The Collateral Damage Is Democracy

NATO's bombing campaign represents the failure of Western policy. The real solution in the Balkans is democracy, but with one night's bombing, ten years’ work developing civil society has been all but wiped out.

The Collateral Damage Is Democracy

NATO's bombing campaign represents the failure of Western policy. The real solution in the Balkans is democracy, but with one night's bombing, ten years’ work developing civil society has been all but wiped out.

Monday, 1 March, 1999

NATO's air offensive against Yugoslavia has not simply "degraded" military installations. It has also taken its toll in human lives and is progressively destroying the economic infrastructure of our impoverished country. In the long run, however, the biggest collateral damage is likely to be to the prospects for democracy in Serbia.

Serbia's human rights community regards NATO's decision "to use violence for humanitarian reasons" as the ultimate sign of the bankruptcy of US and EU policies towards Kosovo--and not an unavoidable move after all other efforts had been exhausted. The resort to air strikes is but recognition of the failure of the international community's long-standing policy towards Serbia, namely one based exclusively on Slobodan Milosevic.

I fear that the only durable result of the undeclared war will be a permanent state of emergency, in which the bewildered majority renews its support for the Milosevic regime as so often in the past in times of extreme adversity and danger.

What Serbia needs is democracy. Indeed, a democratic Serbia is the only real cure for Kosovo and it would also help achieve stability in the Balkans. Yet the international community appears to have shunned this avenue.

Our long-standing criticism of the policies of the Serbian regime and especially its human rights record is well-documented. Throughout the past decade, the movement for human rights and democracy within Serbia has grown in strength. True, we have not toppled the government. But neither has that been our aim. We have merely sought via systematic education in democracy and human rights, to build a broad democratic culture which in time could bring lasting change to Serbia.

We have organised grass-roots seminars and training programmes for students. We have also worked with the legal profession to improve understanding and raise awareness of human rights issues. And we have tried to collaborate with Albanian groups to come up with lasting solutions for deep-rooted problems. Moreover, we are not alone. Other non-governmental organisations have also been hard at work, especially in the fields of culture and the media, where, for example, independent radio broadcasters have come together to build a network of stations providing reliable news independent of the government throughout the country.

This work is essential. There will be no stability in the region and there will certainly be no peace in Yugoslavia unless and until Serbia embarks on the road to democracy. However, it appears that the international community has never seriously considered this option.

Those of us fighting to put Serbia on the road to democracy have received minimal support from abroad. Instead, our task has been made more difficult by the long years of international isolation. In practice, sanctions have played into the ands of the extremists

In the prevailing atmosphere of war, anti-democratic forces are increasing losing their inhibitions. Meanwhile, clumsy foreign attempts to "assist" democracy and respect for human rights in Serbia with vague promises of money merely expose the non-governmental sector to accusations that it is a fifth column.

The most recent example of misguided foreign intervention was the introduction in the US Senate of a "Serbian Democratisation Act" in the wake of the first night of NATO bombings. Amid a fanfare of publicity, it seems that we are being promised vast sums of money for "bringing down Milosevic". Just what we needed. And the big money never arrives anyway.

In one night, the NATO air strikes have wiped out ten years of hard work of groups of courageous people in the non-governmental sector and democratic opposition. We have not tried to overthrow anyone, but we have tried to develop the institutions of civil society, to promote liberal and civic values, to teach non-violent conflict resolution.

Only this weekend, the police raided the offices of the Humanitarian Law Centre, which has been the leading source of objective information about what is actually happening on the ground in Kosovo. The president of the Civil Alliance was also recently press-ganged into the army, and many more "politically suspect" human rights" activists live in fear imminent mobilisation. Meanwhile, the fighting in Kosovo continues unabated, and the future of democracy and human rights in Serbia is likely to remain uncertain for many years to come.

Vojin Dimitrijevic, formerly the vice-chairman of the UN Human Rights Committee and professor of International Public Law at Belgrade University, is director of the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights.

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