By Jake Lynch
Why is there so little talk of peace for Ukraine? Is the world community really prepared to sit on its hands as the country is destroyed, with a wounded regime in Moscow dialling up threats and nuclear rhetoric?
Could this alarming state of affairs be, in any way, connected with the experience of peace advocates over recent decades? Times when they have often had good arguments, but were consistently sidelined?
Pull on your strongest shoes for an arduous trip down a shadowy side-street off memory lane – frosted now with disuse, but still potentially the route to a more secure world for us all.
Since the proximate issue is a perturbation in the former Soviet space, let us begin with the fall of communism. At the dawn of the 1990s, centrifugal forces pulling apart the Yugoslav federation grew stronger. The first shots in the wars of succession were fired by Slovene border guards, in a brief skirmish that proved no obstacle in the republic’s serene progression to independent status.
In vain did then-UN Secretary General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar warn against allowing components of the FRY to topple like dominoes, with each recognised by the international community as it fell. Absent the coordinated, region-wide response he had been urging (peace initiative klaxon), new states were left to form as they so often have: at the barrel of a gun.
The mess this left behind was cleared up in the Dayton Accords, which brought hostilities to a not-altogether-tidy end in Bosnia-i-Herzegovina. But one problem remained unaddressed: Kosovo, the province of southern Serbia with an Albanian-majority population.
Diplomatic overtures by Ibrahim Rugani, the ‘Gandhi of the Balkans’, for international assistance with a political solution for his people, were ignored. Only when representative status passed to an armed group – the Kosovo Liberation Army – did the outside world sit up and take notice.
The Organisation for Security Cooperation in Europe sent in a mission to monitor a ceasefire agreement, but with a lopsided brief. It oversaw the withdrawal of Yugoslav army units from Kosovo, but did nothing to stop the KLA from taking over their revetted positions, and using them to harry Yugoslav officials.
Through the second half of 1998, the North Atlantic Council, the governing body of NATO, was briefed that most ceasefire breaches came from the KLA. In public statements, however, leaders of NATO member governments gave the opposite impression.
The conflict was framed along Cold War lines. Framing, Robert Entman told us in a widely cited article, links “moral evaluation” with three concomitant factors: “problem definition, causal explanation and treatment recommendation”. Establish a ‘bad guy’ as the source of any difficulties, and the solution must be to do something to him.
The Rambouillet Accord, the draft agreement named after the chateau where the parties gathered to negotiate over it, was rejected by the KLA because it demanded they give up their arms, and contained no guarantee of independence.
“Clarity” was provided – as then-US Secretary of State, the late Madeleine Albright, told the BBC – by adjusting it, as talks moved the short distance to Paris, so the guns were reclassified as “personal protection weapons”. Now, moreover, a referendum on Kosovo’s constitutional status was to be held within three years.
These terms proving unacceptable to Federal Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic – already cast as the ‘bad guy’ – the march to war became unavoidable.
Except… the thorniest problem with Kosovo’s status lay in its northern region, abutting the border with Serbia, which had an old-established, majority-Serb population. (Milosevic had risen to power on a promise that Serbs would never have to live in minority under rule by any other people).
Enter the Serbian Orthodox Church, with its own peace initiative (klaxon): a plan for cantonisation, which would have allowed for all significant issues pertaining to identity and belonging to be settled by the peoples concerned, at local level, while providing for a substantial degree of autonomy for Kosovo as a whole.
The plan was ignored by elite decision-makers and, after 79 days of bombing, hostilities ceased thanks to diplomatic intervention by the EU (in the person of Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari) and Russia (former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin).
Their plan – adopted first by the G8, then the EU, then the UN as Security Council Resolution 1244 – promised to “take the Rambouillet Accord fully into account”, and provided for NATO to enter Kosovo to police the agreement, with a reservation that Russian troops, under separate command, would take charge of the majority-Serb northern region.
In many ways, then, the new arrangements resembled those envisaged in the Orthodox Church cantonisation plan – which could have been implemented without the need for further bloodshed.
That would have helped. Moscow received a massive IMF payment – in the tens of billions – the moment the UNSC resolution passed, but it was still short of cash, so pulled out its contingent within a couple of years, leaving NATO to take over.
For the organisation to take collective action on the soil of a non-member state, its constitution had to be changed. NATO had passed from a self-avowed “purely defensive alliance” to one with an interventionist brief.
Russia worried that this new focus – and the apparent willingness to disregard a peremptory norm of international law, that borders should not be changed by force – could in time be turned on itself, notably in Chechnya. It quietly adjusted its nuclear doctrine to permit first use.
