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Mocking Tradition and Practice

By Prof. Raju G. C. Thomas

The taking apart of Yugoslavia between 1991 and 1999 is unique in terms of principles applied, policies adopted, and its short and long term consequences. It shows few parallels with other secessionist movements in the world in the post Second World War era. The disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991 was different in many respects. Some dangerous precedents were set in the Yugoslav case. Traditionally, the situation was as follows:

1. When the right of self-determination is invoked by secessionist ethnic groups, the state almost always invokes the principles of the territorial integrity of the state and the inviolability of its borders. It is a violation of international law to recognize unilateral declarations of independence by secessionist groups and territories against the wishes of federal or central governments who are engaged in resisting the separatists.

2. Internal boundaries of a state do not have any legal validity under international law. They are subject to change in accordance with domestic politics and/or law. These boundaries cannot automatically become external boundaries if the secessionists manage to break away through consent or force.

3. The notion of state sovereignty in the past always meant that other states do not have the right to interfere in its internal matters. While multilateral economic and arms control treaties, signed voluntarily for the mutual benefits they provide, have increasingly placed limitations on state sovereignty, such self-limitations do not extend to the right of external interference in the internal struggle between the state and the secessionists.

4. The state's "standard operating procedure" in dealing with secessionist demands and accompanying insurgency or terrorism is the attempt to crush it through counter-insurgency and counter-terrorist means. The level of violence by the state then invariably exceeds that of the separatists.

5. The formation of new states from an existing state, occurs through successful separatist violence aided by outside powers, or through mutual agreement between the state and the secessionists. The primary exception to the above traditional practice, has been the end of empires. The reference to the right of self-determination in the United Nations Charter applies only to this demand of decolonization.

6. When a state attempts to crush secessionist movements through military force, the term "aggression" as defined by the United Nations Charter does not apply. This is civil war, and not war among states. The state has the legal right to preserve its territorial integrity by force with a moral obligation to minimize human rights violations. While the state may be accused of "crimes against humanity" under conditions of civil war, this does not give outside powers the right to dismantle and destroy the state.

7. The state's invocation of legal rights and use of force within its own frontiers may contrast with the state's inability to achieve political legitimacy over the people inhabiting the province that wish to secede. Political legitimacy involves obtaining the consent of the governed.

8. According to the Guidelines of the Montevideo Convention of 1933, new states are to be recognized on the empirical evidence that they possess clearly demarcated territorial boundaries, a stable population and a government in control. Preference and moral considerations are less relevant.

9. If parts of an existing state eventually manage to secede, the rights of the old state is retained by the remnant state, if this part still remains the equal or greater part than the single or each of the several parts that seceded from the old state. There are precedents establishing this rule.

10. Secession may be considered immoral where it leads to the denial of past benefits to the rest of the country; when it compels other units also to secede leading to state disintegration; and where such actions lead to war, chaos and human tragedy.

Virtually all of the above principles or practice were violated by the "international community" in the case of the former Yugoslavia. International response was different in the case of Nigeria's crushing of the Ibo secessionist movement in Biafra; China's suppression of Tibet's secession; India's suppression in Kashmir, Punjab and Assam; Pakistan's crushing of secessions by Baluchistan and Sind, and its unsuccessful attempt to do the same in East Pakistan; Sri Lanka's war against Tamil separatists; Philippines in the Muslim Moro areas; Indonesia in East Timor; Turkey in "Kurdistan;" Britain in Northern Ireland; and Spain in the Basque areas. On the question of successor state following breakup, precedents were established when Pakistan seceded from India in 1947, Bangladesh from Pakistan in 1971, and 15 "republics" from Russia in 1991. The consistent principle applied in these three comparable cases, was denied to the remnant Yugoslavia.

The pit of the West's violations of traditional precepts and international laws was reached when NATO launched its attack on the remnant Yugoslavia in violation of a slew of international laws that included the UN Charter, the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, the prohibition of attacks on civilian targets that have no military value, several laws regarding the environmental protection and the protection of cultural sites, and the domestic laws of several NATO members that prohibit going to war except in self defense. The claim of humanitarian intervention is plain dishonesty since there was no humanitarian crisis until NATO attacked causing it. NATO's decision to attack had everything to do with the failure of Belgrade to submit to a diktat presented to Yugoslavia at Rambouillet in February that it be willing to allow NATO forces to be deployed throughout Yugoslavia, and that it be willing to allow a plebiscite eventually that would allow the Albanians of Kosovo to secede. It had nothing to do with the humanitarian crisis in Kosovo which was caused by NATO's decision to attack.

