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Kosovo: Reconsidering Independence

Publié le 1 mars, 2008 | Pas de commentaires

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The news outlets have lately been busily covering the Serbian province of Kosovo and its unilateral declaration of independence. Implicitly pre-established images of Serbia—evoking war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and, most horribly, genocide—have been used by Western politicians to secure public support to recognize the self-proclaimed state. However, when the claims of genocide are closely examined and Kosovo’s own record of recent human rights abuses consulted, a more carefully balanced approach to the Kosovo problem is advised.

The Splasher
Todd, The Splasher, 2007
Certains droits réservés.

In the West, the issue of Kosovo is presented simplistically, both by the media and by our politicians: Kosovar Albanians, a majority in the province, severely mistreated by Serbian authorities in the past, want independence and, indeed, deserve it, while Serbia and Russia are intent on making the inevitable establishment of the new nation as difficult as possible. Implicitly, drawing on public perceptions established in the past, the issue is further simplified: Serbs committed genocide against Kosovar Albanians, and losing a chunk of territory is a natural outcome and a fit punishment.

The Russian diplomatic leverage, siding with Serbia, has made it impossible to secure Kosovo’s independence through the United Nations. Attempts to get the Serbs and Albanians to find a mutually acceptable solution were effectively shut-down by the U.S. and British unequivocal promises to recognize Kosovo’s declaration of independence; negotiations thus turned out to be mainly directed at trying to convince Serbia to accept the « supervised independence » plan, Albanians flatly refusing to accept even the highest form of autonomy within Serbia1.

Clash of Principles: Territorial Integrity vs. Self-Determination

The main principles confronted in debates over Kosovo are quite modern: the principle of territorial integrity of an internationally recognized state versus the principle of self determination of a homogenous group of people. From the legal angle, Serbia claims that Kosovo’s independence contravenes international law because it is contrary to the UN Resolution 1244, which explicitly affirms Serbian sovereignty over Kosovo, and because the region’s relation to the state is neither federal nor confederal2. This means that legal justification for separation would require Serbia’s consent, or a new UN resolution creating a legal exception to the principle of territorial integrity (a move that has already been opposed by a number of countries, most notably UN Security Council member Russia). But there is always a third option: diplomatic force. Lacking support from international conventions, Kosovar Albanians found an ally in the United States, tailed by Western Europe, and its recent trends toward authoritarian foreign policy.

Below the seeming simplicity of the legal issue lies a more fundamental political dilemma. Which is more legitimate: the internationally-recognized principle of sovereign territorial integrity, or the right of a territorially-bound homogenous group to self-determination? Preferring the former would mean that a world governed by democratic principles denies a people the right to select their own political destiny. The latter, on the other hand, would open up a political Pandora’s Box: after Kosovo, will any and every group have the right to self-determination?

Responding to this question, most advocates in the West say that the case of Kosovo is “unique” and will not create a precedent in international relations3. Other voices, for instance those of Russia, China, and Slovakia, disagree. Furthermore, a plethora of separatist movements around the world look at Kosovo as a positive example. Recently, ETA, a violent organization fighting for independence of the Basque Country from Spain, cited the example of Kosovo to argue that their group “is not talking about utopias4.”

Kosovar exceptionalism: The added weight of “genocide”

Is Kosovo really categorically different from other separatist regions in the world? The Basque Country in Spain, Kashmir in India, Kurds in Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran, Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, Nagorno-Karabakh in Azarbaijan, Albanians in Macedonia, Serbs and Croats in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Northern Ireland in the UK, etc., all share ethnically or religiously motivated conflicts stemming from complex political and demographic histories; considering world-wide examples suggests a negative response to the question above5. But it is the claims of genocide in Kosovo that make many Western policy makers insist on its uniqueness; they often repeat that after what the Serbs did to Kosovar Albanians in the late 1990s, the province simply cannot be left under Serbian control. This stance has been solidified following the establishment of the “Responsibility to Protect” clause of the UN Resolution 1674 wherein genocide has been branded a crime necessitating humanitarian intervention on the part of international community6.

So, let us look more closely at the Kosovo genocide. Before and during the 1999 bombing of Serbia and Montenegro (then Yugoslavia), as Serbian authorities tried to crush an Albanian armed rebellion, claims that a genocide was taking place in Kosovo were advanced by major Western leaders. The story caught on the mainstream Western media like fire, coming hot on the heels of coverage of the wars in Bosnia and Croatia. Huge body-count figures and language evoking comparisons with the Holocaust were all-pervasive across the Western world7. These claims were the most important factor that gave Western governments public support for initiating the bombing, and to this day allot Western powers public support for creating a new country on Serbian territory.

