Updated: 09-May-2000 NATO Speeches

Los Angeles
World Affairs
6 April 2000

Kosovo: The Real Story

The Rt. Hon. Lord Robertson of Port Ellen
Secretary General of NATO

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am delighted to have been invited to speak to you today -- not least because this city, and this region, are among the most beautiful in the world.

This is my seventh speaking engagement in three days, and I've done a lot of talking about why it is important to maintain and strengthen NATO - common values, common security challenges, and the like. But there's no pulling the wool over the eyes of this group. You already know the real reason - reliable North European access to sunny weather!

There is a whole range of issues on NATO's agenda that we could usefully discuss here today - the EU's growing role in European defence, or the implications of the recent Russian elections. I would be happy to address those issues in the Q&A period.

But I would like to focus my remarks today on one issue which is of critical importance for NATO, and that is finishing the job in Kosovo.

Just two weeks ago, I went again to Kosovo, on the first anniversary of Operation Allied Force, NATO's air campaign to end and reverse the ethnic cleansing of the Albanian community. I went not only to commemorate that important event, but also to assess for myself what came after - the international community's campaign to bring lasting peace and security to a small area that has, for too long, enjoyed neither.

It is particularly important to do this because we are hearing more and more historical revisionism these days about Kosovo.

  • Revisionism that wonders whether the situation was really that bad for the Kosovar Albanians after all.

  • Revisionism that suggests that there were no victims in Kosovo, just two sides fighting for their interests.

  • Revisionism that wonders whether NATO should have just stayed out of it, and let the conflict run its course.

  • Revisionism that questions whether Kosovo really mattered to the interests of NATO's members.

Let me address each point in turn. First and foremost: for the ethnic Albanians of Kosovo, it was that bad.

Let us not forget the situation in Kosovo as it was, just over a year ago. By March of 1999, Serb oppression had already driven almost 400,000 people from their homes. The United Nations itself had stated clearly, in successive Security Council Resolutions, and in the UN Secretary General's Reports, that there was a clear threat to peace and security.

As early as September 1998 - six months before the air campaign - UN Security Council Resolution 1198 said the Security Council - including Russia - was:

"Gravely concerned at the recent intense fighting in Kosovo and in particular the excessive and indiscriminate use of force by Serbian security forces and the Yugoslav Army which have resulted in numerous civilian casualties and, according to the estimate of the Secretary-General, the displacement of over 230,000 persons from their homes."

"Deeply concerned by the rapid deterioration in the humanitarian situation throughout Kosovo, alarmed at the impending humanitarian catastrophe as described in the report of the Secretary-General, and emphasising the need to prevent this from happening"; and therefore the Council "Demanded" ... "that the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia implement immediately the following concrete measures" Item (a) of which was to "cease all action by the security forces affecting the civil population and order the withdrawal of security units used for civilian repression."

The UN High Commission for Refugees stated clearly that a humanitarian emergency was impending, and that some kind of response was required. So let us not now, in retrospect, minimise what was a very serious humanitarian situation.

My second point. The Serb military actions were no accident, nor an unintended by-product of a legitimate operation by Yugoslavia against Albanian terrorists, or a civil war among two, equally culpable national groups.

Let me quote from the OSCE's report on Kosovo before the air campaign:

"On the part of the Yugoslav and Serbian forces, their intent to apply mass killing as an instrument of terror, coercion or punishment against Kosovo Albanians was already in evidence in 1998, and was shockingly demonstrated by incidents in January 1999 (including the Racak mass killing) and beyond. Arbitrary killing of civilians was both a tactic in the campaign to expel Kosovo Albanians, and an objective in itself…"

"Force expulsion carried out by Yugoslav and Serbian forces took place on a massive scale, with evident strategic planning and in clear violation of the laws and customs of war…"

"There is chilling evidence of the murderous targeting of children, with the aim of terrorising and punishing adults and communities…"

"The scale on which human rights violations recur is staggering. It has been estimated that over 90 per cent of the Kosovo Albanian population - over 1.45 million people - were displaced by the conflict by 9 June 1999 …"

These are the words of the OSCE - an independent observer. They are not NATO's words but they are the reason NATO acted. This was ethnic cleansing -- plain and simple. And ethnic cleansing has very real victims -- the dead, the terrorised and the exiled.

The third revisionist theory suggests that, despite the oppression of the Kosovo Albanians, we should have just stayed out of it -- that by taking action, NATO made things worse.

Milosevic may well have accelerated his actions, but the nature and purpose of his actions were already ominously clear. By March 1999 -- before the air campaign - there were already 400,000 refugees and the international community had plenty of evidence that Serb forces were preparing a massive Spring offensive. Not only was the situation bad, but we knew that it was about to get much worse. To have done nothing would have left the full, pre-planned campaign of ethnic cleansing to go unchecked.

Indeed, it is worth taking a moment to contemplate the implications of not taking action against Milosevic and his thugs. First, we would have guaranteed turmoil and undermined the security balance in Southeast Europe for years, if not decades. One million refugees would have been stranded in neighbouring countries; the conflict would have simmered, and likely spread; Milosevic would have turned his attention to other parts of his shrinking country; and the entire region would have dramatically suffered both economically and politically.

The ripple effects from the instability could, like the scattered refugees, have spread to all the Continent. And the same slick commentators would be telling NATO we should have acted.