Historical Precursors of War

In the 20th century it has become a habit for the victors of war to claim that God and morality were on their side, and that they are incapable of committing crimes during war. Only the vanquished are war criminals deserving of all the punishment that can be meted out. Claims during the Yugoslav conflict between 1991 and 1999 have been no different. And when the victors emerge and proclaim themselves without sin, the rest of the world rush to jump on their bandwagon. Those who once condemned NATO's attack may soon be expected to concede that it was the right thing to do in the name of the greater good of mankind. The pain, suffering, losses and grievances of the defeated become buried permanently. Moreover, history is written by the victors, a history of self-serving lies and distortions. NATO and its supporters have already flooded global information outlets with their version of events in order to overwhelm all opposing viewpoints.

The constant historical invocation during the Yugoslav crisis was to the Second World War and the holocaust. "Never Again" is the shrill nonsensical cry. These are the wrong analogies and lessons. Instead, the real historical analogy may be the First World War. Examine the following. Serbia had accepted all of Austria's diktats in 1914 following the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand of Austria at Sarajevo, although there was no official Serbian involvement in that incident. Austria attacked Serbia anyway launching the First World War. Serbia accepted all the political terms of the Rambouillet diktat in 1999 except to insist on its territorial integrity. NATO attacked Serbia anyway in violation of the UN Charter. NATO declared military victory although there appeared to be no victors. The outcome was a negotiated cease fire produced by Russian Foreign Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin. The cease fire terms conceded the Serbian demands made at Rambouillet that its territorial integrity including Kosovo will be preserved, that NATO forces will not have access to all of Serbia, and essentially an international force with a substantial NATO presence will be stationed in Kosovo.

Apart from the destruction of Serbia's civilian infrastructure, its factories and other means of civilian livelihood, the Serbian military came out unscathed, especially in Kosovo. Some 50,000 Serbian soldiers filed out in orderly fashion with nearly all their weapons and equipment intact and looking as fresh and clean as the NATO forces that marched in. However, Serbia and Serbians have been asked to acknowledge and accept all blame and guilt, and are being punished severely with economic sanctions. While having reduced Serbia to almost rubble and its people to impoverishment, the US and the West claim that they did no wrong. All allegations of war crimes have been attributed to Serbian political and military leaders, but none to NATO's political and military leaders The UN was weakened.

Likewise, during the First World War, Britain, France and the United States declared victory although much of Germany was not defeated or occupied. Indeed, Russia was defeated in the east and collapsed into anarchy giving rise to the Bolshevik revolution. However, Germany was forced to take all blame and guilt, and was punished severely in the Versailles Peace Treaty, while the Britain, France and the United States claimed that they had done nothing wrong. The self-proclaimed victors declared themselves moral judges, the alleged vanquished was declared deserving of all punishment. War crimes were directed at the Kaiser and 19,000 German political and military leaders, but none attributed to the members of the Triple Entente and the US, although no war crimes tribunals were established. German bitterness at such unjust punitive measures led to the rise of Nazism and the Second World War. The League of Nations collapsed. While small countries such as Serbia may not have the same capacity to start a war machine like Germany did during the inter war years, there is the possibility--as Chinese military strategists have proposed--of resort to "Unrestricted Warfare" against America's ability to fight wars without casualties. This form of warfare would include organized biological and chemical terrorist attacks, the spread of drugs in Western societies to destabilize their societies, and the spreading of computer viruses as part of broader cyberwarfare, thus taking the pain and suffering into the territorial heart of the self-proclaimed military and moral victors.

As during the inter-war years, NATO's assault on Yugoslavia in 1999 has undermined the United Nations, just as the League of Nations was undermined in the 1930s. The League was destroyed by three of its members, Japan, Italy and Germany, who eventually forged a triangular alliance known as the "Axis Powers." Like the United States, Britain, and Germany operating under the NATO alliance today, the Axis powers either disregarded international norms and the clauses of the League's Covenant, or bypassed the League altogether, or claimed they were acting in accordance with the Covenant. None of them publicly declared that they were acting illegally or immorally, although Mussolini's Italy came close to declaring that the League and international law did not matter when it attacked and annexed Ethiopia without provocation in 1935. Japan's earlier attack and annexation of the Chinese province of Manchuria in 1932 was claimed to have been undertaken within the boundaries of International Law and the League Covenant. Japan claimed it was acting in self-defense to enforce its extra-territorial rights in Manchuria, although the belated Lytton Commission of Inquiry determined otherwise.

When Hitler's Germany annexed the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia in 1938--in the prelude to the Second World War--the protests by this small state were determined by Britain to be unreasonable, considering that for the most part it was Germans who lived there anyway. The parallel is not that Milosevic is like Hitler--a grossly absurd comparison made by various Western leaders--but that Kosovo is to Serbia in 1999 as the Sudetenland was to Czechoslovakia in 1938, despite ethnic minority populations constituting the majority in those regions. The assumptions in the West that Milosevic's Serbia is the equivalent of Hitler's Germany, and that NATO's military onslaught is equal to the action of Allied forces during the Second World War determined to end evil, are misplaced. Serbia did not invade, say, Hungary in 1999 the way Germany invaded Poland in 1939. First, in Croatia and Bosnia, Serbia sought to retain as many Serbs and as much territory as possible within a disintegrating Yugoslavia, and then it fought to keep its historic and religious territory, Kosovo, which was indisputably part of Serbia.

