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Can there ever be a just war for human rights?
Military intervention has its costs and is not always equally applied.

What's the issue?

The Serbs were bombed by NATO because of their leaders' repression of the Kosovo Albanians. Chechen civilians, on the other hand, are condemned to live in refugee camps perhaps in part because NATO decided not to intervene against Russia.

Which is worse, going to war or not going to war when the human rights of minorities in another country are being violated?

What people think

  • "Military intervention is always a mixed blessing at best. The loss of lives, however well intentioned, is a painful process which should be avoided, period."
    Jonathan C. Allen, Massachusetts, USA

  • "There are always going to be conflicts based upon race and religion, and there is nothing we can or should do about it. That said, however, the line must be drawn in obvious situations like this [Kosovo] or what happened in Rwanda."
    S. Soffer, Philadelphia, USA

    (Read these and other comments in full)



This programme was first broadcast on 13 October 2000 and launched the 'I have a right to...' initiative. It was presented by BBC World Affairs Correspondent Rageh Omar and produced by Charu Shahane.

TONY BLAIR, British Prime Minister:
"I believe you are fighting a just war and a just cause, and we have all watched - everyone right around the world - these people driven at the point of a gun from their homes - the men murdered, the women raped, families dispossessed of everything they had and I believe we are fighting for the values of civilisation here."

The British Prime Minister Tony Blair speaking to British NATO forces during last year's bombing of Yugoslavia. A just war, a just cause. NATO said it was fighting for the values of civilisation. But can things ever be as simple as that? Over the next few weeks I will be investigating the competing claims of individuals and communities - must individual human rights be sacrificed for the greater good? And should one community be hurt in order to help another. This programme asks - whose rights are worth going to war for?

"I had no idea I just couldn't believe that something like this could happen. Of course we were all living in fear because we were being bombed. But this, I just couldn't understand how they could do something like this".

Borca Bankovic, whose 26 year-old daughter Ksenya was killed as she worked a night shift on the 23rd of April 1999. A month after it dropped its first bomb, NATO targeted Radio Television Serbia - or RTS, - the state-run media station in central Belgrade where Ksenya worked. In the 11 weeks of the war, NATO warplanes flew more than 9,000 bombing missions and dropped more than 23,000 bombs. It was all done, NATO's leaders said, to prevent a humanitarian crisis - the forcible expulsion of Kosovo's majority Albanian community by Serb forces controlled by the Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

"NATO's countries are western democracies, they presented themselves as humane, as champions of human rights and freedom of speech and said they were doing this in the name of humanity. I didn't in my remotest thoughts imagine they would bomb a building in which ordinary citizens were doing their jobs. It was direct murder".

Her mother says Ksenya was an ordinary 20-something with ordinary ambitions. According to NATO, she was part of Milosevic's propaganda machine - one of 16 technicians, artists and journalists killed when RTS's four-storeyed building collapsed in one of the much-vaunted surgical strikes.

"This is her stuff, her photo albums, her books. Ksenya liked to take photos and you can see all the photographs have a caption under them written by her. When I look at it now I think she's left a record of her life, like she sensed she was going to die".

Ksenya's bedroom is now a shrine to her memory - there are soft toys and books on the tables and photographs everywhere.

"This large photo we took for the funeral ceremony".

Borca can't reconcile the image NATO had of RTS and its staff with what she knows of her daughters friends and colleagues.

"They were just doing their job - nothing apart from that. They were not responsible for the policies of this government or of the policies of RTS. If NATO had wanted to stop the broadcasts they could have bombed the transmitter, which they did later anyway. Not a building in which people were working. Would it be right if somebody shot a journalist from the BBC or bombed the BBC because you are now producing a programme which some people might dislike or not agree with? Would that be right?".

"NATO is a war criminal. It's a terrorist organisation. I will always say that it was NATO that killed my child but I also think that NATO had a sort of an ally in the Yugoslav regime. And that's why we've laid charges against both".

