Geert Lovink on Sun, 28 Mar 1999 19:57:35 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Noam Chomsky: The Current Bombings: Behind the Rhetoric       

The Current Bombings: Behind the Rhetoric
By Noam Chomsky

There have been many inquiries concerning NATO (meaning primarily US)
bombing in connection with Kosovo. A great deal has been written about the
topic, including Znet commentaries. I'd like to make a few general
observations, keeping to facts that are not seriously contested.

There are two fundamental issues: (1) What are the accepted and applicable
"rules of world order"? (2) How do these or other considerations apply in
the case of Kosovo?

(1) What are the accepted and applicable "rules of world order"?

There is a regime of international law and international order, binding on
all states, based on the UN Charter and subsequent resolutions and World
Court decisions. In brief, the threat or use of force is banned unless
explicitly authorized by the Security Council after it has determined that
peaceful means have failed, or in self-defense against "armed attack" (a
narrow concept) until the Security Council acts.

There is, of course, more to say. Thus there is at least a tension, if not
an outright contradiction, between the rules of world order laid down in
the UN Charter and the rights articulated in the Universal Declaration of
Human Rights (UD), a second pillar of the world order established under US
initiative after World War II. The Charter bans force violating state
sovereignty; the UD guarantees the rights of individuals against
oppressive states. The issue of "humanitarian intervention" arises from
this tension. It is the right of "humanitarian intervention" that is
claimed by the US/NATO in Kosovo, and that is generally supported by
editorial opinion and news reports (in the latter case, reflexively, even
by the very choice of terminology).

The question is addressed in a news report in the NY Times (March 27),
headlined "Legal Scholars Support Case for Using Force" in Kosovo (March
27). One example is offered: Allen Gerson, former counsel to the US
mission to the UN. Two other legal scholars are cited. One, Ted Galen
Carpenter, "scoffed at the Administration argument" and dismissed the
alleged right of intervention. The third is Jack Goldsmith, a specialist
on international law at Chicago Law school. He says that critics of the
NATO bombing "have a pretty good legal argument," but "many people think
[an exception for humanitarian intervention] does exist as a matter of
custom and practice." That summarizes the evidence offered to justify the
favored conclusion stated in the headline.

Goldsmith's observation is reasonable, at least if we agree that facts are
relevant to the determination of "custom and practice." We may also bear
in mind a truism: the right of humanitarian intervention, if it exists, is
premised on the "good faith" of those intervening, and that assumption is
based not on their rhetoric but on their record, in particular their
record of adherence to the principles of international law, World Court
decisions, and so on. That is indeed a truism, at least with regard to
others. Consider, for example, Iranian offers to intervene in Bosnia to
prevent massacres at a time when the West would not do so. These were
dismissed with ridicule (in fact, ignored); if there was a reason beyond
subordination to power, it was because Iranian "good faith" could not be
assumed. A rational person then asks obvious questions: is the Iranian
record of intervention and terror worse than that of the US? And other
questions, for example: How should we assess the "good faith" of the only
country to have vetoed a Security Council resolution calling on all states
to obey international law? What about its historical record? Unless such
questions are prominent on the agenda of discourse, an honest person will
dismiss it as mere allegiance to doctrine. A useful exercise is to
determine how much of the literature -- media or other -- survives such
elementary conditions as these.

(2) How do these or other considerations apply in the case of Kosovo?

There has been a humanitarian catastrophe in Kosovo in the past year,
overwhelmingly attributable to Yugoslav military forces. The main victims
have been ethnic Albanian Kosovars, some 90% of the population of this
Yugoslav territory. The standard estimate is 2000 deaths and hundreds of
thousands of refugees.

In such cases, outsiders have three choices:

(I) try to escalate the catastrophe (II) do nothing (III) try to mitigate
the catastrophe

The choices are illustrated by other contemporary cases. Let's keep to a
few of approximately the same scale, and ask where Kosovo fits into the

(A) Colombia. In Colombia, according to State Department estimates, the
annual level of political killing by the government and its paramilitary
associates is about at the level of Kosovo, and refugee flight primarily
from their atrocities is well over a million. Colombia has been the
leading Western hemisphere recipient of US arms and training as violence
increased through the '90s, and that assistance is now increasing, under a
"drug war" pretext dismissed by almost all serious observers. The Clinton
administration was particularly enthusiastic in its praise for President
Gaviria, whose tenure in office was responsible for "appalling levels of
violence," according to human rights organizations, even surpassing his
predecessors. Details are readily available.