Serbia's response to the West parallels that of Vietnam, a small state determined not to be dictated to and dominated by great powers. Just as the Vietnamese fought against the Japanese, the French and then the Americans, the Serbs have fought against Turks, Germans and now Americans to maintain their freedom and independence. As expected, Vietnam has opposed the war. A Hanoi communique declared: "The U.S. and NATO should have learnt a lesson from the Vietnam War as they continue their genocidal military operations against Yugoslavia... It is regrettable that the U.S. and NATO have not learnt any lessons from the Vietnamese victories against the soldiers of France in 1954 and America in 1975 which has led them to commit their errors today."

Just as the events that led up to the Second World War were in part the result of a collapsing League of Nations and the rising arrogance of the Axis powers, while the other major powers, Britain, France and the United States offered feeble resistance, the current crisis, which has not led to a Third World War, is in large part the result of a weakening United Nations and the rising arrogance of the NATO alliance, while the other major powers, Russia, China, and India, have offered feeble resistance. Moscow, Beijing, and New Delhi have protested vehemently, but to no avail. NATO's rampage against tiny Yugoslavia was conducted with the conviction that God, morality, and overwhelming military power are on their side.

Perspectives and Interpretations of War

During the war over Kosovo, NATO claimed that it represented the "international community" although Russia, China, India, Vietnam, Philippines, much of Latin America opposed the attack and called for an immediate cease-fire. Indeed, NATO's unity might have collapsed if the war had continued another month or so. Except for the British and Canadian governments (the English speaking members of the alliance who are not part of continental Europe), the European member's support for NATO's military actions, which were almost exclusively conducted by the US military, was shaky. An Indian newspaper editorial during NATO's attack on Yugoslavia claimed that the real victims (the Serbs) were being portrayed as the villains, and the real villains (NATO and the US in particular) were being projected as honest interventionists.

The Clinton administration's spokesman, David Leavy attributed this phenomena to the fact that ``President (Slobodan) Milosevic has an extensive propaganda machine. We've worked very hard to try to counteract that propaganda machine..." The White House spokesman claimed that Kosovo was the best recent example of how the United States needs to fight a propaganda war in concert with military strikes. Accordingly, a new International Public Information has been set up to prevent (presumably) countries like India from coming to conclusions that support the Serbian point of view. Likewise in Britain, Downing Street was locked in an extraordinary battle with the British media on the issue of fair reporting. Prime Minister Tony Blair's spokesman, Alastair Campbell, accused British journalists of being duped by the Serb "lie machine" and of being too lazy to cover the Kosovo conflict properly.

However, much of the rest of the world saw the crises and wars of the former Yugoslavia differently, perhaps because of parallel conditions within their own states. On the other hand, Western media and government officials had became locked into a particular syndrome where perceptions of good and evil had become indelibly carved. During the first half of the Vietnam War, Americans were convinced that the war was a struggle between the forces of monolithic international communism led by the Soviet Union and China, and that of the free led by the United States and Western Europe. There was hardly any other interpretation provided in the US in the years before 1968 other than this. It was only after the disastrous Tet Offensive in 1968, that American perceptions began to change. Amidst the growing anti-war movement, various writers began to claim that this was a war of Vietnamese nationalism against foreign forces--the Japanese, the French and then the Americans. A revisionist history of the Cold War began to emerge thereafter, and issues were no longer interpreted as strictly ideological, and starkly black and white.

Similarly, would a different interpretation of the crisis in Yugoslavia have emerged if NATO's attack on Serbia had continued a few more months with severe American and West European casualties? Similarly, interpretations of Yugoslav events were made in the context of a new US dominant global structure following the end of the Cold War. There no longer existed countervailing power especially where Russia had become wholly dependent on the West for its economic survival. Under these circumstances, the Yugoslav situation was seen in the context of good versus evil, where the Serbs were evil and every other ethnic group were considered good, no matter what they did. With the help of a colluding and conspiratorial Western media, all facts were made to fit this American sponsored image. Yet there were too many inconsistencies in US and Western policies, and too many contradictions in the eventual outcomes of policies adopted. For example, it was deemed acceptable to take Yugoslavia's long-standing international frontiers apart, but not that of the former internal provinces of Croatia and Bosnia. It was deemed not acceptable to give Serbian Krajina independence in order to preserve the territorial integrity of Croatia, but it now seems acceptable to give Kosovo independence thereby violating the territorial integrity of Serbia.