Borca Bankovic and four other families of victims of the RTS bombing have taken NATO's European countries to court, saying they violated their rights under the European Convention on Human Rights. In a separate case, they have also accused senior staff of the Yugoslav state media of negligence. They say RTS managers knew the building would be bombed but failed to tell its staff to leave or to provide them with adequate protection.

"My main aim is to make them responsible for killing my child and 15 of her colleagues".

But as NATO said during the Kosovo campaign, if there's a war there will always be victims - is that a price worth paying to stop a dictator in his tracks?

"OK now we are now entering the town of we are entering the area called the southern industrial zone".

Mirko Mandrino drives us through his hometown Pancevo, twelve miles from Belgrade.

"And here we have a very dangerous chemical factory, you can see to the right…"

His misfortune is that he lives in an industrial city which became the focus of NATO's attention during the war. Pancevo was pummelled by NATO bombs - there were several hits on an oil refinery, fertiliser factory and petrochemical plant.

"The second reservoir to the left was bombed. The very first day first missile hit Utra factory".

Not many people died in Pancevo as a result of NATO's air strikes - at least not by the standards of conventional wars. NATO's precision strikes kept the body count low. But over lunch and a cup of coffee at Mirko Mandrino's home, his wife Senka talked about the after-effects of bombing chemical plants and factories.

"Sometimes I don't dare say what I really think of the consequences and what we experienced and how we really feel. I am sure that all of us see SOME effects of the bombings on a daily basis. We have a lot of children suffering from respiratory problems. I had the toughest flu ever in my life, I was not able to get up from my bed. We have also recorded an increase in number of abortions by women who were in the early stages of pregnancy during the war".

A UN task force set up to assess the environmental impact of the conflict identified Pancevo as one of four "hot spots", as it called them, where there was a serious threat to human health.

This music is from a CD Mirko Mandrino produced to mark the bombing of Pancevo. He and his wife are long-time peace activists and Mirko has pictures of Martin Luther King and Mohandas Gandhi on the walls of his study and his business cards which sport the words 'peace and human rights. Senka says she doesn't for a minute condone the discrimination against the Albanians in Kosovo but can't understand why western intervention took the form it did:

"I know that the condition of the Albanians in Kosovo was deteriorating rapidly during Milosevic's regime. I went there in 1994 to visit my nephew and I saw several shocking scenes. At around six in the evening, policemen would arrive on every street corner patrolling residential areas. I don't approve of a single act of repression of the Albanians committed by the Yugoslav regime. The problem really is that whichever community was in a dominant position there has repressed and abused the other. We had to try and solve that by making both sides more tolerant - but not in this way. This bombardment by NATO solved nothing."

Around five hundred civilians were killed in Serbia and Kosovo by NATO bombs. But as Mirko Mandrino says, the bombings have left another legacy as well:

"I said OK we will mourn our dead and it will pass, the destroying of factories, bridges or roads, or radio stations, we will be able to repair, but the hatred created by the bombing, hatred towards the entire world, towards the eighteen countries: Germans, Hungarians, French, British, Spanish, Americans, the hatred would remain. Most unfortunately I was right. Eighty per cent of them are full of hatred against the rest of the world".

He and his wife Senka can't quite believe what's happened to them, to Pancevo and to Yugoslavia. The international community failed in some of its aims. Milosevic's brutal grip on power was not broken as a direct consequence of NATO's intervention in Kosovo. When the Milosevic regime crumbled it was at the hands of the Serbian people and one of the international community's most spectacular failures was its inability to create a harmonious multi-ethnic Kosovo.

This is where you'll find many of Kosovo's Serbs and Roma today - a refugee camp just across the border. It was to this sleepy little town of Kraljevo that they fled when defeated Yugoslav forces withdrew from the province in June last year. Although the Albanians have been able to return to their devastated villages, Kosovo's non-Albanian communities have been driven unceremoniously from their homes. Serb refugees talk about hurried public meetings in their towns - at which international peacekeepers offered no guarantees for their security.

"How can I describe what it is like when you leave your home and you don't know what lies ahead? You're going to some place you have never seen, you don't know what it is like. You are leaving everything, everything that you have behind. How can I tell you what that is like?".