In this case, the US reaction is (I): escalate the atrocities.

(B) Turkey. By very conservative estimate, Turkish repression of Kurds in
the '90s falls in the category of Kosovo. It peaked in the early '90s; one
index is the flight of over a million Kurds from the countryside to the
unofficial Kurdish capital Diyarbakir from 1990 to 1994, as the Turkish
army was devastating the countryside. 1994 marked two records: it was "the
year of the worst repression in the Kurdish provinces" of Turkey, Jonathan
Randal reported from the scene, and the year when Turkey became "the
biggest single importer of American military hardware and thus the world's
largest arms purchaser." When human rights groups exposed Turkey's use of
US jets to bomb villages, the Clinton Administration found ways to evade
laws requiring suspension of arms deliveries, much as it was doing in
Indonesia and elsewhere.

Colombia and Turkey explain their (US-supported) atrocities on grounds
that they are defending their countries from the threat of terrorist
guerrillas. As does the government of Yugoslavia.

Again, the example illustrates (I): try to escalate the atrocities.

(C) Laos. Every year thousands of people, mostly children and poor
farmers, are killed in the Plain of Jars in Northern Laos, the scene of
the heaviest bombing of civilian targets in history it appears, and
arguably the most cruel: Washington's furious assault on a poor peasant
society had little to do with its wars in the region. The worst period was
from 1968, when Washington was compelled to undertake negotiations (under
popular and business pressure), ending the regular bombardment of North
Vietnam. Kissinger-Nixon then decided to shift the planes to bombardment
of Laos and Cambodia.

The deaths are from "bombies," tiny anti-personnel weapons, far worse than
land-mines: they are designed specifically to kill and maim, and have no
effect on trucks, buildings, etc. The Plain was saturated with hundreds of
millions of these criminal devices, which have a failure-to-explode rate
of 20%-30% according to the manufacturer, Honeywell. The numbers suggest
either remarkably poor quality control or a rational policy of murdering
civilians by delayed action. These were only a fraction of the technology
deployed, including advanced missiles to penetrate caves where families
sought shelter. Current annual casualties from "bombies" are estimated
from hundreds a year to "an annual nationwide casualty rate of 20,000,"
more than half of them deaths, according to the veteran Asia reporter
Barry Wain of the Wall Street Journal -- in its Asia edition. A
conservative estimate, then, is that the crisis this year is approximately
comparable to Kosovo, though deaths are far more highly concentrated among
children -- over half, according to analyses reported by the Mennonite
Central Committee, which has been working there since 1977 to alleviate
the continuing atrocities.

There have been efforts to publicize and deal with the humanitarian
catastrophe. A British-based Mine Advisory Group (MAG) is trying to remove
the lethal objects, but the US is "conspicuously missing from the handful
of Western organisations that have followed MAG," the British press
reports, though it has finally agreed to train some Laotian civilians. The
British press also reports, with some anger, the allegation of MAG
specialists that the US refuses to provide them with "render harmless
procedures" that would make their work "a lot quicker and a lot safer."
These remain a state secret, as does the whole affair in the United
States. The Bangkok press reports a very similar situation in Cambodia,
particularly the Eastern region where US bombardment from early 1969 was
most intense.

In this case, the US reaction is (II): do nothing. And the reaction of the
media and commentators is to keep silent, following the norms under which
the war against Laos was designated a "secret war" -- meaning well-known,
but suppressed, as also in the case of Cambodia from March 1969. The level
of self-censorship was extraordinary then, as is the current phase. The
relevance of this shocking example should be obvious without further

I will skip other examples of (I) and (II), which abound, and also much
more serious contemporary atrocities, such as the huge slaughter of Iraqi
civilians by means of a particularly vicious form of biological warfare --
"a very hard choice," Madeleine Albright commented on national TV in 1996
when asked for her reaction to the killing of half a million Iraqi
children in 5 years, but "we think the price is worth it." Current
estimates remain about 5000 children killed a month, and the price is
still "worth it." These and other examples might also be kept in mind when
we read awed rhetoric about how the "moral compass" of the Clinton
Administration is at last functioning properly, as the Kosovo example

Just what does the example illustrate? The threat of NATO bombing,
predictably, led to a sharp escalation of atrocities by the Serbian Army
and paramilitaries, and to the departure of international observers, which
of course had the same effect. Commanding General Wesley Clark declared
that it was "entirely predictable" that Serbian terror and violence would
intensify after the NATO bombing, exactly as happened. The terror for the
first time reached the capital city of Pristina, and there are credible
reports of large-scale destruction of villages, assassinations, generation
of an enormous refugee flow, perhaps an effort to expel a good part of the
Albanian population -- all an "entirely predictable" consequence of the
threat and then the use of force, as General Clark rightly observes.

