. . . but there's no turning back now

April 16, 1999|By William Pfaff

PARIS -- Kosovo is not an affair for which international law has an answer. It has a moral dimension that sets it apart. The Serbian campaign to uproot, displace and deport a large part of Kosovo's Albanian population is of a savagery unknown in Western Europe, outside the former Yugoslavia, since World War II.

Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and his government are attempting to solve their Kosovo problem -- undeniably a genuine problem -- by deporting its Albanian population, the overwhelming majority.

According to German government sources, this program for purging Kosovo of its Albanian population was prepared at the end of last year under the code name "Horseshoe." Its initial purpose was to defeat or neutralize the Kosovo Liberation Army, in rebellion against Serbia. In terms of Serbia's internationally recognized -- if abusive -- sovereignty over Kosovo, this was a legitimate objective.

The government's experience in operations against the KLA last fall, which displaced 300,000 people, proved unsatisfactory because the displaced Kosovars eventually returned home, and the KLA's resistance to the Serbs resumed.

A final solution

"Horseshoe" was designed to produce a permanent solution, and was launched even before the Rambouillet discussions in March, which the Serb leadership did not take seriously.

Washington has until recently treated Milosevic as a Balkan rogue, indispensable in solving the problems his own policies have created. Moreover, he spoke for his people. He has repeatedly been elected to lead the country. While these elections were not models of good practice, their outcomes make it hard to deny Milosevic's electoral legitimacy.

However, we all were greatly underestimating him. The Serbian president's decision to displace a major part of the Albanians from their homes -- expelling them from the country in an unimaginably brutal way employing terror, and presumably, as happened earlier in Bosnia, mass executions, demonstrates that he possesses a moral imagination that merits his comparison with Hitler and Stalin. He acts on a grand scale.

NATO has actually intervened in Serbia out of long-developing but ultimately decisive moral outrage. What it has done lacks U.N. sanction or logical consistency with the past. It is on a new but not an unprecedented course. The principle of absolute sovereignty has been challenged in a number of recent developments, including creation of an international war crimes court and the assertion of a right to humanitarian intervention.

Outside intervention

The task is to give structure and formal content to the notion that the international community may have the right to intervene in the internal affairs of a country out of moral outrage at atrocities taking place there.

NATO's current action will have been wasted as a precedent if what comes out of it is merely a cynical lesson about unilateral action ultimately subordinated to domestic politics. Worse would be if the humanitarian principle were betrayed by a NATO compromise with Milosevic, leaving him the implicit victor.

We need to formulate grounds for dispassionate international interventions in cases where international morality and good order are outraged. It is difficult and potentially dangerous to do so. Yet the international community seems to be moving erratically and hesitantly toward such a code. A precedent of a kind, unsatisfactory but significant, lay in the intervention of the Organization of African Unity into the frightful and mindless carnage occurring inside Liberia.

To be validated as a lesson for the future, this NATO intervention in Serbia must succeed. It must not halt until the refugees have been returned, with Kosovo secured under some provisional arrangement that awaits a generally agreed Balkan settlement with a changed government in Belgrade, and with Milosevic and his responsible colleagues charged as war criminals. This is what NATO's leaders have already said they mean to do. That means that anything less is failure.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 4/16/99

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