Archive for Bosnia and Herzegovina

Intervention Lessons From Kosovo for Syria

By David L. Phillips, Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at ISHR


President Bill Clinton intervened in the Balkans to end a war in Bosnia and stop the slaughter of civilians in Kosovo. As the United States considers military intervention in Syria, the Obama administration should reflect on America’s Balkan engagements in the 1990s, considering what was done right — and wrong.

The international community took more than 3 years to stop ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. While it dithered, more than 100,000 people were killed and millions displaced. The response to Serbia’s aggression in Kosovo was faster and more effective. NATO launched a 78-day air campaign that prevented what happened in Bosnia from happening in Kosovo. The diplomacy and military operations were imperfect, but Kosovo is the gold standard in humanitarian intervention.

Here are some lessons from Kosovo that are relevant to Syria:

-Diplomacy comes first: After more than a quarter million Kosovo Albanians fled to the mountains during the summer of 1998, the U.S.-led Contact Group, which included Russia, negotiated the Kosovo Verification Mission (KVM) to verify the withdrawal of Serb forces, enable the return of displaced Kosovars, and ensure the delivery of humanitarian supplies. The KVM was suspended after 40 Kosovo civilians were massacred in Racak, including women and children.

-Back diplomacy with the threat of force: After Racak, NATO approved an “activation order,” the last step in force readiness before launching an attack. U.S. Special Envoy Richard C. Holbrooke issued an ultimatum, but Slobodan Milosevic scoffed at Holbrooke’s threat. NATO launched limited operations, then paused. Holbrooke called Milosevic to give him a last chance, but his entreaties were ignored. NATO’s full force was unleashed only after all diplomatic options were exhausted.

-Build international coalitions: With the UN Security Council paralyzed, the U.S. abandoned efforts to gain a UN resolution and focused its diplomacy on building consensus among NATO Member States. NATO did not act alone. It was backed by the Organization of Islamic Conference and statements by the UN Secretary General.

-Gain Congressional and public support: The Clinton administration worked effectively with civil society groups and the media to expose Milosevic’s criminal regime and make the case for military action. Intervention was supported by a broad bipartisan group of lawmakers. Albanian-Americans played a key role garnering support.

-Keep all options on the table: Clinton pledged no U.S. ground troops. Milosevic believed he could withstand NATO’s air campaign, and hunkered down. Milosevic finally capitulated after 78 days of intensive bombing.

-Expect retaliation: Serbia intensified its ethnic cleansing when NATO attacked. Serbian forces went door-to-door, assassinating Kosovo Albanian leaders and displacing more than one million Kosovars. The U.S. had conducted extensive contingency planning. Expecting population flows, humanitarian supplies were pre-positioned in Macedonia and Albania.

-Anticipate collateral damage: NATO mistakenly bombed a convoy of Albanian refugees fleeing Decani, killing 73 civilians. In the fog of war, NATO also accidentally bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. Clinton personally apologized, but the incident entrenched China’s opposition to the war.

-Work with insurgents: Target selection became more difficult as the bombing campaign dragged on. NATO cooperated with the Kosova Liberation Army to identify targets and track Serbian troop movements. The KLA was an essential force on-the-ground that helped guide NATO air operations.

-Hand-over power to a credible local partner: American diplomats worked intensively to forge cooperation among Kosovar leaders. The Kosovo “Unity Team” became the nucleus of post-Milosevic administration in Kosovo.

-Walk-the-talk: In the middle of the Kosovo conflict, dignitaries from around the world gathered in Washington, D.C. to celebrate the 50th anniversary of NATO’s founding. The Clinton administration understood that Kosovo was more than a test of Western diplomacy. The future of the North Atlantic Alliance was also at-stake.

Has the Obama administration taken on-board lessons from Kosovo?

Picture from:

Picture from:

The United States is diplomatically isolated, except for France which endorsed air strikes against Syria. Even Great Britain, America’s erstwhile ally in Iraq and Afghanistan, has balked. The Obama administration released its intelligence verifying Assad’s use of chemical weapons too late to influence the British parliament’s vote to authorize use of force. After the vote, Obama offended Britain by referring to France as America’s “oldest ally.”

Though Russia and China have vetoed three resolutions designed to pressure Assad, the Obama administration has bent over backwards to work with Russia on talks between the regime and opposition. The Geneva conference was stillborn from the beginning, and has recently been overtaken by events. Hezbollah entered the battlefield, rolling-back gains by the insurgents and further regionalizing the conflict.