That is why this conflict did, and indeed still, matters to our interests. Kosovo is a small place, but it sits at a very strategic point -- between Europe, Asia and the Middle East, at the meeting place of Islam and Christianity.

Just south of Kosovo are two NATO allies, Greece and Turkey; to the north, new NATO members in Central Europe. And all around Kosovo there are small countries struggling with the transition to democracy and market economy.

But it also had real implications for our values. If we had allowed this ethnic cleansing to go unanswered, we would have fatally undermined the modern Euro-Atlantic community we are trying to build, just as we enter the 21st century. Indeed, we would have undermined the key lesson of the Holocaust: never again.

After all these decades of working towards ethnic tolerance in our own countries, how could we stand aside and allow nearly two million people to be terrorised, brutalised and expelled from their homeland, for no other reason than their ethnic origin?

The requirement and the imperative for action were therefore clear. And for those who care to recall, the press was at the time insistently demanding action by the international community.

So, knowing what we knew then and confirmed by what we know now, I am proud and loud that NATO took action on Kosovo. It was not only the right thing to do - it was the only thing to do.

After diplomacy was tried - and tried and tried, unsuccessfully, the international community took a stand - and showed what we won't stand for, as the new century dawns.

Today, one year after the start of the air campaign and ten months after Kosovo's liberation, the situation is still far from perfect. As I heard during my visit, there is still too much violence. We need more international police officers to maintain law and order, and judges and prosecutors to uphold it. And the international community has to come up with the funding it has committed to help build the solid foundations of lasting peace. These remain very daunting challenges indeed.

As a result of these challenges, I am now hearing another set of critics arguing that Kosovo is a lost cause. These in-for-a-day experts see the ongoing tensions in one or two flash-points in Kosovo and tell the world that we have all made a terrible mistake. For them, the Albanian and Serb communities of Kosovo are simply unable to overcome their "ancient historical hatred". Some analysts even think we should recognise their "irreconcilable differences", and cut our losses.

Once again, I must respond - because as the saying goes, "misconceptions travel around the world while the truth is still tying its shoes". And I believe that the truth is much more positive and telling than the misconceptions would have us believe.

First, let us keep this situation in perspective. It has only been 10 months since the international community entered Kosovo. Dr. Kouchner, the head of the UN mission there, has rightly said that Kosovo is emerging from "forty years of communism, ten years of apartheid, and a year of ethnic cleansing". To expect to create a Switzerland there in less than a year is simply unrealistic.

But even so, I can tell you that when I went to Kosovo a few weeks ago, I already saw the beginnings of a brighter future. First and foremost, over one and a half million people have returned to the homes from which they were driven, either to the woods or abroad, and are now living without the spectre of killing, torturing, raping, looting and thuggery which stalked Kosovo just over a year ago. That alone is huge progress.

And despite the pictures you occasionally see on the news, the overall security situation has improved dramatically. For instance, when KFOR arrived in Kosovo in June 1999, there was a weekly murder rate of 50. It is now down to an average of five -- which is comparable to any large European city of two million people.

Thirteen days ago, on March 24th, the first anniversary of the start of the air campaign, I visited a rebuilt school in a Kosovo village called Poklek, "ethnically cleansed" in April last year by the Serbs. When Milosevic's paramilitaries came to Poklek, 53 local residents, including 10 children, were locked in one house and the Serbs threw in hand grenades. They then burned the house and those in it. Virtually every building in the village was destroyed.

The last year of the twentieth century, in the heart of Europe, two hours flight from Paris, a few hours drive to Budapest, houses with satellite TV - and the savagery of the Middle Ages.

But NATO drove out the Serb forces, and KFOR re-established security in the province. Families returned to their scorched and bullet-ridden homes. Children again began to study - inside tents. But they did so in their native language for the first time in ten years. And with KFOR's help, a new school for Poklek was built.

The children still walk over an hour to and from school each day. There is no bus service, but life has begun once again.

The message to me and NATO Generals Clark and Reinhardt was simple: NATO was their saviour. Their joy and gratitude was as humbling and exhilarating as was the intensity of the sorrow as we honoured the photos of the 10 murdered children.

That's what KFOR is doing in Kosovo today, and that's why we need to continue to support the KFOR mission until the local population is better able to take care of itself.

The groundwork for Kosovo's future is now being laid. Local police and judges are being trained. New institutions have been created, to help the Kosovars govern themselves. The economic situation is picking up. And the United Nations is already planning for free elections by the end of the year.

By any measure, today's situation in almost all of Kosovo is a far cry from the anarchy and lawlessness that many critics predicted when KFOR deployed.

So my answer to the critics and defeatists is simple -- you have it wrong. And if you want proof - go to Poklek school and see. We are making progress. Things are getting better. And just for the record -- NATO doesn't give up. The Alliance will stay as long as it takes to accomplish its mission.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Winston Churchill once said that, "the problems of victory are more agreeable than the problems of defeat, but they are no less difficult". That, in a nutshell, sums up the situation in Kosovo.

We have challenges to face in Kosovo. I am the first to admit that some of them are very difficult. But let us be clear -- these are the challenges of success. A success for our values. A success for the project of building a just and peaceful Euro-Atlantic community. A success for the safety and security of future generations.

One year after NATO planes took to very dangerous skies to stop a profound evil, that success is the true story of Kosovo.

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