Also living in Kraljevo is thirty eight year old Blazenska Zirkovic. Blazenska talked to us about being a minority Serb in a province dominated by Albanians. She told us about long-standing tensions between the communities - about harassment and killings and rapes in her neighbourhood - carried out on her community by Albanians she called terrorists. Her words have a familiar ring. We've heard them from thousands of Kosovo Albanians fleeing the province when the Serb police were still in control. It's the same story. In this competition of horrors, Blazenska's bitter that the international community heard the Albanians but not the Serbs:

"The Albanian lobby did a better job than us. They have good advertising techniques. They told all the world about the atrocities and rapes and massacres and who knows what else and we didn't know how to do that. We didn't want to do that. So they won - they won in that way".

A little local difficulty. A domestic conflict. A threat against the territorial integrity of a recognised state. Perhaps NATO could have attached those labels to the conflict in Kosovo and refrained from intervening. But they called it a humanitarian disaster and said they must intervene to prevent more death and destruction. It's now emerged that around three thousand civilians were murdered by Yugoslav forces in Kosovo - and since evidence is still uncertain, it's thought the final figure could be slightly higher. But it's still not as high as the claims of tens - even hundreds of thousands of people missing, possibly killed, which prompted the NATO action. So is it the scale of atrocities which determines the grounds for intervention? Dmitri Trenin is Deputy Director of the think-tank Carnegie Moscow Centre.

"You must think hard about these accusations of double standards. The Russians were saying all along that the Serbs were punished for what they had been doing to the Kosovars - Turks never were for what they had been doing to the Kurds- this is not an easy accusation to write off. Then you have massive threats to human lives and rights in Africa, and we are talking about human catastrophes which dwarf what's been happening in both Kurdistan and Kosovo and Chechnya. And yet, since we are not willing to intervene - maybe for a good reason - but then you must must explain - otherwise you we undermine the whole foundation for this humanitarian intervention".

So what IS the foundation for intervention that lets the international community wade into Kosovo but not Chechnya? The Chechens, like the Kosovo Albanians, say they too have a right to be free of their powerful rulers.

These are dance lessons for children at the Sputnik Refugee camp in Nazran. The capital of the tiny mountainous republic of Ingushetia hosts 200,000 Chechen refugees - the desperate victims of a virulent feud between mighty Russia and Chechen warlords. The refugees live in a scattering of tents and the carriages of a passenger train, stopped in its tracks.

The dance classes, along with a small schoolroom, are a mark of the refugees' efforts to bring a semblance of normality to their lives. But there's no doubt at all that Dermagomed Okhaev's life has been blighted. He nearly died on Christmas Day last year.

"On the night of the 25th the Russians started shelling the area around our village. I heard the tanks and they were far away so I thought good, they haven't hit the village, and they haven't come to the village. Then I saw my neighbour, Amir Khan, lighting a lantern. He said "is that you Dokhu?" I said yes, and he shouted "in that case just lie flat on the ground, quick". So I hit the ground. Then I heard this amazing whistling sound and a shell fell near Amir Khan's house. And the next moment another shell fell near my house. I don't know exactly what happened then, but I remember thinking my right arm has become very heavy. It was lying limp on my leg and I tried to lift it but I couldn't. There was all this blood around me...".

It was several hours before Dermagomed got medical attention in war-ravaged Chechnya.

"We couldn't leave the house till seven in the morning because of the curfew. Then when we got to the checkpoint, all the Russian guards were drunk and they took their time checking my documents, asking how I had been injured, implying that I was one of the fighters and must have been wounded while fighting".

Dermagomed had to travel all the way to Ingushetia for medical help, but it was too late to save his arm and it was amputated. His life has been turned upside down by Chechnya's ongoing tensions with Russia. The last war ended in 1996, with victory for the Chechen rebels but self-rule proved to be fraught with in-fighting and lawlessness.
Last year an incursion into the neighbouring republic of Dagestan by a Chechen leader and two unsolved bomb blasts in Moscow and other cities brought Russia back on the offensive. Russia says it has to tame the most problematic republic in the Russian Federation.