Indignation is the right response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons. However, the threat of military action is more effective when demanding compliance rather than as a punitive measure. With U.S. tomahawk cruise missiles locked and loaded, the Obama administration should demand that Assad sequester chemical weapons under UN control or hand over field commanders to the International Criminal Court. It could also give Assad a deadline to relinquish power.

Some Members of Congress want air strikes to advance the goal of regime change. But who will succeed Assad? Syria’s insurgency is dominated by the Al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliated terror group murdering Alawites, moderate Arab Sunnis, and Syrian Kurds. Just like Kosovo when more than 100,000 Serbs fled after Milosevic was defeated, reprisals resulting in a bloodbath are a real possibility when Assad steps down.

Secretary of State John Kerry has been a passionate point man in the recent flurry of public diplomacy. However, the administration has not done enough to explain why it is in America’s national interest to attack Syria. Given public skepticism, Obama’s decision to consult lawmakers is a high-stakes gambit. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton launched strikes against Libya, Afghanistan and Kosovo without asking Congressional authorization.

Obama repeatedly characterized military action as “limited and narrow.” He called it a “shot across the bow.” He also publicly ruled out the possibility of ground troops. Taking the middle ground satisfies no one. Opponents to military action are not convinced. At the same time, moderation may be alienating some senators clamoring for a more robust response.

Obama is clearly a reluctant warrior. He understands that Americans are weary from a decade of conflict in distant lands. However, Obama has boxed himself into a corner. Speaking at an impromptu news conference more than a year ago, he went off-script saying that President Bashar al-Assad’s use or movement of chemical weapons represents a “red-line” that would change his administration’s “calculus,” with significant consequences including the possibility of more direct U.S. intervention in the conflict.

Drawing a red-line is morally correct. It is also in America’s national security interest. I visited Iraqi Kurdistan after chemical weapons were used to kill thousands. It was a horrific scene. Indiscriminate use of the world’s most heinous weapons against civilians violates international humanitarian law and norms of decency. Just like Milosevic’s murderous rampage in Bosnia and Kosovo, it cannot be tolerated.

However, military action is a tactic not a policy. The decision to go to war should be linked to a broader strategy of creating a safe haven on Syria’s border with Syria and Jordan. The safe haven would be protected by a no-fly-zone, enforced by NATO. As was the case in Kosovo, a Russian contingent under NATO’s command could be deployed. The safe haven would allow refugees to return to Syria. It would also provide a buffer between Syria and front-line states, furthering stability in the region. Creating a safe haven could also change momentum on the battlefield, revitalizing prospects for a Geneva conference and bringing the grinding conflict in Syria closer to an end.

This article previously appeared on The Huffington Post on September 3, 2013.


David L. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights. His most recent book is Liberating Kosovo: Coercive Diplomacy and U.S. Intervention.

Notes from the Field: Creating a New Story Through Art in Post-Conflict Bosnia and Herzegovina

By Janine White, Program Coordinator for the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University

Photo Credit: Nick Micinski

Photo Credit: Nick Micinski

From May 23-28, 2013, I participated in the Most MiraHumanity in Action (HIA) International Exchange. Most Mira (Bridge of Peace) is a peacebuilding NGO in northern Bosnia, and its founder, Kemal Pervanic, was a 2012 participant ISHR’s Human Rights Advocates Program. HIA is a human rights education NGO based in the US and with offices in several European countries, including Bosnia. Through this project, HIA Senior Fellows supported Most Mira’s annual youth arts festival, involving children in a drama program that culminated in a rendition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. During the 5-day festival, Senior Fellows and Most Mira staff, along with other experts in this field, also came together to discuss the challenges and opportunities that this local NGO faces within the current political context in post-conflict Bosnia.

This blog post, previously published here, is a summary of my impressions and reflections from this experience.

A theme that struck me throughout many of our conversations is the idea that disagreements over the narrative of what happened here during the war are a main challenge that continues to perpetuate the divide between different ethnic groups in Bosnia. Most Mira’s work is so important in this context. While the organization is not directly working on changing these narratives, their projects that engage youth through art develop both individual creativity and relationships between segregated young people. I think that this is an important first step in order to create space for people from different sides of the conflict to come together, to listen to and learn from one another. In the broader effort towards reconciliation, as one Most Mira trustee said, we have to trust the process. It seems to me that using art to open up those lines of communication is a way to start.

