Comment: When The Cost Is Too High

A short sharp campaign is becoming a prolonged and devastating war. When the human cost of a "humanitarian intervention" becomes too high, is it time to stop the bombing?

Comment: When The Cost Is Too High

A short sharp campaign is becoming a prolonged and devastating war. When the human cost of a "humanitarian intervention" becomes too high, is it time to stop the bombing?

Human rights' activists have long urged a more robust international response to gross and systematic abuses of human rights, including, where necessary, the use of military force. Hence initial support for NATO's intervention against Yugoslavia.


But as the shortcomings of the bombing campaign become increasingly apparent--and the reports of civilian casualties escalate--it is time to reassess the human costs of waging the war.


Initially, the strike against Yugoslavia appeared to be a demonstration of the importance of human rights in international relations. It is not moral to sit back and watch as thousands of people--the Kosovo Albanians--are killed, tortured, evicted from their homes, and abused in a number of ways. If the international community does not act to defend the victims, it is accommodating the slaughterers.


Now, however, it seems that the continuation of the NATO air campaign--and even more its escalation with increased bombing and even still the possibility of ground troops--will simply cause still greater loss of life and more severe human rights' violations than an immediate and unconditional cease-fire.


Of course, if NATO does now halt its offensive, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's war aim--that of an ethnically cleansed Kosovo--is likely to prevail. But if the armed conflict continues--even if NATO eventually succeeds in reversing the ethnic cleansing--the price of such a victory is likely to be thousands of further deaths and destroyed lives. Such an outcome--those many additional deaths--would be definitely less reversible than the current situation, however unsatisfactory.


Continuation of the war, whether by air strikes alone or with a ground offensive, will almost certainly contribute to more violations of human rights (especially against the Kosovo Albanians) than it can possibly prevent or punish. Only a miraculously fast and enormously efficient lightning strike could prevent this. But the prospect of winning a blitzkrieg is slim. Even partial achievement of NATO's goals is likely to take months.


Time is already working against the civilian population of Kosovo, as well as against the innocent civilians of Serbia. Retaliation against remaining Kosovo Albanians will intensify if strikes continue, and may well become apocalyptic if ground troops invade Yugoslavia.


NATO will not be able to prevent the mass executions that will likely follow. Whole communities, especially minorities such as the Roma, could be wiped out by a further escalation of war. Continuation of military action cannot therefore be justified by human rights concerns.


In considering the human rights equation, the overriding calculation should be viewed in terms of lives first, and in lives lived in dignity, second. Listening to NATO and the Western media, it seems that they are operating according to a different scale of success and failure.


NATO experts predictably build their strategy according to the criteria of military victory. As the days pass, and the pictures of refugees pouring out of Kosovo became more and more haunting--and as the bombs on Yugoslavia continue to fall--the goal posts continue to change. From a campaign to defend the lives and rights of Kosovo Albanians--which the human rights' community understood and supported--it has changed into something very different: the monster of a prolonged and continually escalating war.


As a result, the human rights community in the region is confused. Countless messages are read and circulated on Kosovo every day, but human rights groups have still not abandoned their traditional political neutrality. Since March 24, the start of the bombing, most statements have been limited to reporting human rights' violations.


Taking a clear stand on what NATO should do next has been avoided. The question has been left to the military and political decision-makers. But human rights activists cannot overlook that their silence on the issue of what should be done is interpreted as continued support for air strikes.


There are both internal and external reasons for this silence. Regional governments have decided to join NATO, and are afraid of losing this opportunity if voices from within their countries criticise the bombing. Similarly, human rights activists depend on the generous support of Western donors for their jobs, and fear damaging the movement, and even the prospects for civil society itself, in their own countries, if they question the wisdom of the NATO intervention.


But this is only to remain trapped in the Cold War. It is the fear that whatever one says will immediately result in being placed in one or two camps: for NATO or against, for the West or for Russia and China. Nuanced positions open to scholars and activists in the West are not open to people in the region.


But it is time to speak out before it is too late. It is essential to open up a debate on human rights aimed at reaching policy recommendations based on real human rights concerns. For any such dialogue to begin, the bombing must stop.


Dimitrina Petrova is executive director of the European Roma Rights Centre in Budapest.


China, Serbia, Russia
Support our journalists