Geert Lovink on Thu, 29 Apr 1999 00:59:22 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> chomsky: the current bombings

The Current Bombings
by Noam Chomsky

There have been many inquiries concerning NATO (meaning primarily US) 
bombing in Kosovo. A great deal has een 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 
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 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 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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