Louise Arbour provoked equal and opposite
reactions on the occasion of her recent visit to Sri Lanka.
The event was keenly awaited and enthusiastically celebrated by
a fair few, but was the subject of suspicion and anger amongst
many others. It all boiled down to whether or not one
believed in the benevolent nature of foreign intervention and
its ability to deliver us from the evil of human rights abuses,
for she is the very embodiment of the idea as the United Nations
High Commissioner for Human Rights.
I almost embraced the theory myself after I
watched the trailer for a film dramatising Louise Arbour’s
previous role as the Chief Prosecutor of the International
Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. It is called
‘Hunt for Justice: the Louise Arbour Story’.
The plot is simple. Serbs are in the
middle of committing genocide against ethnic Albanians in the
province of Kosovo. It is being orchestrated by the
monstrous Slobodan Milosevic, President of the Federal Republic
of Yugoslavia, and not for the first time, as he was also
responsible for similar attacks during the earlier breakaway of
the states of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. He has to be
stopped, and the world is just watching it happen, but here
comes our heroine, Louise Arbour. She swoops in and saves
the day by indicting Slobodan Milosevic for war crimes in a
special court in The Hague. It looks like a blockbuster.
It is propaganda. There were no goodies
and baddies, and it was not all neatly solved by the end.
However, that is the way it is presented, on the world stage as
well as in the film, particularly by the Americans.
Bill Clinton, the American President at the
time, had a thing about bombing. He started in Sudan and
Afghanistan in August 1998 (in apparent retaliation for the
attacks on American embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi),
moved on to Iraq from December 1998 (to punish Saddam Hussein
for not cooperating with weapons inspectors), and finally
reached the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia by March 1999 (to
persuade Slobodan Milosevic to give up Kosovo). Coincidentally,
it all happened after he got into trouble at home, where he was
facing impeachment for lying about and then trying to cover up
his affair with Monica Lewinsky.
It would not have been wise to say that this was
all in the interests of distracting attention from a domestic
problem, or even entrenching one country’s domination of the
whole world post-Cold War, which was presumably the intention of
those who suggested it to Bill Clinton. People had to wipe
from their minds what Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s press
secretary, strategist and trusted confidant (quoting from the
dust jacket of his book published a couple of months ago: ‘The
Blair Years’) wrote in his diary in January 1999 in the
aftermath of one of the worst Serb attacks in Kosovo, in which
it is said that 45 ethnic Albanians were killed: ‘Tony Blair and
Robin Cook (British Foreign Secretary) agreed we could not bomb
because there was no political process and the Kosovo Liberation
Army were not much better than the Serbs, and just looking to
NATO to be their defence arm and bomb Slobodan Milosevic for
The Americans got the propaganda ball rolling.
It is the worst genocide since World War II, announced NATO.
The Independent International Commission on Kosovo declared in
its comprehensive report on the conflict that around 2,000
people had died in at least a year leading up to March 1999, of
which probably 500 were Serb civilians or police and 1,500 were
ethnic Albanian civilians or members of the Kosovo Liberation
Meanwhile, a peace conference was called near
Paris. The Serbs were cautious because the ceasefire that
they had negotiated under pressure from NATO the previous year
had seen them withdraw 6,000 police and soldiers back to
barracks, only to watch their positions being taken over by the
Kosovo Liberation Army, and all under the supervision of the
international monitors from the OSCE. It broke down
following a deliberate campaign of provocation by the Kosovo
Liberation Army, according to confidential minutes of a meeting
at NATO later made public by the BBC.
There is a dispute over what happened next.
The proposal that emerged from the peace conference was agreed
to by the Albanian, American and British delegates, but rejected
by the Serbs and Russians. It was suggested to hand over
the administration of Kosovo to NATO, whose troops would be
granted immunity from prosecution and the right to roam
throughout the whole of Serbia. Slobodan Milosevic might
not have signed up to any agreement at that point, but that last
clause seems to have been inserted to guarantee it.
Whatever, the somewhat half-hearted attempt at peace failed.
Things got a lot worse in Kosovo. The
Serbian Army drove out about 850,000 ethnic Albanians, amounting
to some 80% of the population. The Independent
International Commission on Kosovo says that possibly up to
10,000 people were killed.
Bombing turned out not to be as easy as some had
expected it to be and, once it had started, the political
imperative to reassure the public that it was a moral war
increased exponentially. Alastair Campbell put it well,
‘Tony Blair said if we didn’t win this, it was curtains for the
government.’ He was soon complaining about coverage by the
BBC: ‘We (he and Tony Blair) talked about whether we should go
for them publicly. They made no effort to balance the fact
that they were reporting democracies and a dictatorship,
virtually taking the dictatorship propaganda at face value while
putting everything we did through a far more intense scrutiny.’
He was also upset about retired generals giving interviews
critical of the prosecution of the bombing campaign, who the
Chief of Defence Staff referred to as ‘rats who should be shot.’
Before long, the politicians were taken in by
their own speeches, and they forgot that only a few weeks
earlier they had thought that the situation was largely the
fault of the Kosovo Liberation Army. Alastair Campbell
reports himself discussing the relative merits of bombing a
television station or the headquarters of a political party,
both of which were illegitimate targets under international
humanitarian law, and also sure to result in the deaths of
ordinary people, or what he was now happily calling ‘collateral
damage.’ In fact, at least 500 civilians were killed in
NATO air attacks, according to Human Rights Watch.
Alastair Campbell visited Kosovo when it was all over and, as he
was driving past a convoy of Serbs on their way out, he said, ‘I
could see the rapist in their eyes. They were among the
most disgusting people I had ever seen and I felt all the more
satisfied at what we had done.’ It is profoundly
Slobodan Milosevic did a deal with NATO in June
1999. Kosovo remains part of Serbia until talks on its
final status can be completed, but it is administered by the
United Nations with the support of soldiers from NATO. Within a
year, around 1,000 Serbs and Roma had been killed in Kosovo, and
more than 200,000 had fled their homes to Serbia. Foreign
intervention, it seems to me, brought nothing but death and
destruction to Kosovo, but nobody can say what would have
happened if it had not taken place, and this may explain why the
Americans and British were able to use Kosovo as the precedent
to declare still more humanitarian wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Louise Arbour played an important part in the
propaganda campaign in the lead up to and during the bombing.
The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia
was set up in 1993 in response to the earlier conflicts in
Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and she served as Chief
Prosecutor from 1996. The vast majority of those indicted
were Serbs (including Croatian Serbs and Bosnian Serbs), and
Slobodan Milosevic himself was indicted in May 1999 for crimes
committed in the preceding few months in Kosovo, but it was only
after he lost an election and the Americans promised the new
government millions in aid that he was arrested and handed over
to the court in The Hague. The first ethnic Albanian, and
a low-ranker at that, was indicted only in November 2004, and
the Serbian government complaint against NATO was rejected on
the basis that the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia had been
suspended from the United Nations at the time of the bombing.
Louise Arbour resigned on the day the war was won by NATO.
Mahinda Samarasinghe, Minister of Human Rights,
says that Louise Arbour did not call for any kind of foreign
intervention in Sri Lanka, not even the relatively mild proposal
of an international monitoring mission under the auspices of her
office at the United Nations. Good. It would not
stop human rights abuses and nor would a clean bill of health
from such a body stop people with ulterior motives bombing the
country if they really wanted to do so. That is how the
world works, I fear, and anyone who thinks otherwise has seen
too many films.
As for ‘Hunt for Justice: the Louise Arbour
Story’: the world would be better off without a sequel in Sri