With reference to policy outcomes, while the goal of maintaining a multiethnic Yugoslavia was discarded in cavalier fashion when Slovenia and Croatia were allowed unilaterally to declare their independence, Serbian efforts to carve out an ethnically pure state was disallowed. Multi-ethnicity was a good thing, and Serbs, Croats and Muslims who supposedly could not live together in Yugoslavia must do so in a smaller Bosnia. And having attempted to maintain multiethnic states in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo, we have now ended with ethnically pure states in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. Attempts to create a Greater Serbia out of the territories of the former Yugoslavia was determined to be aggression and therefore not permissible. However, we now have de facto Greater Croatia and Greater Albania, but no Greater Serbia. Such inconsistent policies carry implications and lessons for the rest of the world.

The Realities of Power in the Post Cold War Era

The territorial outcome in the former Yugoslavia demonstrates one of the basic dictums of international politics theory, viz., that the lack of countervailing power (or a balance of power) in the world will not guarantee the sovereignty and independence of states, especially states that are small. Small states become vulnerable if the dominant powers in a unipolar world acting in concert, seek to destroy their territorial integrity. American actions in the Yugoslav conflict reinforce the Machiavellian maxim that morality is the product of power, especially in international society. The collapse of the USSR left the US and Germany with unrestrained power to dictate the new order in the Balkans. Washington and Berlin have declared their actions to be morally justified.

If Serbian military power was about to determine the territorial boundaries of the new states out of a disintegrated Yugoslavia unfairly and through violent means, German and American politcal and military power changed those equations in favor of their proteges, especially the Croats. The new territorial order imposed in the former Yugoslavia through American military intervention, both covert (Iranian arms) and overt (bombing of the Serbs), is not morally superior by any means over that which the Serbs were about to impose in the region to their advantage. The Serbs sought what they probably could have had for the asking at the end of the First World War, a Greater Serbia. This was the historic mission of the Serbs in the 19th century and was no different from the uniting of Italians and Germans into the consolidated states of Greater Italy and Greater Germany in the 1860s and 1870s. If Croats and Slovenes had not agreed to join the South Slav Union, these states in 1918 would have been very small while the "victorious Serbs would undoubtedly have succeeded in enlarging the territory of pre-war Serbia to include sections of Croatia and Bosnia where many hundreds of thousands of Serbs had lived under Austro-Hungarian rule." Instead, the quest for a Greater Serbia out of the territories of the former Yugoslavia--not out of the bordering territories of independent states such as Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria or Albania which would be a case of irredentism and aggression--was declared to be unacceptable by the United States.

The denial of the historic goal of a Greater Serbia for the Serbs in 1991-92, and the creation of a d facto ethnically pure Greater Croatia for the Croats in 1995 and Greater Albania in 1999, were not coincidences or accidents. It was the natural outcome of great power politics and a preponderance of power at the end of the Cold War. In particular, the US was left standing as the sole superpower. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany--a reunion that had been prevented by East and West for 45 years because they feared for the security of Europe--gave the new Germany confidence to act forcefully in Yugoslavia--immature, inexperienced and well-meaning as these actions may have been. Occasional protests and resistance by Russia, Britain and France against German and American policies and actions were feeble and futile. Russia is truncated, faced with internal ethnic secessionist wars, on the edge of bankruptcy and political chaos, and dependent on American and German economic assistance for its survival. Britain and France did not want to undermine the unity of the European Union or of NATO. So they acquiesced to the destruction of Yugoslavia and the bombing of the Serbs, their traditional allies and that of the US in two world wars.

In choosing between the principle of the right of self-determination and the principle of the territorial integrity of sovereign states, the Western powers have now established the following self-contradicting and dangerous precedent and principles: (1) The internal boundaries of a sovereign state will automatically become international frontiers without change if that sovereign state is taken apart through new state recognition policy. (2) These newly recognized international frontiers of the newly-created sovereign states that have been recognized, will be preserved and enforced at any price, thus contradicting the earlier decision to take the international frontiers of the pre-existing sovereign state apart based on the right of self-determination and secession. The exception is Kosovo which the Clinton administration has already declared will become an independent state following the bombing and destruction of Yugoslavia.

Self-Determination and Democratic Rights

In dealing with the various conflicting demands and rights of self-determination and territorial integrity in the former Yugoslavia, the international community embarked on a confused and contradictory set of goals and policies which, if applied to other parts of the world, could be even more disastrous. Hurst Hannum writes: "Perhaps no contemporary norm of international law has been so vigorously promoted or widely accepted as the right of all peoples to self-determination. Yet the meaning and content of that right remain as vague and imprecise as when they were enunciated by President Woodrow Wilson and others at Versailles."

