With ‘humanitarian intervention’ now back in the spotlight following events in Libya and Syria, NATO’s campaign against Belgrade on behalf of Kosovo Albanians is now being touted as a legal precedent; but should it?
By Miguel Nunes Silva
‘Operation Allied Force’ is the subject of much contention to this day. More important than its results are perhaps the motivations behind it. Conspiracy theories abound, but objectively the United States – the paramount contributor to the operation – has little to show in the way of interests protected. Washington already had a footing in the Balkans and Kosovo is a natural resource deprived and impoverished territory that costs the international community more money than it brings in.
It has also been said that a humanitarian intervention is warranted by the sheer political and economic burden that a refugee crisis represents, yet Kosovo’s neighbors Greece and Italy were hardly NATO’s staunchest supporters for the operation.
The answer might more reasonably be found in the actual statements of British and German officials; provided one takes them at their word and avoids looking for ulterior motives. This was exactly what it was declared to be – a military intervention aimed at protecting an ethnic group from a dictatorial regime.
Leaving aside all the actual nefarious consequences for ethnic diversity in the region, the fact remains that Kosovo nationalists came out on top and Belgrade’s regime fell.
For this very reason, and until joining the Obama administration’s National Security Council, Pulitzer prize winner Samantha Power used to make the case that Kosovo was the best example of the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P) doctrine of international law. It was not a coincidence that R2P was also recently invoked in Libya as grounds for military intervention.
R2P stipulates that should a government desist from assuring the physical integrity of its citizens against organized violence, the international community has the legal obligation to breach said state’s sovereignty and step in under UN auspices to correct the problem, making use of ‘peace enforcement’ (coercive) means if necessary.
While R2P has not been added to the UN Charter, the 2005 General Assembly conclusions were mostly in favor of the concept. Of course any will to formalize the concept will always run up against a specific definition of the concept and the inability to implement it against the wishes of great powers.
The apologists of the Kosovo and Libyan campaigns are now turning their rhetoric on Syria. Barack Obama and aids such as Tom Donilon made clear however that the Libya intervention was conducted due to specific favorable conditions, and that the use of American/Western military power in the Middle East is to be used only sparsely.
This means that the American administration seems to have empirically concluded from its post-Cold War conduct that belligerence must be based on international legitimacy, and that interventions based on normative goals rather than national interest must be bound to financial conditioning.
The legacy of American post-modern interventionism appears to constrain ideologically-based belligerence to states under ten million inhabitants and without widespread support from the international community. Bigger states, or those with widespread support in world opinion, are not suitable for intervention. To destroy the military infrastructure of a small state like Serbia (the former Yugoslavia) or Libya is relatively inexpensive for a country like the US, whilst the geostrategic implications are not overly adverse. Just as relevant, the ability to promote regime change is greater in small polities under military and political pressure than it is in medium-sized ones. To the White House, Iraq proves that air power alone is insufficient as a tool for regime change but it also proves that troops on the ground in such a large territory are unsustainable on the long term.
The main concern to be had with the Kosovo precedent of course was recently raised by Nikolas Gvosdev and is that of the decline of the concept of sovereignty, with all the potential legal alternatives proving insufficient. The truth is that concepts originating in the current trend for the universalization of values – such as ‘global commons’, ‘ungoverned spaces’, ‘global transnational terrorism’ and of course ‘responsibility to protect’ – have corrupted good old ‘state sovereignty’.
Kosovo again presents a challenge to the proponents of international law as even if it were a successful case of humanitarian intervention – which given its economic dependence, ethnic tensions, diplomatic recognition gaps and absence of territorial integrity, it is not – the problem of the lack of a UN Security Council mandate for NATO’s intervention still undermines the current international legal order and its highest source of legitimacy: the United Nations.
As things stand, Kosovo sadly remains a poor role model for any future interventions around the world, and the precedents it created appear to have caused more problems than they solved. Kosovo is likely to go down in history as a case for post-Cold War optimism, but also a case for the failure of this optimism. Its precedent should perhaps be compared diametrically with that of the Gulf War in terms of effectiveness and legitimacy, with the 1991 intervention in Kuwait contrasting greatly in success. One should thus question why it is that some would choose to invoke Kosovo, of all the intervention frameworks from the nineties? The decade of the ‘end of history’ was not a lost decade, but Kosovo should provide no standard for the Arab Spring.
Miguel Nunes Silva is a Master’s candidate at the College of Europe and a researcher for the geo-strategic consultancy, Wikistrat.