Intellectually the Kosovo Commission Report is a turkey and it won't fly

PressInfo # 105

 November 23, 2000



By Jan Oberg, TFF director


We expect soldiers we send to the front to have some military education and training. As patients we hope the doctor has studied medicine. And who would write a constitution for a new state if not professionally educated lawyers? But not so when it comes to conflict-analysis, mediation or peace-making. In this field it seems that neither specific education, practical experience nor knowledge about the conflicting parties and their cultures is of any importance. The important thing is that you want to do good.

Last year, Prime Minister Goran Persson of Sweden took the initiative to establish an independent international commission tasked with analysing the equally enigmatic and tragic Kosovo conflict and NATO's bombing as well as outline the lessons to be learnt. He appointed Richard Goldstone, the well-respected South African judge and former chief prosecutor of the Hague Tribunal to chair it together with former Swedish education minister, Carl Tham, as his deputy.

The Swedish government allocated about 1 million dollar for the one-year work of the commission, which also obtained support from the Carnegie Corporation, George Soros, Ford Foundation and the U.S. Institute of Peace. Among its members are Mary Kaldor, Michael Ignatieff, Richard Falk (TFF associate) who represent themselves and not their countries - of which anyhow six are NATO members.

No doubt, it was a noble initiative, with all wishing to do good - although even Sweden never expressed a critical word about the West's handling of the crisis or of what, at the time, I called NATO's Balkan bombing blunder. To identify what we must learn from this conflict and the international attempts to handle it is, beyond doubt, one of the most important intellectual, political and moral tasks - for Sweden itself, for the EU, for NATO and for the United States. The problems that caused the violence in the Balkans are far from solved - if at all addressed - and the place with most rapid and positive change today is Serbia whose people took matters in their own hand and put an end to the Milosevic era. Around the world, conflicts similar to that in Kosovo are queuing up, waiting to be diagnosed and treated well or turn into tragedies.

My TFF colleagues and I have, since 1991, worked in Kosovo and Belgrade, with the political leaders on all sides and with civil society organisations. After some 40 missions and 3000+ interviews, we know a bit about the place, the personalities and the problems as well as about the rest of former Yugoslavia with which the Kosovo issue was and remains fundamentally intertwined. During a number of years I personally functioned as unpaid, goodwill adviser to Dr. Ibrahim Rugova. Under his wise leadership the Kosovo-Albanians was the only people in ex-Yugoslavia who had decided - in contrast to everybody else - to try to achieve their dream about an independent state by means of a) a non-violent struggle, b) the building of a parallel society and c) intensive international diplomatic and media activity. It was a dream, of course, as nationalistic or and exclusionist as any other and was greatly assisted by the bullish arrogance of Milosevic and the repressive forces in the region.

But a simple conflict is about the only thing it was not. So the Commission has ploughed through hundreds of human rights documents and other types of materials and consulted hundreds of experts, politicians and military people involved in the matter - although, however, surprisingly few among those who were close to issue, on the ground. Goldstone and Tham want to do good, for sure, but none of them are conflict analysts or Balkan experts. That could, with a different mandate and more creativity, actually have brought in new aspects or have lead to the creation of more innovative proposals. But it doesn't. This turkey won't fly.

One the positive side, it does emphasise that the international "community" (my quotation marks, as this phenomenon doesn't exist in the real world) did far too little much too late in preventing the worst case scenario. It points out, without naming actors that much was done helter-skelter and dictated by narrow national interests, not by the needs of the conflicting parties. They are right. When I presented TFF's report "Preventing War in Kosovo" at the UN in New York in 1992 - one of the first early warnings filled also with principles and ideas for non-violent ways to prevent violence and move towards solutions with the parties - I was told that it was a very useful report but that the world could hardly be expected to react before reports about violence had surfaced at the front page of the New York Times for at least two weeks. That was the time when Kofi Annan headed the Peacekeeping Department and he understood both the issues and the institutional inertia.

The commission also spells out clearly that there is far too little will to make the necessary investments before and after war to secure violence-prevention and post-war peace building. In diplomatic terms it points out the truth that the present UN/NATO/OSCE mission in Kosovo already is a remarkable fiasco beyond the point of no return. Its clear critique - less of the bombings as such as of the way they were conducted - is, one must assume, as far as one can get in a report that will, invariably, be referred to the Swedish government.

The chairmen who alone take responsibility for the text also highlight the fact that the moderate Albanians ought to have been supported much earlier and that so much went wrong in the Rambouillet "negotiations." So, by a friendly interpretation the report is not without some diplomatic civil courage. But it is interesting to see how the failures of the EU, NATO and Sweden for that matter is always only deplored, never analysed. The West wanted only to do good too, so no criticism is needed.