In 1995, Allen Buchanan warned against confusing democratic rights with secessionist rights based on the principle of self-determination. He pointed out the need to view the two concepts and their objectives together to understand its distinctions and to avoid the likely adverse consequences of confusing the two concepts. While there is "widespread, unambivalent endorsement of the goal of democratization," there are serious doubts about destroying the state itself through secessions in advancing this goal of democratization. "There is good reason to be apprehensive. Attempts at secession, and the efforts of states to resist them, have frequently led to severe economic dislocations and massive violations of human rights. Ethnic minorities have won their independence only to subject their own minorities to the same persecutions they themselves formerly suffered."

Buchanan further points out the misleading parallels between democratization and secession. "Both democratization and secession, it may seem, are exercises of the right of self-determination. If democracy is popular sovereignty--participation in government by the people--then secession may be seen as the effort of various peoples to govern themselves, to be politically self-determining, in the most literal sense, by forming their own independent, fully sovereign states." Buchanan continues:

"There are two reasons, however, why our enthusiasm for democracy may quite outstrip our enthusiasm for secession. First, secession can and has produced massive violation of human rights, "ethnic cleansings," and wholesale destruction of economic resources. Second, as Abraham Lincoln argued, secession can pose a lethal threat to democracy: If a discontented minority can exit the polity whenever it is outvoted by the majority on an issue it deems of great importance, then the majority does not rule. In addition, if secession is considered as a real option, then a minority group may use the threat of "exit" as a form of "voice" that serves as an effective veto on majority rule. In either case, recognition of a right to secede can undercut the exercise of the right of democratic self-government."

The problem in the case of the former Yugoslavia was that the moral justification for secession was questionable compared to other parts of the world where secessions have been denied. Some logical explanation must be provided as to why the principle of the right to secede was applied selectively to Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia, but not (for example) to Tibet, Kashmir and Kurdistan. Ultimately, power and ability prevailed in the former Yugoslavia. Those states who secede are: those who have the independent power to do so (Ireland); are assisted by external powers to break free (Bangladesh); are voluntarily allowed to so by the Union (Singapore and Slovakia); or because the federal authorities have become too weak to resist secession (the ex-Soviet republics and Eritrea). The initial support to the secessionists in Slovenia and Croatia by a German-led West, backed later by the US, made the difference in allowing these two Yugoslav republics to secede. Morality and justice were less relevant in determining the outcome.

In the more liberal interpretation of freedom, subject ethnic groups within a state are considered to have the right to hold referendums to determine whether they wish to remain part of the state or secede from it. This right of national self-determination is, however, mentioned only obliquely and in passing reference in Article 1 (2) of the United Nations Charter which reads: "To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace." Articles 73 to 91 essentially deal with "Non-Self-Governing Territories" and the "Trusteeship System" but have nothing to do with granting self-determination to peoples within existing sovereign independent states.

The 1970 "Declaration on Friendly Relations" elaborated on the Charter and went beyond to declare that the principle did not only apply to colonial territories, but also to "all peoples" "the right freely to determine without external interference, their political status." The principle was emphasized in Article 1 of the "International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights" passed in 1976 and ratified by 113 by the end of 1991. However, the rights of minorities to self-determination, according to the Covenant, did not include the right to secede. It implied the right of peoples in all states "to free, fair and open participation in the democratic process of governance freely chosen by each state." A 1990 meeting of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) in Copenhagen went far in affirming democratic rights and human rights of peoples but did not go as far as to endorse the right to secede.

Self-Determination Versus Territorial Integrity: Cases

There are several cases which demonstrate that the right of self-determination with the purpose of seceding from the state does not exist--except by mutual consent, or with the consent of the majority, or with the consent of the federal or central government. Unilateral declarations of independence and territorial secession by ethnic groups are illegal under international law. Donald Horowitz, a leading American specialist on nationalism and ethnic conflict, noted appropriately that the secessions of Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia, and Serbia followed the violent patterns of state dissolution elsewhere. He pointed out that states with no history of independence such as Bosnia were swiftly recognized without considering the consequences. Stated simply, the right of self-determination does not extend to the right of secession. Democratic rights stop at the international frontiers of the state.

Kashmir and India: India insists on its own territorial integrity and will not tolerate secession by any of its constituent parts. There will be no more "Pakistans" out of India. But Kashmir continues to pose a problem While there are several parallels between the Yugoslav situation and India, the parallels between "Kosovo and Metohija" and "Jammu and Kashmir" (to use the full names of these provinces), are even greater. Kosovo is 90 percent Albanian, mainly Muslim, with a less than 10 percent Serb minority. NATO's military actions and occupation and the return of the Kosovo Liberation Army have resulted in the flight nearly all Serbs from Kosovo, a major demographic transformation. Note, that in the 1930 Yugoslav census, the population of Kosovo was only 60 percent Albanian.