However, and this can only be put bluntly, this genocide was only ever an alleged one . During the war of 1998-9, Serbs certainly did commit several atrocities, but it turned out that these brutalities did not amount to an outright genocide8. Special forensic teams from Canada and Spain, sent to the province right after the bombing together with the UN peace mission to determine the scope of genocide, were very clear on this point. Lawrence Martin of Globe and Mail, insightfully tying the story of genocide in Kosovo to the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, reported that “[m]embers of a Canadian forensic team to the Serbian province have come forward to label the numbers nonsense. No mass graves, they say, and, on both the Albanian and Serb sides, only a few thousand dead. A mockery of the numbers used to justify the war9.” Likewise, the leader of Spanish forensics, Emilio Perez Pujol, “estimated that as few as 2,500 were killed […] [and] complained angrily that he and colleagues had become part of ‘a semantic pirouette by the war propaganda machines […]’10.”

In official circles, the story of genocide in Kosovo was dropped almost as fast as it had been picked up. For example,

« One of the worst rumoured mass graves was in the mines of Trepca, Northern Kosovo, where the Serbs were rumoured to have dumped or destroyed the bodies of up to 700 ethnic Albanians. When the horror stories about Trepca broke, in June 1999, the Mirror [England] explicitly put this site on par with the death camps of the Holocaust. ‘Trepca–the name will live alongside those of Belsen, Auschwitz and Treblinka’, the paper said: ‘It will be etched in the memories of those whose loved ones met a bestial end in true Nazi Final Solution fashion’ (18 June [1999] ) … F our months later, in October 1999, the International War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague had to announce that its investigations had found no bodies at all in the Trepca mines11. »

Despite contrary information gathered by their own experts, the Western public memory still preserves images of a Hitler-like Milosevic and demonizes the Serbs, not least because the facts challenging the stories of Kosovo’s genocide received almost no attention on the part of Western media and politicians (especially in comparison to the coverage given to the initial claims of genocide). As Garth Pritchard, a filmmaker who followed Canadian forensics to Kosovo, says: “I was standing there when the forensic teams were telling Louise Arbour [today UN High Commissioner for Human Rights] there were no 200,000 bodies and she didn’t want to know12.” Most serious studies have dropped the genocide claims long time ago13, instead mainly referring to atrocities or ethnic cleansing, practices exchanged between Serbs and Albanians several times in the past14. But the term tends to occasionally resurface, especially when the issue hits breaking news; a few days after Kosovo’s declaration of independence, commenting on the situation for CTV News Live, prof. Dennis Sandole of George Mason University referred to “the genocidal implosion of Yugoslavia, which contains the entities we’re talking about today—Serbia and Kosovo15.” Despite such occurrences, most politicians and media outlets today pick their words to avoid genocide references; however, they have rarely denied them or been taken to task for past usage of this potent term. Moreover, the silence of most of our media on the discrediting of genocide claims is puzzling, since one would normally expect such news to hit the head sections of papers and broadcasts.

Human and Minority Rights in Kosovo Since 1999

Let us now reconsider the independence of Kosovo from the point of view of the past eight years and ask the following question: Is Kosovo ready to be an independent country?

Since 1999, Kosovo has been governed by the UN administrative mission (UNMIK) and “secured” by NATO army mission (KFOR). During this period, Kosovo’s society never moved away from the de facto state of apartheid, with a restricted freedom of movement, clear lines between ethnic enclaves, regular ethnic violence, and with health, education, and other public services divided by ethnicity16.

“In Kosovo, the critical issue for most minorities has been that of day-to-day security. Organized violence, harassment and attacks on property began at the start of the international administration and have continued ever since. […] The overwhelming evidence is that the intimidation was systematic and directly aimed at forcing minorities to leave, and therefore constitutes ethnic cleansing17.”

The due rights and protections that minorities are accorded on paper are seldom actually witnessed in reality. A report issued by Minority Rights Group characterizes the (in)security in Kosovo as “coming in waves:” attacks on minorities are followed by reductions in violence—invariably hailed as successes by the international authorities—only to be followed by fresh and apparently organized outbreaks of violence. “At no time can one speak of a situation of normality, with minorities feeling adequately safe and secure 18.”