The Russian convoys ploughed in amid bitter fighting. Supported by an aerial pounding of Chechen villages they captured the Chechen capital, Grozny, and drove the rebels and their supporters to the mountains. One third of the Chechen population has fled - mostly to Ingushetia. The full horror of the Chechen war is only now beginning to be understood as some of the world's media and international campaigners corroborate early reports of atrocities. Deidrich Lohmann is Moscow Director for the international campaigning group Human Rights Watch.

"The whole range of violations of the rules of war has been basically been met, in particular we're taking about torture, we're talking about summary executions, rape of both men and women".

In a small public park in Nazran we met Asiet Chadayeva. She now lives in relative safety in Ingushetia, across the border from Chechnya. It was a rare outing for her. She spends most of time shut away in a darkened flat, alone with her memories and her misery.

"We could talk endlessly about what happened there in the winter. There isn't one minute when I don't think about what happened. All my thoughts are about revenge for the deaths of innocent people. At least revenge by words, by telling the truth. In the end, the world will know what really happened in Chechnya".

Asiet was a nurse in the Grozny suburb of Aldi when the Russians came in on a mopping up operation.

"After the bombing stopped on the 4th of February we thought the situation would get better. So when we heard some shooting on the 5th we came out of our cellars and our houses. I went out into the street and I saw Russian soldiers setting fire to houses and walking along the street and killing and shooting anyone, everyone who was in their path".

Asiet says the cold-blooded killings at point blank range are her worst memory of the Chechen war:

"On that day I saw tens of people being killed by the Russians. Before that I had seen hundreds of deaths because of the shelling and the bombing and also people were dying every day because of heart attacks, and diseases because there were no drugs to treat them and no way of taking them away from Grozny. But that day, the 5th of February, was the very worst".

Although the Russians allowed Chechens to leave Grozny after that, Asiet wouldn't go. She said she couldn't leave people in that situation. But she was forced to think of her own safety when her testimonies reached the outside world. She says she got warnings from the Russian army to keep quiet or risk having her family being punished for what she had said. Now confined to her tiny flat in Ingushetia, Asiet says she has a dream.

"My dream is that NATO's troops come in. Because then the whole world would see what is happening here and they would see what methods the Russians are using and they would understand that we, the Chechens, are just defending ourselves. Yes, it would be a good solution for NATO to come in. They should be brought to trial - something like the Nuremberg trials. When I think about our history I realise that for years the Russians have been trying to exterminate us. First the deportations in 1944, then the war in 1994 now this war".

Extermination, genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing - the Chechen view of their condition is no different from the view Kosovo Albanians had of theirs. Campaigners like Diedrich Lohmann of Human Rights Watch believe they have enough reliable oral testimony and some hard facts to make a straightforward comparison between the Chechnya and Kosovo:

"The conflict in Chechnya resulted in over 200,000 being displaced in Ingushetia, some people have now been returning. [Total Chechen population is not known, but estimated 500-800 000 people were living in Chechnya before this war] - very large percentage of population displaced. Ingushetia one of the poorest Russian republics which itself [is only comprised of about 350 000 people]. Influx of more than 50 per cent. It's very interesting to compare to the situation in Macedonia last year, when people were very concerned about influx of Albanian refugees there. The relative number of refugees in Ingushetia is much much higher than it was in Macedonia".

If NATO had ever wanted to build up a case for military intervention in Chechnya it would undoubtedly have been able to do so, using the same arguments that it did in Kosovo. Diedrich Lohmann again:

"In Kosovo one of the main incidents that speeded up decision making in the west on what resulted eventually in a military intervention was the massacre in Racek, where over 40 people summarily executed. In Chechnya in January, Feb over 130 people summarily executed, all of those incidents have been documented in great detail and the international community is fully aware of the summary executions".