The Kashmir Valley, the main bone of contention between India and Pakistan, is 90 percent Muslim with a 10 percent Hindu minority. Nearly all of this 10 percent Kashmiri Hindu Pandits have fled their homes in Kashmir since the Muslim separatist movement began in 1989. Unlike Kashmir which remains disputed territory with Pakistan on the U.N. agenda, Kosovo was not disputed territory with Albania. Both Serbia and India have declared that the secessionist movements in these provinces are internal matters. Since the outbreak of the violent secessionist movement in Kashmir in 1989 led by the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), estimates of the number of people killed vary between 25,000 and 60,000. The Indian government declared the JKLF and other groups to be terrorists. Similarly, since the violent secessionist movement broke out in Kosovo in March 1998 led by the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), the Yugoslav government has declared the KLA to be a terrorist group.

Tamil Ealam and Sri Lanka: There are even more similarities found in the violent Tamil separatist movement in Sri Lanka and events in the former Yugoslavia. The ruling and dominant Sinhalese speak a language that belong to the Indo-European group and are 95 percent Buddhist. They constitute 75 percent of the population. The Tamil-speaking population (of which 20 percent are Catholics) constitute 18 percent of the population. About 7 percent are Muslim Moors who also speak Tamil but do not identify with the Hindu and Catholic Tamils or their separatist movement. Tamil belongs to the Dravidian group of languages. Like the Serbs whose identity is determined by language and religion, the Sinhalese identity is determined by language and religion. On the other hand, like the Albanians whose identity is determined by race and distinct language, Tamil separatism is determind by language and culture and not religion. There is an independent Albania across the border from Kosovo, and there is an autonomous Tamil state called Tamil Nadu across the narrow Palk Straits in India.

The demands of an independent Albanian Kosovo and an independent "Tamil Ealsm" would appear to be identical. But the treatment of the two cases have been fundamentally different although allegations of human rights violations by Sinhalese forces engaged in the suppression Tamil separatism have been far more serious than that of Serb forces in Kosovo before March 1999. But there appears to be no likelihood of international recognition for Tamil Ealam. Indeed, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam has been declared to be a terrorist organization by the State Department. However, this classification of the Kosovo Liberation Army by the State Department has now been lifted. The KLA's credentials have been upgraded to freedom loving NATO allies.

Quebec and Canada: In August 1998, the Canadian Supreme Court, while acknowledging that Canada was not indivisible, declared that Quebec could not secede through a simple majority vote among its residents. The terms of secession would have to be negotiated with the rest of Canada as an amendment to the Canadian constitution. The nine Canadian justices indicated that while such a secession would theoretically feasible, it would be difficult, painful and costly, suggesting that it would be most unlikely. More importantly, the Canadian Supreme Court (that included 3 judges from Quebec) declared that under international law, there is no right of unilateral secession except territories that are judged to be colonies and specially oppressed peoples. Quebec fulfills neither category. The court warned that unilateral secession by French Canadians would likely be rejected as illegitimate by the "international community," presumably the same international community, including Canada, that rushed to recognize the unilateral declarations of secession by Slovenia and Croatia. Indeed, the situation in the former Yugoslavia was similar. The constitutional right of Yugoslavia's internal "republics" to secede was countered by the right of its various "nationalities" and of the other republics to oppose it.

Biafra and Nigeria: The principle that the Western powers applied to Yugoslavia was diametrically opposed to their position on Ibo demands for an independent Biafra from Nigeria in the late 1960s. Like the Slovenes and Croatians, the Ibos complained that their prosperity was being used to subsidize the rest of the state. While the Nigerian government had invoked the principle of the territorial integrity of the state, the Ibos claimed that the states and boundaries of Africa were artificial, the illegitimate legacy of European colonialism. The OAU recognized the fact that the boundaries of Black Africa were colonial legacies with no moral standing, they felt that allowing the principle of self-determination and the consequent creation of new states and boundaries, could lead to chaos and disaster. There would be endless demands for new states based on tribes, languages and religions that could unravel all of Africa resulting in extensive bloodshed and refugee flows. The OAU determined that while there may be no logic or morality to the existing states and boundaries of Africa, except the colonial legacy, that legacy must stand.

The Two Yemens: The case of Yemen appears more definitive. The brief civil war that broke out in Yemen in May 1994 was triggered by the declaration of independence by the south. The north proceeded to crush the secession through armed force invoking the principle of the territorial integrity of the state. But, the merger of the north (Yemen Arab Republic) and the south (the Peoples Democratic Republic of Yemen) had taken place just four years earlier in 1990. Their historical and political experiences were completely different. The north was occupied by the Turks in 1870 and relinquished control after World War One. The south was occupied by the British in 1839 and granted independence in 1967. For over a hundred years, the two Yemens had no common history or political experience. Yet, there were no allegations of "aggression" against the north when it crushed by military force in a matter of days the secession of the South which had agreed to a union only a few years earlier. But here too, the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the state prevailed.