But then comes the negative aspects, and they are devastating for the final assessment. Paradoxically, the commission never bothers - or is unable to - carry out a conflict analysis. It follow the fundamentally flawed assumption that Kosovo and similar conflicts can be seen as a behavioural problem, as a matter of some people wanting to do evil and violating somebody else's human rights - thanks to a newly awakened nationalism and an actualised history which, in passing, is left virtually untouched.

Unbelievable as it may sound, the authors never ask themselves why some people violate other people's rights or what kind of unresolved problems and underlying conflicts create the basis for human rights violations. They are not the slightest curious about theories of violence, of fear or other deeply human dimensions of conflicts. They hardly mention the intellectually and existentially fundamental question: what in general makes people commit crimes as these and what, in particular, in the case of Kosovo?

In short, it takes the human rights approach in isolation. Given the level of repression that's an easy position and one that allows for a considerable amount of moralising and "shoulds." About the underlying conflict, not to speak of the conflict formations: Yugoslavia, the Balkans, and world order - the report says nothing.

Had the Commission conducted a professional conflict analysis it would have addressed the classical ABC of conflict: the Attitudes, the Behaviour and the Conflict issue(s) or Contradiction(s), the incompatibilities in time and space. They would have asked the parties how they see it and asked others outside how they see it, perhaps also in a comparative perspective with other conflicts. We get nothing of that.

They would have dialogued with the parties to understand many layers - economic, psychological, constitutional, structural, and historical to penetrate the mechanisms that lead the parties to violence and gross human rights violations and atrocities. They would have determined who all the parties are and how each party contain conflicts among themselves. They would have avoided the implicit, banal assumption, which take for granted that there are the wrongdoers down there and there is "us" who are trying to do only good and help the parties. They conduct no analysis of the international "community's" historical (mis)use of the Balkans in its own power politics. They do the impossible - namely, to treat Kosovo as if it can be isolated from an all-Yugoslav framework, a Balkan regional perspective and a world order restructuring and globalisation. There is not a word about the role of Western intelligence services, arms trade and double standards.

And, as much as it ascribes motives to Serbs (bad) and Albanians (good), it never touch the issue of motives behind Western policies - not to speak of questioning the official ones offered at the time.

It is true that the Yugoslav government refused to co-operate with the Commission. So did the U.S. government (because the Commission wanted to investigate other things than the human rights violations on the Serb side!). But that, however, is no excuse for the fact that the Commission has not met with people on the Serbian side and chooses to ignore all argument form from that side. It could have met with numerous non-oppositional representatives, if necessary outside Serbia; it has met with dozens in the United States, including people at State Department and the White House, in spite of the fact that that government declined to co-operate. It has received funding from US organisations.

From the point of view of conflict-resolution, this is an intellectual - if not moral - disaster. (It has also chosen not to consult critical expertise like TFF experts, but knocked doors everywhere, it seems, in political elite circles in the EU and NATO and various ministries of foreign affairs as well as main stream think tanks which have not worked there in the field.)

From various conflict-management mistakes since 1989 we ought to have learnt that solutions which are not developed in co-operation with the parties and which are not combined with reconciliation and a systematic attention to the human dimensions of conflict will lead nowhere, except to a protectorate-like, cold, militarily upheld "peace." In a few weeks, the Dayton Bosnia process turns 5. It's an utter failure, it's a forced, top-down peace that no citizen of Bosnia-Hercegovina was ever consulted about, signed by three president none of whom were legitimate representatives of the little more than 4 million people who live there. Oh yes, you can have "free" election and other make-believe. Or can you? It borders on an insult to the very institution called democracy that you offer people no choice or one between "our plan or continued war among yourselves and/or our bombs."

The Kosovo Commission would have done wiser had it approached the whole affair with a bit of modesty and respect for the people on all sides. People do not do to each other for fun what they have done in the Balkans. A simple hypothesis is that they do it because they have some very difficult problems and do not know how to solve them. It is simply too easy to say that these people are primitive or evil and that we know what would be best for them. That attitude, in fact, is one of the things we would have changed had we learnt anything from these past years. The Commission has not had the courage to attempt an honest and complex analysis; instead it comes - quite frequently - close to the tabloid-journalist description of the conflict. It even frees the West of having used propaganda as part of the bombing campaign - well, and if it did it was, we are told, much less than the bad guys in Belgrade. And the bombing is termed "illegal but legitimate" - the kind of slippery slope you end up in when the politically correct conclusions seem to have been written before the analysis.

Even the most popular books about conflict that you can buy in any airport tell you that it is important to attack the problems and not the people. One would wish that some of the Commission members had bought such a book. Also, to explain a problem is not the same as to defend those who had the problem. But without explanations, without curiosity and devoid of new perspectives and political criticism of certain actors in the conflict, it is indeed difficult to see what we are supposed to learn from Kosovo, indeed from reading this report.

In short, it is an advantage to have a driving licence before one embarks on a longer trip, not the least on dangerous Balkan roads.


(A later TFF PressInfo will deal with the main proposals of the report).



 © TFF 2000


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