The worst outbreak of anti-minority violence, also called a “pogrom” against Serbs, happened on 17-19 March 2004: 19 people killed, 954 wounded, over 4000 displaced, 732 homes attacked (550 destroyed), and 29 Serbian Orthodox Christian churches burned19. Kofi Annan described this event as an ‘organized, widespread and targeted campaign’ against Serbs and other minorities in Kosovo; the people ethnically cleansed in 2004 have not been able to return, and “the main decision taken by the international community in response to the ethnic cleansing was to decide to resolve Kosovo’s future status, but without any prior guarantee of minority rights20.” Hundreds of investigations into the 2004 atrocities yielded only few trials and lenient sentences. Moreover, « despite the overwhelming evidence of the organized nature of the ethnic cleansing and violence, no leaders have been prosecuted. […] [T]he approach seems to have been to co-opt into power those accused of organizing the violence21. » As for Serb leaders suspected of having taken part in the ethnic persecution of Albanians, the jails in the International Tribunal in Hague are full of them22. One wonders if this injustice is permitted because Serbian victims are viewed as less deserving of justice due to past genocide claims? In light of such attitudes on the part of international community both inside and outside of Kosovo, “[h]uman rights […] and the rule of law […] have effectively been seen as optional.” Even KFOR refuses to enforce the law: of the four suspects arrested in the aftermath of a 2001 bus bombing killing 10 Serb civilians, one suspect escaped and the other three were released after KFOR’s refusal to present evidence to the court. « No one was therefore prosecuted for one of the worst atrocities against the Serbs23. »

Western policy makers tend to support Kosovo’s independence despite its utter failure to secure basic conditions of security and equality for all of its inhabitants. UNMIK and KFOR have done little to discourage ethnic cleansing policies; instead, « by allowing the intimidation to continue, [they] […] effectively showed they tolerated the ethnic cleansing and division of Kosovo24. » If this is so, then supporting Kosovo’s independence only further affirms our tolerance of these practices, a message opposite to the one intended25.

This attitude is not new. It was expressed to an even sharper extent right after the 1999 bombing of Serbia that saw atrocities and other reprisals of Albanians on Serbian civilians and the consequent fleeing of hundreds of thousands of Serbs and other ethnic minorities. The Western consensus that Serbs deserved what they were getting was outspoken; Serbs fleeing Kosovo were called “the world’s least pitiable refugees,” their fate a “rough justice26.”

In sum, despite the fact that an organized pogrom against Serbs and other minorities already happened in the non-independent Kosovo administered by the UN and safeguarded by NATO, the very real concern for the future of minorities in an independent Kosovo is rarely addressed.


On rare but significant occasions, serious and respectable voices have raised doubts about viability of a Kosovo state. In a statement published in the Washington Times, former high US government officials John Bolton, Lawrence Eagleburger, and Peter Rodman say:

“Even if Kosovo declared itself an independent state, it would be a dysfunctional one and a ward of the international community for the indefinite future. Corruption and organized crime are rampant. The economy, aside from international largesse and criminal activities, is nonviable. Law enforcement, integrity of the courts, protection of persons and property, and other prerequisites for statehood are practically nonexistent. While these failures are often blamed on Kosovo’s uncertain status, a unilateral declaration of independence recognized by some countries and rejected by many others would hardly remedy that fact27.”

Knowing all this, most of Western policy makers still privilege the principle of self-determination over the principle of territorial integrity when it comes to Kosovo. The Western public opinion, chiefly relying on largely unchallenged past reports of genocide in Kosovo, has well fortified this political stance. Most of Western media have ignored facts both refuting the claims of genocide in Kosovo and concerning the direness of province’s recent record of human and minority rights abuse, thus skewing their coverage to closely align with Western governments’ policies. The status of “victim” seems to be reserved for Albanians, perhaps to better justify the Western support for Kosovo’s independence. The voices of rare, but worthy, attempts to cover these neglected issues are swept away by the Western wind of disinterestedness; risking futility, let me raise one of them again:

« The situation of minorities in Kosovo remains the worst in Europe. This cannot simply be explained as a result of conflict. Other societies have seen conflict and face ongoing problems. […] Northern Ireland, […] Cyprus, […] Turkey, […] Bosnia and Herzegovina […]. But none of these situations is as bad for minorities as in Kosovo. […] Nowhere in Europe can be described as at such high risk of ethnic cleansing occurring again in the near future28. »

I think serious concern must be expressed over Kosovar Albanians’ past record of human and minority rights violations, specifically their organized efforts to terrorize and drive minorities out of the province. The patterns of repeated ethnic cleansing, violence, and atrocities witnessed over the past eight years of international rule highlight Kosovo’s lack of an efficient judicial system, of basic freedoms and security, and the omnipresence of discrimination, suggesting that independence—even a supervised one—is still highly unadvisable. I feel that this conclusion stands backed by all the humanitarian principles that we in the Western world celebrate as our most treasured ideals.