Tibet and China: Both the nationalist regime (1911-1949) and the communist regime (1949-present) of China have claimed that Tibet has been historically a part of China under the Manchu (Qing) dynasty for centuries. Manchu control over Tibet was weakened only with the encroachment of the European powers in China, and of the British in particular, with their rights of extra-territoriality in China. The governments of China under the Manchus and the Nationalists were weak and subject to unequal treaties and unfair concessions. Hong Kong, for instance, had to be ceded to the British Crown under an unequal 100-year lease agreement.

There are two problems with such Chinese claims to Tibet. First, like parts of the Czarist empire that controlled large territories inhabited by Turkic Muslims, Tibet and Tibetans were claimed to be part of the Chinese empire, not China itself. The Tibetans, like the Turkic Muslims of the Czarist Russian empire, were different from the Chinese in their Tibeto-Burman race and unique Buddhist religious practice. Second, even during the rule of the Manchus since 1644, China had little control over Tibet. There existed an occasional and small Chinese military presence in Lhasa on the invitation of the Dalai Lama. In 1709, the Mongol prince Latsang Khan occupied Tibet displacing the 6th Dalai Lama. In 1720, the 7th Dalai Lama entered Lhasa backed by Chinese troops and displaced the Mongols. In 1728, Chinese forces removed the 7th Dalai Lama and then returned him to Lhasa in 1750. Thereafter, between 1750 and 1904, the year of the British expedition of Colonel Sir Francis Younghusband, there was no Chinese presence in Lhasa. The British now controlled Tibet and stationed a British "Resident" in Lhasa, a situation not fundamentally different from British Paramountcy over the Indian Princely States. It should be apparent that Tibet has justifiable claims to independence if the various provinces and regions of the former Yugoslavia had the right to do so.

Secessionism in the Ex-Soviet Union. As in the case of the former Yugoslavia, only previously existing "republics" within the Soviet Union were allowed to secede. No more, no less. The declarations of independence by the Serbs of Krajina and Slavonia in the republic of Croatia, and that of Serbs in territories of the republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina, were not recognized inspite of successful de facto secessions between 1991 and 1996. Likewise, successful territorial secessions by the Muslims of the Abkhazian region of Georgia, by the Armenians of Ngorny-Karabakh in Azerbaijan, and by the Muslims of Chechnya in Russia, have not been recognized. Yet, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Russia have all lost control of these regions. No Georgians, Azeris or Russians live anymore in these breakaway regions. Russian populated Crimea was denied secession from Ukraine although it only became part of Ukraine in 1954 because Kruschev transferred the territory from the Russian S.S.R. to the Ukrainian S.S.R.

Indeed, if the Soviet Union had inherited an empire from the Czars, then other parts of current Russian federation would have equal rights to secede as the republics. There are still some 50 significant non-Russian nationalities left in the new Russia. Separatist demands by Turkic Muslims have been particularly acute especially in the Volga-Ural region. Ten of 21 republics within the Russian Federation are ethnically Turkic or their populations are dominantly Turkic. There are some 11 million of these Turkic Muslims who are kindred people of the newly independent Central Asian republics who seceded from the Soviet Union. Although these Turkic peoples are divided into several groups, such as the Tatars, Bashkorts, Cechens, Chuvashs, Ossetians, Ingushis and others, they carry memories of oppression under the Czars and are united in the desire to secede from Russia. The fundamental problem in the former Yugoslavia was that the West led by Germany and the US, discarded the principles laid down in the 1975 Helsinki Agreements Final Act which had guaranteed the boundaries of the existing states of Europe. According to this agreement: "The participating states will respect the territorial integrity of each of the participating states. Accordingly, they will refrain from any action...against the territorial integrity, political independence, or the unity of any participating state..." The former Yugoslavia was a party to this agreement, not the new states (which are now invoking the Helsinki principles to preserve their boundaries) that were carved out from the old state.

War, Morality and Humanitarian Interventions

During NATO's total war against Yugoslavia, a Times of India editorial noted the dangerous new American-dominant world, the American development of new missile defense systems, the legitimization of wars of intervention abroad on self-determined moral grounds, and being able to fight them with very few or no casualties to Americans because of the new high-tech weapon systems. "In these circumstances two major trends are likely to emerge. Independent powers like Russia and China are bound to develop their own military capabilities to deter US dominance to the extent possible and to defend their own national interests and sovereignty. In this, the nuclear weapons and long range missiles are bound to play a crucial role. Secondly, the deep resentment against US hegemonism is bound to unleash various terrorist activities by non-state actors against US interests and personnel in various parts of the world."