Kosovo is therefore another illustration of (I): try to escalate the
violence, with exactly that expectation.

To find examples illustrating (III) is all too easy, at least if we keep
to official rhetoric. The major recent academic study of "humanitarian
intervention," by Sean Murphy, reviews the record after the Kellogg-Briand
pact of 1928 which outlawed war, and then since the UN Charter, which
strengthened and articulated these provisions. In the first phase, he
writes, the most prominent examples of "humanitarian intervention" were
Japan's attack on Manchuria, Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia, and
Hitler's occupation of parts of Czechoslovakia. All were accompanied by
highly uplifting humanitarian rhetoric, and factual justifications as
well. Japan was going to establish an "earthly paradise" as it defended
Manchurians from "Chinese bandits," with the support of a leading Chinese
nationalist, a far more credible figure than anyone the US was able to
conjure up during its attack on South Vietnam. Mussolini was liberating
thousands of slaves as he carried forth the Western "civilizing mission."
Hitler announced Germany's intention to end ethnic tensions and violence,
and "safeguard the national individuality of the German and Czech
peoples," in an operation "filled with earnest desire to serve the true
interests of the peoples dwelling in the area," in accordance with their
will; the Slovakian President asked Hitler to declare Slovakia a

Another useful intellectual exercise is to compare those obscene
justifications with those offered for interventions, including
"humanitarian interventions," in the post-UN Charter period.

In that period, perhaps the most compelling example of (III) is the
Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in December 1978, terminating Pol Pot's
atrocities, which were then peaking. Vietnam pleaded the right of
self-defense against armed attack, one of the few post-Charter examples
when the plea is plausible: the Khmer Rouge regime (Democratic Kampuchea,
DK) was carrying out murderous attacks against Vietnam in border areas.
The US reaction is instructive. The press condemned the "Prussians" of
Asia for their outrageous violation of international law. They were
harshly punished for the crime of having terminated Pol Pot's slaughters,
first by a (US-backed) Chinese invasion, then by US imposition of
extremely harsh sanctions.

The US recognized the expelled DK as the official government of Cambodia,
because of its "continuity" with the Pol Pot regime, the State Department
explained. Not too subtly, the US supported the Khmer Rouge in its
continuing attacks in Cambodia.

The example tells us more about the "custom and practice" that underlies
"the emerging legal norms of humanitarian intervention."

Despite the desperate efforts of ideologues to prove that circles are
square, there is no serious doubt that the NATO bombings further undermine
what remains of the fragile structure of international law. The US made
that entirely clear in the discussions leading to the NATO decision. Apart
from the UK (by now, about as much of an independent actor as the Ukraine
was in the pre-Gorbachev years), NATO countries were skeptical of US
policy, and were particularly annoyed by Secretary of State Albright's
"saber-rattling" (Kevin Cullen, Boston Globe, Feb. 22). Today, the more
closely one approaches the conflicted region, the greater the opposition
to Washington's insistence on force, even within NATO (Greece and Italy).
France had called for a UN Security Council resolution to authorize
deployment of NATO peacekeepers. The US flatly refused, insisting on "its
stand that NATO should be able to act independently of the United
Nations," State Department officials explained. The US refused to permit
the "neuralgic word `authorize'" to appear in the final NATO statement,
unwilling to concede any authority to the UN Charter and international
law; only the word "endorse" was permitted (Jane Perlez, NYT, Feb. 11).
Similarly the bombing of Iraq was a brazen expression of contempt for the
UN, even the specific timing, and was so understood. And of course the
same is true of the destruction of half the pharmaceutical production of a
small African country a few months earlier, an event that also does not
indicate that the "moral compass" is straying from righteousness -- not to
speak of a record that would be prominently reviewed right now if facts
were considered relevant to determining "custom and practice."