1. Both Serbs and Albanians claim historical rights to the land in question. Debates over the demographic and political history of the province are endless and, honestly, overwhelming for an average Western reader. More important, however, is that we have long since moved beyond an age when ancient history dictated groups’ rights to reside in a certain region. I will therefore put historical debates aside and look at more recent events, ones that have arguably had the greatest impact on the province so far. If one is interested in historical claims, I suggest a work by Branislav Krstic-Brano, Kosovo: Facing the Court of History (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2004), a book praised in Western academia for dodging the traditional historical bickering and tackling the issue of historical right in an original, detailed, and insightful manner; some readers might find some of Krstic-Brano’s conclusions controversial, but the value of his research and analysis will remain untouched.
2. For example, Quebec is a confederal unit within Canada, and was thus legally entitled to organize its past two referendums for independence. The same goes for, say, Czech and Slovak republics that dissolved their federation in 1993.
3. In this article, I take the terms “West” and “Western” to include North America and Western Europe. True, Canada is still reluctant to recognize Kosovo, but many of its most powerful politicians have on many occasions stated their support for Kosovo’s independence. “The West” in general certainly does not react unanimously to the Kosovo issue, but for the most part it does support independence.
4. Agence France-Presse, 2008. As cited by “Kosovo independence bid eyed warily by several EU states.” 02 Feb. 2008. .
5. For political circumstances, we can compare Kosovo to the Basque country, an autonomous region in Spain with no legal right to secession. As for history, the clash of religions, foreign invaders, and the consequent movements of populations and formations of nations is also present in Kashmir, Israel, Ireland…
6. The UN Resolution 1674 includes provisions known as “Responsibility to Protect,” which urges that populations be protected “from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity” (See United Nations Security Council. “Resolution 1674 (2006), adopted by the Security Council at its 5430th meeting, on 28 April 2006.” Accessed 03 Feb. 2008. .). Some have interpreted this as a way to go around the UN Charter on Territorial Integrity, even though this Resolution makes no explicit suggestions to this end. Instead, it calls for coming to terms with past abuses, reconciliation, and legal prosecution of those responsible, a call answered by Serbia with numerous extraditions of war crimes suspects to the Tribunal at Hague. However, even if Resolution 1674 did call for redrawing borders on the basis of humanitarian concerns, I think it would still be hardly applicable in the case of Kosovo, but, unfortunately, not because of a lack of ethnically motivated crimes; as this piece will show, there are still plenty going around.
7. To mention just a few examples, the US President Clinton talked about “deliberate, systematic efforts at […] genocide” (As quoted by Broder, John M. “Clinton underestimated Serbs, he acknowledges.” New York Times. 26 June 1999);” in the British Daily Mail, a photograph of Kosovar Albanian children in a truck was titled “Flight from Genocide” (Daily Mail. 29 March 1999);” a title in French Le Monde read “Nouvel Holocauste au Kosovo” (Le Monde. 27 Apr. 1999), another article reading “After the Holocaust against Jews, this new stain weighs very heavily on consciences.” (Kadare, Ismail. “Le triomphe du crime.” Le Monde. 04 May 1999. Translation mine).
8. I use the term “genocide” in its traditional sense, as a planned, deliberate, and systematic extermination of an entire ethnic, national, racial, or cultural group.
9. Martin, Lawrence. “Another Case of Mass Deception?” The Globe and Mail Canada 02 Sept. 2004: A17.
10. Pilger, John. “Censorship by Omission.” Degraded Capability: The Media and the Kosovo Crisis. Ed. Philip Hammond and Edward S. Herman. London: Pluto Press, 2000. 132-140: 139.