NATO's war prompted Chinese military strategists to consider new rules of "Unrestricted War" which include the resort to terrorism, ecological destruction, the spreading of computer viruses, and trafficking in drugs to undermine the enemy population thereby bringing destruction into the heart of the Western countries, especially the United States. According to Colonels Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui, the authors of "Unrestricted War," this strategy was the only viable method of balancing unequal military states. "Unrestricted War is a war that surpasses all boundaries and restrictions... It takes nonmilitary forms and military forms and creates a war on many fronts. It is the war of the future." In an interview, Colonel Wang, declared: "We are a weak country. So do we need to fight according to your rules? No. War has rules, but those rules are set by the West. But if you use those rules, then weak countries have no chance. But if you use nontraditional means to fight, like those employed by financiers to bring down financial systems, then you have a chance." According to John Pomfret of the Washington Post, the Chinese military strategists saw a direct connection between Kosovo and Taiwan and Tibet. According to Colonel Wang, "If today you impose your value systems on a European country, tomorrow you can do the same to Taiwan or Tibet."

The United States and Great Britain have argued that the attack on Serbia was justified under the 1948 Genocide Convention and/or other general humanitarian principles. However, the internal Yugoslav republics of Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia declared their independence with promises of recognition by Germany and the Vatican before any human rights violations or violence had occurred. Those unilateral declarations of independence produced the subsequent violence and the bloodshed. From March to March 1998-99, before NATO's attack on Yugoslavia, the total number of deaths of the KLA, Serb policemen, and Albanian and Serbian civilians was less than 2,000, in a ratio of about two-third Albanian to one-third Serb. Serbian crackdown in Kosovo generated some 300,000 internally displaced people. NATO's war against Yugoslavia led to the deaths of allegedly 10,000 Albanians, of 2,000 Serb civilians and about 600-1000 Serb soldiers in Kosovo. And if the bombing and sanctioning of the Iraqi population that has led to some 1.7 million deaths of innocent civilians are any guide, we may expect a similar outcome in Yugoslavia. There will be no grief or outrage for these victims.

If NATO had the right to intervene in Kosovo, does it now have the right to intervene in Palestine, Kashmir, Tibet, and Kurdistan, where human rights violations are also taking place? NATO cannot unilaterally invoke the 1948 Genocide Convention , the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and other humanitarian laws, and proceed to attack independent states. Only the Security Council can do so, but NATO deliberately bypassed the Council knowing that Russia and China would veto such an attack.

There was no humanitarian intervention by the U.S. and the West when the Nigerian authorities crushed the Biafra separatist movement between 1967 and 1970 causing the deaths of one million Ibos, when Pakistani forces killed one million and drove out 10 million Bengalis during the East Pakistani secessionist struggle in 1971, when the Pol Pot regime killed one million Cambodians, to name just a few cases. In the latter two cases, the US condemned India and Vietnam for their military interventions and threatened military action against them. However, both India and Vietnam intervened AFTER the human catastrophes had taken place. On the other hand, NATO's rush to bomb CAUSED the human catastrophe in Kosovo, as did Western interventions earlier in Croatia and Bosnia by promoting and rushing to recognize Croatia and Bosnia as independent states against the wishes of the Serbian populations.

Three fundamental principles of Just War -- necessity, proportionality and discrimination - were not met.

  • (1) Necessity: Serbia had agreed to all the political conditions of the Rambouillet diktat and even an international military presence but objected to NATO occupation of Kosovo and the right of occupation throughout Yugoslavia. This could hardly be considered a failure of negotiations and yet the bombing followed.
  • (2) Proportionality: Inflicting a combined "Dresden", "Tokyo firebombing" and a "Hiroshima" (many US weapons contain Depleted Uranium) on a nation of 10 million people was grossly out of proportion to the problem that needed to be resolved.
  • (3) Discrimination: NATO's deliberate military strategy of destroying Serbia's entire infrastructure including water supply, electricity, fuel dumps, roads, bridges, and other "collateral damage" such as hospitals, schools and cultural-historic monuments, was intended to terrorize and destroy Serbia's civilian population in order to bring about capitulation.

In the final analysis, acting on moral principles is not enough. We need to pay attention to the immoral outcomes of acting on moral principles. Allowing the right of self-determination among oppressed minorities may seem like moral policy. But this may encourage minority populations to provoke brutal crackdowns by the state and thereby humanitarian interventions by the "international community". The results of such moralistic policies have usually been greater human tragedies.


This article is a paper that Prof. Ragu delivered at the Conference on "War and Justice" sponsored by Dialogue Magazine in Paris, October 25, 1999

Note # 1 - Here are four articles with a lot of insight into what the West did to Yugoslavia

* Click on Yugoslavia Seen Through a Dark Glass by Diana Johnstone, or go to

* Click on Germany and the US in the Balkans: a Careful Coincidence of National Policies? or go to

* Click on What does NATO Want in Yugoslavia? by Sean Gervasi or go to

* Click on A Not-So-Nonviolent Debate on the Nonviolence 'Board' by Jared Israel or go to

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