Scarcely three years later, US Secretary of State Colin Powell was at the Security Council showing satellite pictures of mobile bio-labs, supposedly evidence that Iraq was hiding its “weapons of mass destruction” capabilities.
There was no reason to doubt the sincerity of a former general whose strong sense of personal honour was admired by political friend and foe alike. Indeed, he has since expressed regret at having been misled by skewed and faked intelligence material.
To the extent that those fears were genuine, however, they were allayed by the weapons inspectors the UN sent in, under Hans Blix. One by one, they visited suspect locations and crossed them off the list. It was a bona fide peace initiative (klaxon) – speaking truth to power – for which Blix was subsequently honoured with the Sydney Peace Prize.
But WMD were, in the words of veteran neoconservative Paul Wolfowitz – then serving as deputy Secretary of Defense – merely the “lowest common denominator” among proponents of war. The first night of ‘shock and awe’ was brought forward and the inspectors withdrawn, before they could obviate the declared casus belli.
Later still, in 2011, Russia and China abstained to allow passage of UNSCR 1973, allotting to NATO (again) the role of patrolling a no-fly zone for “human protection” purposes over Libya. The alliance colluded in supplying arms to rebel groups, and its leaders rapidly declared their true purpose of regime change.
In the process, yet another peace initiative (klaxon) was ignored, this time from the International Crisis Group, a nongovernmental organisation with strong connections in Washington and at the UN.
This would have seen UN peacekeepers deployed to police safe havens. UN Safe Havens had endured a bad reputation since one was violated at Srebrenica, with the murder by Bosnian Serb forces of hundreds of Muslim men and boys as blue-helmeted Dutch troops stood by. However, as Mary Kaldor pointed out at the time, all that meant was that UN rules of engagement should be strengthened.
That would have created space for the second, and lesser-known provision of the Resolution to be implemented – inclusive talks on a political solution, to be brokered by the African Union.
Instead, Libya has endured a lost decade of violence and lawlessness, with all social indicators rapidly receding in what was, under Colonel Gaddafi, the country with the highest rate of literacy on the African continent.
In this dismal, decades-long process, precepts of international law have been trampled underfoot. It now resembles, as the University of Sydney’s Challis Professor of International Law, Ben Saul, has argued, mere “imperialism cloaked in law”.
The record of serial violations and hypocrisy, in these and other cases, “invites other countries to play the same legal game”, he observes – hence President Putin’s stated justifications for the illegal invasion of Ukraine, referencing phoney “humanitarian” concerns and contrived arguments of “self-defence”.
“I shall be telling this with a sigh”, Robert Frost muses, in The Road Not Taken, “somewhere ages and ages hence:/Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –/I took the one less travelled by,/And that has made all the difference”.
We need to do more than sigh, of course. We have no alternative but to redouble our advocacy, despite the knock-backs. Peace takes time, whereas a counsel of haste is a counsel of war. But we may not have ages and ages, so we need to work out how to make a difference.
Jake Lynch is based at the Department of Peace and Conflict Studies of the University of Sydney, after completing a Leverhulme Visiting Professorship at Coventry University, in the UK, in 2020. His debut novel, Blood on the Stone: An Oxford Detective Story of the 17th Century, is published by Unbound Books. Jake has spent 20 years developing and researching Peace Journalism, in theory and practice. He is the author of seven books and over 50 refereed articles and book chapters. His work in this field was recognised with the award of the 2017 Luxembourg Peace Prize, by the Schengen Peace Foundation. He served for two years as Secretary General of the International Peace Research Association, having organised its biennial global conference in Sydney, in 2010. Before taking up an academic post, Jake enjoyed a 17-year career in journalism, with spells as a Political Correspondent in Westminster, for Sky News, and the Sydney Correspondent for the Independent newspaper, culminating in a role as an on-screen presenter for BBC World Television News. Lynch is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment and advisor for TRANSCEND Media Service. He is the co-author, with Annabel McGoldrick, of Peace Journalism (Hawthorn Press, 2005), and Debates in Peace Journalism, Sydney University Press and TRANSCEND University Press. He also co-authored with Johan Galtung and Annabel McGoldrick, Reporting Conflict: An Introduction to Peace Journalism, which TMS editor Antonio C. S. Rosa translated to Portuguese. His most recent book of scholarly research is A Global Standard for Reporting Conflict (Taylor & Francis, 2014).
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS)