Technologies To The People on Wed, 14 Apr 1999 10:36:40 +0200

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Syndicate: Behind the Rethoric / N. Chomsky

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

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 pattern.

(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

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 comment.

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 illustrates.

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 protectorate.

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 reported.

In the scholarly disciplines of international affairs and
international law it would be hard to find more respected voices than
Hedley Bull or Louis 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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