians killed by the NATO
bombing is reckoned to be well above 2,000.
The UN estimated that close to 200,000 ethnic Albanians were displaced
before the NATO air strikes -- again, a deplorable figure but not
surprising given that these people were driven from their homes as a result
of the civil war. After the NATO bombs began to fall, more than 800,000
Kosovars were forced to flee from Serbian retaliation and from NATO bombs.
So much for humanitarian intervention.
Following a UN resolution, the Yugoslav government in November, 1998,
allowed 1,300 Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE)
observers into Kosovo in an attempt to monitor and de-escalate the
fighting. As far as I know the official OSCE report was never published.
Had it been, we could verify the allegations that ethnic cleansing and
atrocities were serious enough to warrant military intervention. The
failure to publish the report strongly suggests that the alleged repression
in Kosovo did not justify intervention.
Moreover, a number of credible OSCE observers have publicly stated that in
the weeks leading up to the bombing they witnessed no murders, no
deportations and nothing that could be described as systematic persecution.
One of these observers, the former Czech foreign minister, Jiri Dienstbier,
has further testified that NATO was fully aware that bombing would force
the Serbs to expel Kosovar Albanians as a military tactic. Yet our
political leaders continue to tell us the bombing was designed to prevent
-- not cause -- ethnic cleansing.
The immediate reason for the air strike was the Serbian refusal to sign the
infamous Rambouillet Agreement -- a 57-page document that called for a
referendum on autonomy in Kosovo and provided access to NATO forces to all
of Yugoslavia. No sovereign state could possibly have accepted such
conditions. This document was not made public until well after the bombing
was under way. The chairman of the French National Assembly's defence
committee did not receive a copy until June 3, after the Serbs had already
accepted the terms of the ceasefire! I doubt any Canadian member of
Parliament has bothered to request a copy. In any case, the Rambouillet
document, drafted by the Americans, was clearly designed to ensure a Serb
rejection. NATO needed its war.
The bombing began on March 25, 1999. NATO expected Yugoslavia to capitulate
in a matter of days. When this did not happen and the bombing was extended
to more and more civilian targets, public support in some NATO countries
began to wane. The alliance found itself in trouble: None of its objectives
had been achieved and the bombing was creating a humanitarian catastrophe
and pulverizing a modern European state.
A negotiated settlement was essential. But NATO had to save face. Although
it had in effect excluded the Russians through the insulting terms of
Rambouillet, the alliance now turned to Moscow to get it out of the jam it
found itself in. Former Russian prime minister Victor Chernomydrin
persuaded NATO to drop the two most objectionable conditions, the
referendum and access for NATO troops to Yugoslavia. NATO made further
concessions -- acknowledging Yugoslav sovereignty over Kosovo, putting the
occupation of Kosovo under UN auspices, and letting Yugoslav troops guard
Serbian holy sites.
The UN approved the terms of this peace agreement; it remains to be seen if
NATO will honour them. My guess is, having made a mess of the war, NATO
will make a mess of the peace. Already, NATO's supreme commander in Europe,
U.S. General Wesley Clark, has warned that NATO will prevent any attempt by
Yugoslavia to return troops to Kosovo. One can hardly read this as a sign
of NATO's respect for the UN.
The bombing of Yugoslavia was a tragic mistake. There have been dreadful
human and financial costs. Ethnic cleansing and murder continue in Kosovo.
More seriously, NATO's illegal action has fractured the framework of world
security that has existed since the end of the Second World War. It has
destabilized the Balkans and alienated the other great nuclear powers,
Russia and China. NATO has abandoned the rule of law and lost any moral
stature it might have had during the Cold War years. By forsaking diplomacy
and resorting to force, NATO has reduced the democratic countries of the
West to the level of the dictatorships it was created to oppose.
Canada's foreign minister would have us believe Kosovo marked a turning
point in the way the international community is to react in future when
human-rights violations take place within the borders of a sovereign state.
We are asked to believe that the long-standing principle of state
sovereignty can be overruled in the interests of humanitarianism
intervention. We are asked to embrace new concepts of "soft power" and
"human security." Mr. Axworthy assures us that Canada will always make its
own foreign-policy decisions independently.
Yet when great issues were at stake in Kosovo -- issues of life or death,
of war or peace, of ignoring the UN Security Council, of violating NATO's
own treaty -- Canada's voice was not heard. We eagerly joined the war
without question and without consultation with the representatives of the
It didn't have to be this way. Another Canadian foreign minister faced a
similar decision back in 1956. In the early days of the Suez crisis, Lester
Pearson came out against the bombing of the Suez Canal by Canada's French
and British allies and played a key role in getting the UN to halt the
If Canada is to play an effective role in international affairs it must
continue to stand for the rule of law, for the UN charter and for
democratic decision-making when its military could become involved in
aggressive action against sovereign states. If Mr. Axworthy is serious
about pushing a human security agenda, let him demand that NATO reaffirm
its adherence to the UN Charter and its commitment not to resolve
international disputes by the threat or use of force. This simple
reaffirmation would reassure Canadians that as we enter the new millennium
we all know that the ground rules have not changed.
James Bissett was Canada's ambassador to Yugoslavia from 1990 until 1992,
with responsibility for Albania and Bulgaria.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Thursday, January 27, 2000
Former Canadian diplomat snubbed by Canadian Embassy
Mr. James Bissett, former Canadian ambassador to Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and
Albania (1990-1992), while paying a courtesy visit to the Canadian Embassy
in Belgrade, was informed by an Embassy staffer that no one is allowed to
speak with him. The staffer said the gag order came from the Ministry of
Foreign Affairs in Ottawa.
Mr. Bissett is in Belgrade at the invitation of the Association of Serbian
Writers to participate in a conference called "Serbia and the West". The
Association of Serbian Writers is not affiliated with the Yugoslav
governmental in any way.
At the end of his visit to Belgrade, on January 25, 2000, Mr. Bissett, a
career diplomat, wanted to pay a courtesy call to the Canadian Embassy in
Belgrade, something he had done each time he was abroad. When informed that
no one would speak to him, a dismayed Mr. Bissett turned around and left the
One could speculate that Mr. Bissett is being blacklisted by External
Affairs, his former employer, for his opposition to Canada's participation
in NATO's air assault on the FR of Yugoslavia. Mr. Bissett's January 10th
column in the Globe and Mail, "The tragic blunder in Kosovo," certainly did
nothing to endear him to Mssrs. Chretien and Axworthy.
Foreign Minister Axworthy is noted for his espousal of Canadian ideals
abroad: democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and
multi-ethnicity. The scandalous treatment of Mr. Bissett, a proud Canadian,
puts in question Mr. Axworthy's propagations.
For additional information please contact Mr. Lloyd Axworthy at (613)
995-1851 or the Canadian Embassy in Belgrade at 011-381-11-644-666
BACK TO PROBLEM IDENTIFICATION TOPICS