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Fisk: Changing the rules of war

It is an old, old promise.  In the West, the rights of nonbelligerents to be
protected from the ravages of war have been recognized for more than a
millenium, the foundations having been laid by the Council of Le Puy in 975
[1].   Yet it seems every modern conflict lays waste to this assurance and
-- in the wretchedly graphic phrase of James Carroll [2] -- pursues instead
"the strategy of shooting through the innocent, as if babies were bits of
foliage ...".

Human Rights Watch has issued their report on civilian casualties in
Yugoslavia [3], and Robert Fisk responds in the column below.  The
ambivalence of Fisk's reaction to HRW's report mirrors, I think, the
reaction of many to HRW's earlier report on the sanctions in Iraq.

Perhaps next time they will go farther ...

Drew Hamre
Golden Valley, MN USA

[2] James Carroll (Vietnam veteran and National Book Award winner) wrote his
commentary likening the Iraq sanctions to 'No Gun Ri' for the Boston Globe;
it ran on Oct. 5, 1999 and is archived here
[3] The HRW report on NATO in Yugoslavia is here:

The bloody truth of how Nato changed the rules to win a 'moral war' in

By Robert Fisk 

The Independent - 7 February 2000 

For me, the proof came near the end of the Yugoslav war, when Nato bombed a
hospital at Surdulice on 31 May last year. Serb soldiers were hiding in the
basement, civilian refugees sleeping above them. The soldiers survived, the
civilians were slaughtered in the raid and James Shea, Nato's king of
excuses, announced that it was "a military target". 

Did he know - did Nato know - that this building was a hospital, that there
were civilians as well as Yugoslav military hiding there? Sure, the Yugoslav
army were using their own Serb people as human shields. And shame upon them.
But if Nato knew this, then it broke international law. Article 50,
paragraph 3, of the 1949 Geneva Conventions' Protocol 1 specifically demands
the safeguarding of civilian lives even in the presence of "individuals who
do not come within the definition of civilians". 

The bodies of the dead refugees were laid out in the afternoon sun on the
day of their death. One teenage girl lay on the grass a few metres from a
book of love poems; her tragic love and death was researched and reported in
The Independent in November. She was killed by Nato. So was a young and
brilliant Serb mathematics student, cut down as she tried to rescue the
wounded at Varvarin bridge. An American jet had bombed the narrow old river
bridge, killing the civilians walking across it. It was a saint's day in
Varvarin and a market day - the attack happened at about 1pm - and the
bridge was too narrow to take a tank. 

Just because there wasn't a tank on the bridge at the time, Mr Shea told us,
didn't mean a tank didn't cross it. But the bridge was too narrow for any
Yugoslav tank. And about 20 minutes after the first bloody assault, another
American jet attacked, just in time to kill the rescuers. The girl, who had
just been awarded top prize at her Belgrade college, was killed by this US
pilot as she tried to pull a wounded man from the road. The same bomb
beheaded the local priest as he emerged from his church. 

In the countryside around lay what appeared to be parts of Nato's favourite
weapon, cluster-bombs. They were dropped across all of Yugoslavia, and most
of their civilian victims were in the south of Serbia. Cluster-bombs tore
many of the Albanian refugees to pieces on the mistargeted convoys of
refugees in the early part of the war. And cluster-bombs - possibly dropped
by British aircraft - killed civilians in the Serbian city of Nis when a
plane mistargeted a local military barracks. The UN High Commissioner for
Human Rights, Mary Robinson, was so outraged at the Nis attack that she
pleaded with alliance officials to take greater care in their bombardment,
as well as condemning Serbia's "ethnic cleansing" of Kosovo. 

At some point in the second half of the Yugoslav war, Nato decided to stop
apologising for civilian deaths. 

And you can see why. From its initial attacks on real military barracks and
facilities - almost all of them empty - Nato's air bombardment moved to
dual-use factories and then "targets of opportunity" (which doomed many a
Kosovo refugee travelling in convoys in which police vehicles were present)
and then slid promiscuously to transportation routes and hospitals which hid
soldiers and the Serb television station. 

Today's Human Rights Watch report is the nearest we have seen so far to the
unvarnished, bloody truth about Nato's campaign in Yugoslavia. If it depends
too heavily on Yugoslav references, including the carefully produced and
detailed - though sometimes selective - Belgrade government's "White Book"
on Nato "crimes", its analysis of alliance tactics, claims and barefaced
lies (a word not used by Human Rights Watch, of course) provides a new
balance to the history of last year's "moral" war. 

It condemns Nato for the attack on Serb television headquarters - as opposed
to transmitters - on the basis that it could not be regarded as a military
target, only a propaganda target. And that's exactly how the cabinet
minister Clare Short justified the killing of 16 studio technicians and a
young make-up artist. Needless to say, Nato never bombed Croatian television
headquarters when it was pumping out propaganda of a similar kind in 1992. 

After walking through the rubble of the Serb studios at the time, I
reflected that when you kill people for what they say - however much you
hate their words - then you have changed the rules of war. And that is what
Nato did from April through to June of 1999. They changed the rules of war.
A military barracks was a legitimate target. Then a tobacco factory, a road
bridge, the railway line at Gurdulice - just when a train was crossing the

Interestingly enough, Human Rights Watch quotes General Wesley Clark, Nato's
commander, saying of the pilot's video footage of the passenger train racing
over the Gurdulice bridge that "you can see if you were focusing right on
your job as a pilot, how suddenly that train appeared - it was really
unfortunate". But the human rights organisation appears ignorant of recent
revelations that Nato deliberately speeded up the video film for its press
audience to three times the train's actual speed. 

The train did not appear "suddenly" as General Clark mendaciously claimed.
It was travelling much more slowly. And despite Human Rights Watch's claims
to have interviewed so many Yugoslav survivors of air attacks - their work
is indeed impressive - the group seems unaware that several survivors of the
train attack say they saw the aircraft return for a second strike. Indeed,
the evidence at the scene showed how the first bomb smashed a road bridge
above the track, cutting the electrical wires and stopping the train. A
second missile then hit the carriages. 

It was not a war crime, Human Rights Watch says. In fact, Nato committed no
war crimes, according to Kenneth Roth and his investigators. But it
committed "violations of international humanitarian law" - which amounts to
about the same thing. And still we don't know who bombed what. Survivors
believe the train was attacked by a British Harrier. The report says it was
an American jet. The Yugoslavs say the plane that bombed the centre of
Aleksinac in April was British - based on intercepted pilot radio messages -
yet still we don't know. 

In the New Year Honours List, Britain's Kosovo pilots got their gongs. All
their names were printed in The Independent although we have no idea who was
rewarded for their role in Nato's sloppy bombing campaign - Nato failed to
hit more than a handful of Serb tanks throughout the war and the Yugoslav
Third Army retired unscratched from Kosovo - or who was bemedalled for
watching the radar tracks. 

Last September, an unnoticed article in The Officer, a magazine widely read
by Ministry of Defence officials and senior army NCOs, quoted a British
Harrier pilot who had been bombing Serbia the previous April. 

"After a while you've got to ignore the collateral damage [civilian
casualties] and start smashing those targets," he said at the time. "But the
politicians aren't ready for that yet." 

They soon were. 
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