So why intervene in Kosovo but not Chechnya? Because there's little doubt that a MILITARY response by the international community against a nuclear power would be suicidal, says the Carnegie Moscow Centre's Dmitri Trenin:

"One of the lessons of Kosovo and Chechnya could be that in order to be protected against international intervention you must have nuclear weapons - that's a very sad lesson".

The examples of Kosovo and Chechnya have forced the international community to confront its inconsistent response to human rights violations. Few people believe that the world should stand by and watch as governments oppress their people. But if every war has its innocent victims, what are the options? There's diplomatic, political and economic pressure - and Diedrich Lohmann says these could still work in Russia. What might work best, he says, is the legal option:

"Every member of the Council of Europe has the right to submit a complaint over human rights abuses that are taking place in another member state of the Council of Europe. We believe that that actually was one of the most appropriate steps that the European Community should have taken. Because filing an inter-state complaint would have sent a very clear message to the Russian leadership that European countries are willing to go beyond just rhetorical condemnations and to take real action. On the other hand it would have meant asking a panel of top European judges to investigate what has been happening in Chechnya and to pass judgement on whether or not these are violations of the European Convention on Human Rights".

But time and again the world has discovered the peaceful option isn't enough. The UN provides for armed action if the Security Council approves - and now there's even talk of an international stand-by army ready to intervene as conflicts arise. And even some campaigning groups been forced to rethink their traditional resistance to armed intervention. Human Rights Watch, for one, has gone as far as to urge military action in some cases. It's executive director is Kenneth Roth:

"Human Rights Watch has a policy as to when we will advocate humanitarian intervention, which is that we will do it when it is the last feasible option for avoiding genocide or other comparable slaughter. When intervention appears likely to do more good than harm and when the intervention will strictly abide by the requirements of humanitarian law designed to spare civilians as much as possible from the hazards of warfare".

The organisation has called for international military action with very specific humanitarian aims on four occasions in its 21-year history - in Rwanda, Bosnia, Somalia, and just after the Gulf War, to protect returning Iraqi Kurd refugees from Saddam Hussain's forces. But it did not advocate military intervention in Kosovo or Chechnya. About those the world remains ambivalent. There are some, like Dr Gwynn Prins of the London School of Economics, who believe that on balance, despite the civilian casualties, NATO was right to intervene in Kosovo:

"War is about killing people - and there is always the risk that innocent people will die even if the cause is just. And I don't believe that the actions in Kosovo were taken lightly. They were taken when the evidence became incontrovertible that if nothing was done, then Mr Milosevic would indeed, in the spring of 1999, have sent his black-helmeted interior police sweeping through Kosovo and had that happened, then the loss of innocent life would almost certainly have been far greater given the track record of Mr Milosevic - who let us remember, is not a politician, but an indicted war criminal".

But others, like Dmitri Trenin, say the global community has been shamed by the bombing of Belgrade:

"When NATO was bombarding Belgrade I had the uneasy feeling, let's imagine that you and I are just normal citizens of Belgrade, we have nothing to do with Milosevic - we hate him or not - it's not a crime not to hate Milosevic if you're a Serb - even then your life is in jeopardy. Why? What have you done? Why is it that NATO bombers or indeed Russian bombers are bombing innocent people? It's totally unacceptable from today's point of view to make innocent civilians pay for the crimes committed by their masters. This is what democracies should not be doing. Absolutely not. [This is something world was not thinking about in 1945 - all those bombardment s- Dresden, Hamburg - then no one thought much about it.]"

They will certainly not be doing it in Chechnya. While the world ponders what kind of pressure to exert on Russia - and whether to exert it at all - Chechen civilians await some sign that the world even notices their plight. Asiet Chadayeva paints a grim picture of the price of global indifference:

"You see this photograph? It's of a girl whose body pieces I had to gather together after she was hit by a shell. I spent two hours gathering the pieces of her body. I saw her alive at four in the morning and at six I was collecting the pieces of her body. It still haunts me. Tell me - who will be held responsible for all this suffering?".

Governments are normally held responsible for the suffering of their people, but this leaves the question, who is responsible when they fail?


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