It could be argued, rather plausibly, that further demolition of the rules
of world order is irrelevant, just as it had lost its meaning by the late
1930s. The contempt of the world's leading power for the framework of
world order has become so extreme that there is nothing left to discuss. A
review of the internal documentary record demonstrates that the stance
traces back to the earliest days, even to the first memorandum of the
newly-formed National Security Council in 1947. During the Kennedy years,
the stance began to gain overt expression. The main innovation of the
Reagan-Clinton years is that defiance of international law and the Charter
has become entirely open. It has also been backed with interesting
explanations, which would be on the front pages, and prominent in the
school and university curriculum, if truth and honesty were considered
significant values. The highest authorities explained with brutal clarity
that the World Court, the UN, and other agencies had become irrelevant
because they no longer follow US orders, as they did in the early postwar
years. One might then adopt the official position. That would be an honest
stand, at least if it were accompanied by refusal to play the cynical game
of self-righteous posturing and wielding of the despised principles of
international law as a highly selective weapon against shifting enemies.

While the Reaganites broke new ground, under Clinton the defiance of world
order has become so extreme as to be of concern even to hawkish policy
analysts. In the current issue of the leading establishment journal,
Foreign Affairs, Samuel Huntington warns that Washington is treading a
dangerous course. In the eyes of much of the world -- probably most of the
world, he suggests -- the US is "becoming the rogue superpower,"
considered "the single greatest external threat to their societies."
Realist "international relations theory," he argues, predicts that
coalitions may arise to counterbalance the rogue superpower. On pragmatic
grounds, then, the stance should be reconsidered. Americans who prefer a
different image of their society might call for a reconsideration on other
than pragmatic grounds.

Where does that leave the question of what to do in Kosovo? It leaves it
unanswered. The US has chosen a course of action which, as it explicitly
recognizes, escalates atrocities and violence -- "predictably"; a course
of action that also strikes yet another blow against the regime of
international order, which does offer the weak at least some limited
protection from predatory states. As for the longer term, consequences are
unpredictable. One plausible observation is that "every bomb that falls on
Serbia and every ethnic killing in Kosovo suggests that it will scarcely
be possible for Serbs and Albanians to live beside each other in some sort
of peace" (Financial Times, March 27). Some of the longer-term possible
outcomes are extremely ugly, as has not gone without notice.

A standard argument is that we had to do something: we could not simply
stand by as atrocities continue. That is never true. One choice, always,
is to follow the Hippocratic principle: "First, do no harm." If you can
think of no way to adhere to that elementary principle, then do nothing.
There are always ways that can be considered. Diplomacy and negotiations
are never at an end.

The right of "humanitarian intervention" is likely to be more frequently
invoked in coming years -- maybe with justification, maybe not -- now that
Cold War pretexts have lost their efficacy. In such an era, it may be
worthwhile to pay attention to the views of highly respected commentators
-- not to speak of the World Court, which explicitly ruled on this matter
in a decision rejected by the United States, its essentials not even

In the scholarly disciplines of international affairs and international
law it would be hard to find more respected voices than Hedley Bull or
Leon Henkin. Bull warned 15 years ago that "Particular states or groups of
states that set themselves up as the authoritative judges of the world
common good, in disregard of the views of others, are in fact a menace to
international order, and thus to effective action in this field." Henkin,
in a standard work on world order, writes that the "pressures eroding the
prohibition on the use of force are deplorable, and the arguments to
legitimize the use of force in those circumstances are unpersuasive and
dangerous... Violations of human rights are indeed all too common, and if
it were permissible to remedy them by external use of force, there would
be no law to forbid the use of force by almost any state against almost
any other. Human rights, I believe, will have to be vindicated, and other
injustices remedied, by other, peaceful means, not by opening the door to
aggression and destroying the principle advance in international law, the
outlawing of war and the prohibition of force."

Recognized principles of international law and world order, solemn treaty
obligations, decisions by the World Court, considered pronouncements by
the most respected commentators -- these do not automatically solve
particular problems. Each issue has to be considered on its merits. For
those who do not adopt the standards of Saddam Hussein, there is a heavy
burden of proof to meet in undertaking the threat or use of force in
violation of the principles of international order. Perhaps the burden can
be met, but that has to be shown, not merely proclaimed with passionate
rhetoric. The consequences of such violations have to be assessed
carefully -- in particular, what we understand to be "predictable." And
for those who are minimally serious, the reasons for the actions also have
to be assessed -- again, not simply by adulation of our leaders and their
"moral compass."

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