NATO’s Humanitarian War over Kosovo

NATO’s Humanitarian War over Kosovo


NATO’s intervention on what was going on in Yugoslavia has always been subject to debate. According to NATO, the airstrikes that began o 24th of March 1999 and lasted for 78 days were aimed at stopping the wars, crimes, and human rights violation by Milosevic’s government. However, in the process, many lives were lost which again raises more questions concerning NATO’s primary intentions. Those who support this act argue that it ended Milosevic’s reign hence bringing to an end a government that facilitated most humanitarian crimes. However, looking at some of the videos taken during this event, one can see that NATO’s target buildings were mostly non-military (Brooks, 2014, 161). As such, the same people that NATO claimed to be saving from ethnic cleansing ended up perishing in the bombings. This paper will be a review of Adam Robert’s work covering the 1999 Kosovo event.

Review of Adam Robert’s “NATO’s ‘Humanitarian War’ Over Kosovo”

The NATO fraternity has always denied claims that what they did was an act of war. However, whatever transpired can be categorized as war because it was opposed by the military forces of a sovereign country (Adam, 1999, 102). A situation can be described as a war when two groups of people, usually the military, fight against each other with the use of weapons. Two parts of this definition can be related to the events that occurred in 1999. First, there were two opposing military forces. The NATO armed forces attacked a country which was also ready to defend itself using the Yugoslavia armed forces. However, the attempts by the Yugoslavia military never came to life because of the strength of NATO. Another notable part of the definition is the use of weapons.

Whenever two groups of people are against each other and use weapons as a way of self-defense, then the depth of that confrontation will determine the status of the act. NATO used airstrikes as a way of passing a message but in the process killed innocent lives. It, therefore, seemed like a war against all Yugoslavians and not just Milosevic’s administration. Roberts (1999, 103) blames the war on to two things which are the humanitarian law and human rights. Although it might seem a weird statement, the truth in it cannot be denied. Whatever Milosevic’s government was promoting was against human rights. According to witnesses, the death toll of the Serbians was continually rising. Dead bodies had become a regular thing with many of them found scattered all over (Joenniemi, 2018, 19). Humanitarian law seeks to reduce such cases by protecting those who can be victims of such actions, yet they are not hostile. It was with this fact that the NATO leaders decided to launch an attack. However, as stated earlier, this attack did not seem to target the perpetrators of the human rights violations but the whole country. Whether NATO took advantage of the situation to pass a message remains unknown, but it seems there was a hidden agenda in all these occurrences.

Roberts’ (1999, 104) view on the possible reason why this happened is that a sense of responsibility and shame united the 19 state members of NATO. The NATO states had failed to come up with policies that would have helped the situation in the previous four years. Moreover, action plans had been devised by several foreign institutions including NATO and the EU urging the Yugoslavian authorities to the ethnic cleansing, failure to which there were going to be repercussions. From NATO’s perspective, it can be understood why the member states collectively agreed on the idea. In late 1998, a meeting was done, where the NATO members were asked to vote whether the plan of attacking Yugoslavia was right or wrong. Only three out of nineteen members voted against, which shows that the decisions made before and later were collective.

The general feeling from Roberts’ article, “NATO’s ‘Humanitarian War’ Over Kosovo,” is that NATO’s actions were a show of their power. The first evidence is the fact that its decisions were not authorized by the UN Security Council (Roberts, 1999, p. 102). This fact alone puts some question marks on the legitimacy of NATO actions despite the claims that they were aimed at stopping human rights violations. One of the witnesses and a survivor gave their account of what happened, and they said they witnessed a passenger train being blown to pieces (Joenniemi, 2018, p. 29). This statement again takes us to the first question, was it a war against the human rights violators, or Yugoslavia as a country. Bombing a passenger train is entirely different from bombing a military base. Although there is a loss of lives in both cases, the explanations of the two actions will vary significantly. An army base consists of weapons and armed soldiers, while a passenger train carries unharmed and innocent people. Therefore, using such as a way of sending a message does not seem right. NATO later regarded the over 2000 lives lost and the damage on infrastructure as collateral damage.

Roberts (1999, p. 110), however, tries to explain why NATO resorted to using airstrikes instead of sending troops to Yugoslavia. In most cases, soldiers are usually sent to areas where such interventions are needed. In this case, though, it is possible that NATO did not want to have casualties at the end of this operation. Military interventions in such countries usually end up in loss of lives on both sides. However, in the grand scheme of things, it seems that NATO was not willing to lose any of its military members, but at the same time felt the urge to intervene. As Roberts (1999, p. 110) puts it, there were limited options and airstrikes was the most appealing one. Although NATO did not want to lose the lives of their soldiers, were airstrikes the best way of dealing with Milosevic’s government? First, the whole point of NATO’s intervention was to exercise the Humanitarian Law. Although the same law states that force may be used if needed, the lives of the innocent people must still be protected at all costs.


            Two things come up whenever the 1999 Kosovo war is mentioned; the human rights and the humanitarian law. Milosevic’s government violated human rights, among other things. NATO, on the other hand, claims that it intervened as a way of exercising the Humanitarian Law. Although both of these statements may be true, the strategy chosen by NATO to accomplish its goals is still debatable. Questions arise because the plans that were expected to deliver Yugoslavians from Milosevic’s government ended up killing many people. Although NATO regards these losses as collateral damage, the numbers in the records give a different perspective.