If you pay attention, signs of the legacy of the war can be found all over Kevljani and its neighboring towns and villages. Driving down the road towards this small village, you see ruined buildings untouched since they were stripped of everything valuable during the war. With just door frames and bathroom tiles on part of a wall remaining, it’s clear that the inhabitants either were killed or have not returned because they’ve made their lives in the places to which they were displaced. Other houses are rebuilt, and you can see that the construction is new, but the lights are off. Many of these people have chosen to stay in the UK, Germany, Sweden, the US, largely because they find more economic opportunities there. They make their lives in a new place and maintain this house as home even though they don’t live there, while their children often identify less with Bosnia than with these other countries. Even for those who have returned, the buildings on their property make the memory of the war physically ever-present. Across the street from the house in which we stayed, a reconstructed home stands next to a half-built/half-destroyed structure. Why not just tear down this building and start from scratch? The clothesline hanging from the upper floor with laundry drying on it shows that this property is inhabited, but it seems that other than fulfilling this small function, the building serves no other purpose than to remind the residents of their recent past.

I wonder what it’s like for these kids to grow up in a place so marked by a war that happened before they were born. It’s their community’s and families’ pasts and yet not their personal memories that you find signs of everywhere. These children’s parents were on different sides of the conflict, but the kids neither perpetrated nor were directly victimized by the war. And yet they’re being kept apart, fed different versions of the story with few opportunities to figure out for themselves what this past means to them, and to experience the humanity of “the other side.”

This is where Most Mira’s work comes in. Engaging through art, music, drama, these young people don’t just meet kids living 5 minutes down the road with whom they might otherwise never have the chance to have a conversation. They get to create something together. They don’t talk politics or about the war, but working on these art projects directly counters the war’s effects: one side’s dehumanizing of the other. Writing the music, painting the set, interviewing cast members, and practicing lines of their play, these kids have an opportunity to express themselves and to share their humanity with others. Art “rehumanizes” the children of those who were targeted because of their identity, and it allows the children of those who perpetrated these crimes to see the humanity in members of the group that their parents may have victimized. And all of this is happening without anyone using the words “Serb” or “Muslim.”

The kids’ performance of San Svake Noći (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) was such a great example of this. The teamwork involved to create and deliver the show was so clear. It was also beautiful to watch how the show evolved throughout the course of the 5 performances. Not understanding the language of the play, I could still see how the kids responded to the audience, how they visibly became more comfortable as each performance progressed, allowing them to improvise with each other. Even though we only had the opportunity to engage with them at the end of their 4-month long project, it also definitely seemed as though new friendships were forged. I worked with one of the girls in the media group, and in her interviews with the other participants, she was quite excited to ask them about the new friends they had made. It didn’t seem important which schools they were from, except for when they had the opportunity to share the play on their own turf. Their sense of accomplishment shone through as they received rounds of applause from parents, teachers, principals, Most Mira and HIA participants, and perhaps most importantly, their fellow students. I loved watching the rapture on the faces of kids in the audience and hearing the laughter erupt at the jokes made and pranks played on stage.

This interaction between the audience and the project participants allows this program to have an effect beyond the 40 children involved in the play. We were all able to see the fruits of their individual creativity, and I hope that the end result, the art that they created together, can instill some hope for the future of these children and their communities. They’re building bridges between each other. A seed of creativity has been planted, and hopefully it will be nurtured so that these kids can continue to explore new ways of interacting, growing from this basis of recognizing their common humanity. This process may not directly lead to new ways of engaging with memories of the past, but I think it’s where a process of reconciliation might be able to start. We learned a lot about the various significant political, economic, and social obstacles that exist in Bosnia today, blocking this process. Considering these challenges, I might sound a bit idealistic in saying that this dialogue and creative experience could encourage these kids to imagine and even achieve a more reconciled future. However, I believe in the healing power of art. And if you don’t start somewhere, you can pretty much guarantee that nothing will happen, but if you try, you at the very least give them a chance to develop a new, and hopefully more inclusive, story.

Check out the report, Creative Commons: Engaging Youth in Peacebuilding through Art in Bosnia and Herzegovina, that we published as part of the Most Mira – Humanity in Action International Exchange. 

Janine supports ISHR’s Education Program and Gender and Human Rights Program, in addition to working on communications for the Institute.  She is also a Humanity in Action Senior Fellow, having completed the summer fellowship program in 2009.