11. Hume, Mick. “Nazifying the Serbs, from Bosnia to Kosovo.” Degraded Capability: The Media and the Kosovo Crisis. Ed. Philip Hammond and Edward S. Herman. London: Pluto Press, 2000. 70-78: 73-4. The quote continues: « The exaggeration of the casualties caused by Serbs in Kosovo follows a pattern established during the Bosnian civil war. Many of those journalists who accuse the Bosnian Serbs of genocide claim that a quarter of a million died in that conflict, most of them Bosnian Muslims. The respected Stockholm International Peace Research Institute put the total casualty figure for all sides in Bosnia at a much lower 30,000-50,000. Serbs did commit atrocities in both Bosnia and Kosovo (as did others), and there were many tragic deaths. But to try to compare these conflicts with the Nazi annihilation of the Jews is a serious distortion. In terms of sheer casualty numbers alone, it is akin to equating a motorway accident with a major earthquake. »
12. Martin, Lawrence. “Another Case of Mass Deception?” The Globe and Mail Canada 02 Sept. 2004: A17.
13. As an example of exception to that rule, see the Encyclopedia of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity, which has a whole chapter on Kosovo, including a sloppily written history, and as its first source listing Heavenly Serbia, a book about Serbs written by Croat Branimir Anzulovic, which received quite unfavorable academic reviews. Writers of such an important work that covers a very sensitive topic seem not to have bothered to perform serious research (or at least insert updates) on Kosovo before devoting it a chapter in their book.
14. Beside earlier history, there is strong evidence that Serbs were systematically persecuted in order to leave Kosovo—which would make them victims of “ethnic cleansing”—during Albanians’ autonomous administration of the province (1974-1989), which was the political status closest to independence they have ever had. See, for example, Howe, Marvine. “Exodus of Serbians Stirs Province in Yugoslavia.” The New York Times 12 July 1982: A8.
15. Sandole, Dennis. “Serb Protesters Burn U.S. Embassy.” CTV News Live. Hosted by Dan Matheson. CTV. 21 Feb. 2008.
16. Baldwin, Clive. MRG Report: Minority Rights in Kosovo under International Rule. London: Minority Rights Group (MRG) International, 2006: 17-18.
17. Baldwin: 16, 14, 19.
18. Baldwin: 16-17.
19. Bouckaert, Peter. “Failure to Protect: Anti-Minority Violence in Kosovo, March 2004.” Human Rights Watch Report 16:6 (July 2004): 62.
20. Baldwin: 16.
21. Baldwin: 3, 17.
22. Recall for a moment the Milosevic trial and remember that Milosevic was overthrown by a revolution in Serbia, and then captured and extradited to Hague by the new, democratically elected, Serbian authorities, along with every person charged with war crimes that Serbian police could locate. A score of Serbs have been sent from Serbia to the International Tribunal at Hague to stand trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity. I think this shows a strong will on the part of Serbs to respect the Resolution 1674 and the call of the “Responsibility to Protect” clause for prosecuting those responsible for crimes, especially since the government that started the extraditions has been twice reelected to power. Kosovo, administered by UNMIK, has so far failed to show such willingness.
23. Baldwin: 26.
24. Baldwin: 14-15.
25. The horrific ethnic cleansing of Albanians from Kosovo has been reversed in the months following the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia; however, reversing the ethnic cleansing of non-Albanians in lieu of Albanians’ return is at a standstill. Over 250,000 Serbs, Roma, Bosniaks, and Gorani have been expelled from Kosovo since 1999, making most of Kosovo ethnically pure (See Baldwin: 9, 13.). Instead of making sure that this last ethnic cleansing is reversed and that no other ethnic cleansing takes place in future (a process called ‘reconciliation’), the West has decided to discourage ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity by endorsing an independence claim of a province that practices ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity and is still, even with international administration’s help and NATO forces’ presence, unable to stop or reverse these practices. If they really want to follow the UN Resolution 1674’s “Responsibility to Protest” clause, right after granting Kosovo independence as a response to ethnic cleansing and war crimes practiced by Serbs in 1998-1999, the West and the UN should re-grant Serbia sovereignty over Kosovo as a response to the ethnic cleansing and (peacetime) crimes against humanity practiced by Kosovar Albanians ever since.
26. Hammond, Philip. “Third Way War: New Labour, the British Media and Kosovo.” Degraded Capability: The Media and the Kosovo Crisis. Ed. Philip Hammond and Edward S. Herman. London: Pluto Press, 2000. 123-131: 130.
27. Bolton, John, Lawrence Eagleburger, and Peter Rodman. “Warning Light on Kosovo.” The Washington Times 31 Jan. 2008.
28. Baldwin: 24.

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