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Machiavellian-Athenian morality and the question of justice for Milosevic

By George Thomas - posted Sunday, 15 July 2001

The problem with convicting Milosevic of the commission of war crimes in Kosovo is that the alleged crimes were committed after NATO launched its massive bombing campaign on March 24th, 1999. NATO bypassed the U.N. Security Council. It violated the U.N. Charter and its own charter that prohibit the use of force except in self-defense. NATO claims that its actions now constitute the new International Humanitarian Law, a post hoc rationalization.

In the original indictment against Milosevic, the document noted at the very beginning that NATO had begun "launching air strikes on March 24, 1999." This statement was relegated to the penultimate page in the recent revised indictment in a section called "additional facts". This would appear to be an attempt to sideline NATO's primary responsibility for provoking and causing the events that followed.

The discovery of the "Racak Massacre" in Kosovo in January 1999 was the equivalent of the Johnson Administration's claim that North Korean torpedo boats had attacked American naval vessels in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964. The incident actually occurred much earlier but was part of a strategy to provoke the U.S. Senate into rushing through the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution formally authorizing the American war in Vietnam. World freedom and U.S. national security was at stake, if Vietnam was not made safe for democracy and capitalism. Critics have pointed out that the timing of the Racak massacre was too convenient, much like the "Breadline Massacre" of May 1992 that triggered economic sanctions against the Serbs. A French journalist pointed out that the bodies in the Racak mass grave were too neatly lined up, and a Finnish forensic expert pointed out that the time of deaths varied among the bodies. Many were believed to be Kosovo Liberation Army guerrillas killed in action elsewhere. Unless the Serb leadership craved NATO bombing, no rational leader would provide such a convenient excuse to be bombed.


Like the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, the Rambouillet ultimatum in March 1999 was an American-engineered set-up to bomb the Serbs, because, as one American official put it, "The Serbs need a little bombing". The ultimatum demanded that Kosovo be allowed a plebiscite to secede in 3 years, and that NATO forces be allowed free access to all of Yugoslavia. This violated Yugoslavia's sovereignty, and Articles 51 and 52 of the 1974 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties. The Convention prohibits the threat of force, and the use of it, to forge agreements. The 78-day war ended when NATO agreed to both of Milosevic's terms, namely that Yugoslavia's territorial integrity will be preserved, and that NATO would not have unrestricted access to all of Yugoslavia. Thus, the death, destruction and misery could have been avoided except for U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's determination that she was going to bomb the Serbs by making demands that no self-respecting leader of any state could accept.

The original indictment of Milosevic was issued by then Chief Prosecutor Louise Arbour in mid May 1999 during NATO's intense bombing campaign, targeting mainly Yugoslavia's civilian infrastructure that included electric power plants, water supply and chemical plants that released deadly toxic poisons into the atmosphere. This was a violation of several Geneva conventions prohibiting attacks on civilian targets. Chief Prosecutor Arbour's indictment preceded any investigation of war crimes in Kosovo. Arbour issued the indictment after consulting NATO, the party that initiated the hostilities. In which Western democracy does an indictment precede the investigation?

The initial claim of 100,000 Albanians killed made by U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen during the hostilities, and then the subsequent claim of 10,000 Albanians killed made by British Prime Minister Tony Blair after the hostilities, proved untrue. Instead of being relieved that such widespread killings did not occur, NATO enthusiasts are upset. They are determined to discover "Serbian genocide" and "mass graves" at any price. They will not be cheated out of their "Serbian genocide". This behavior calls for psychiatric analysis, not political analysis.

Indeed, the figure of 300,000 killed in Bosnia during the civil war there as provided by former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Richard Holbrooke, in the first sentence of his book, To End A War, was deliberately exaggerated to set the stage for bombing the Serbs. Even if a "Srebrenica massacre" of 6,000 occurred during every month of the 35-month Bosnian war, this would add up to approximately 200,000 dead. But a "Srebrenica massacre" did not occur every month. And if the "Markele Market Place massacre" of 68 civilians killed in February 1994 (described as the worst day of killing during the war) occurred every day of the 1,000 days of war up to that point, then the total number of Muslims killed could not have been more 70,000. But a "Markele massacre" did not occur on every day of the war.

Back in the early days of the Yugoslav wars, I was keeping count. American news reports began with 17,000 killed in Bosnia in early January 1993 after 9 months of civil war, then 20,000 at the end of the month. In early February 1993, the number was 145,000 "dead or missing" which by the end of the month became 200,000 "dead or missing. " And then in early March 1993, the words "or missing" were dropped and the number was established at 200,000 killed which has been repeated like a mantra ever since. General Satish Nambiar of India, who was the commander of the U.N. Protection Forces (UNPROFOR) during the period of March 1992 to March 1993, told me that he, his deputy General Lewis McKenzie, and his forces, did not witness any such level of killing. Former U.S. State Department official and head of the Yugoslav desk, George Kenney, assessed the total dead in Bosnia as somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000.

These figures should be compared to the 3 million Vietnamese (the actual number may have been 1 million) that died because of America's senseless war in Vietnam between 1964 and 1974. For this, only Lieutenant William Calley was tried for War Crimes at home, given 36 months of house arrest, and then released. And after US forces were driven out, the American nation went into a sudden collective amnesia. It was as though the human and ecological destruction never happened. No apologies were made or compensations paid to the Vietnamese people. To further understand the nature of such propaganda figures conjured up during the conduct of war, the West Pakistani army was declared to have killed 3 million Bengali civilians in East Pakistan during the struggle for independence, a propaganda figure that has entered some almanacs and books of facts. Back then the U.S. prevented a war crimes tribunal being set up, despite the fact that India had captured and detained all of the 92,000 West Pakistani forces at the end of the December 1971 Indo-Pakistani war.


Convicting Milosevic is important to the West to cover up their role and responsibility in destroying a once multi-ethnic state through the encouragement of declarations of independence by its internal "republics," and then the rush to recognize them. This was the real cause of the tragedy, not Milosevic's nationalist speech in Kosovo in June 1989. Milosevic was kidnapped and smuggled to the Hague, in violation of a Yugoslav constitutional court order and the wishes of Yugoslav President Kostunica, in exchange for $1.3 billion in aid, a paltry amount compared to the $35 billion destruction of Yugoslav's economy that NATO wreaked. American behavior here smacks of blackmail and bribery.

Given the fact that some 1.3 million Iraqi civilians died, mostly children, as the direct or indirect consequence of Anglo-American sanctions on Iraq, the Serb leadership made the right choice in selling Milosevic to the Hague for $1.3 billion with the promise of more to come when other "indicted war criminals" are handed over. Better to sacrifice this unpleasant, abrasive and defiant man, than cause further death, destruction and misery to 10 million Serbs from further Western punitive economic sanctions -- the real "crimes against humanity."

However, the entire experience is hardly a shining example of the values of Anglo-American democratic principles, law and justice. It is the cynical illustration of the Machiavellian dictum that "morality is the product of power"; and a reflection of the directive from the powerful Athenians to the weaker Melians during the 5th century BC Greek Pelopponesian War, namely, that "the strong do what they have the power to do, and the weak do what they must."

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About the Author

Raju G C Thomas is the Allis Chalmers distinguished professor of International Affairs at Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His most recent book is as contributing editor of Yugoslavia Unraveled : Sovereignty, Self-Determination, Intervention, Lexington Books, 2004

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