Analysis: UK Journalists Criticize NATO Actions in Kosovo

By Louis Economopoulos | July 7, 2008 | 8:07 PM EDT

Athens, Greece ( - A group of journalists who covered last year's NATO war in the Balkans for British media have slammed the Western alliance for its actions and motives, while also criticizing media coverage of the war.

The reporters were participating in a two-day conference here this week organized by ESHEA, the Athens journalists' union, entitled "War and Peace: The Kosovo Experience."

Robert Fisk, the Middle East correspondent for British daily newspaper The Independent, lambasted both the motives and the outcome of the war.

He compared the effects on the civilian and military populations of the use of cancer-causing depleted uranium (DU)-reinforced projectiles in both the 1991 Gulf War and the Kosovo campaign.

"The British Ministry of Defense acknowledges only a very low radiation hazard from this weapon ... Some of the thousands of western soldiers now suffering from what is known as Gulf War syndrome think differently about the British estimate. So do thousands of Iraqis," Fisk asserted.

He quoted from a U.S. military document that states, "significant concentrations of DU oxide dust could be expelled from the fire in the event of an explosion ... keeping out of the downwind plume, or wearing a self-contained breathing apparatus, will provide adequate protection."

"Well, they didn't tell us that at the time," Fisk said.

He stressed NATO's reluctant admission that depleted uranium was used in the Kosovo campaign and its dubious claims about its effects. "After all we had found out in Iraq, the Americans were using depleted uranium ammunition again ...Their A-10 aircraft were using it across Kosovo," Fisk claimed.

Fisk also accused NATO of outright deception in the matter. "There were two basic lies that were told about it. That it was not dangerous because uranium was found in the terrain, in the earth and soil. And that a Rand Corporation study proved DU was harmless," charged Fisk.

"The truth was that while uranium is found in natural things, depleted uranium, from nuclear waste, is very definitely not. And the Rand study compared Gulf War veterans with miners in uranium mines, who are exposed to a more soluble form of uranium," Fisk claimed.

But in comments given by Lord George Robertson, NATO Secretary General, during a press conference March 21 that marked the first anniversary of the air campaign, he said it is "fashionable" today to question NATO's success in Kosovo.

"Today, to those who find it fashionable to question NATO's success and to doubt what the air campaign achieved, I say this," said Robertson. "Consider for a moment what would have happened had NATO not acted. Milosevic would have concluded his policy of violent expulsion, systematically organised and ruthlessly executed. Hundreds of thousands of Kosovar Albanians would today be stranded in refugee camps throughout the region with no hope of return."

Robertson's comments not withstanding, Fisk said he questions NATO's motives by saying that Belgrade was presented, in an annex to the Rambouillet peace proposals, with the unreasonable demand that NATO troops should have free movement throughout all of Serbia.

"It was a demand no sovereign state, even one as grotesque as Serbia, would accept, and thus amounted to a declaration of war ... NATO troops would have been occupying the entire Yugoslav Republic, from Novi Sad and Belgrade down to Montenegro. It was no surprise that the Serbs turned this down," Fisk said.

He also challenged NATO's humanitarian motives and suggested the alliance was not bombing to get the refugees back into their homes.

"No television station pointed out that most of these people were still in their homes when NATO launched its bombardment," he said in a sideswipe on Western mass media.

Robertson disagreed with that assessment. "The worst ethnic cleansing that we have seen in Europe in half a century was stopped and reversed," he said at the press conference.

The Secretary General went on to say that while it is too early to "claim complete success in Kosovo," he said it couldn't be considered a failure either.

"It is of course much too early to claim complete success in Kosovo; but it is equally wrong to conclude that we have failed. In the rush to reinterpret the past or pass judgement on the present, many facts and many truths have been forgotten," said Robertson.

Robertson also questioned that if NATO had not taken military action against Serbia it would have damaged the credibility of Western democracy and set a bad precedent for the next century.

"The barbaric policy of Belgrade would have succeeded and the credibility not only of NATO but of Western democracy and its values would have been seriously damaged. Is that how we would have wished to enter the 21st century?," asked Robertson.

Phillip Knightley, a reporter for The Sunday Times of London and author of the book "Kosovo: A Triumph for the Military, A Catastrophe for Journalism," claimed NATO had lied many times about the bombing attacks against Yugoslavia.

"The Western public did not know at first that NATO was lying when it said it did not deliberately attack civilian targets, and that those civilian casualties which did occur were accidents," insisted Knightley.

The Australian-born reporter quoted U.S. spokesman Kenneth Bacon as having admitted that the NATO bombing of electricity transformers in Belgrade had been aimed at forcing the Serbs "to put pressure on their leadership to end this."

That the public was in the dark about many of NATO's battle tactics was all the more paradoxical, asserted Knightley, in light of the fact that "official arrangements for the press were awe-inspiring."

Robertson said the NATO action was based on humanitarian objectives and its military action took place in accordance with international law.

"We attacked only targets directly related to the Yugoslav military effort. And the selection of targets was always subject to legal advice," claimed Robertson.

He went on to say, "NATO paid unprecedented attention to preventing accidental harm to civilians. Many legitimate military targets were taken off our list because of the possible risk to non-combatants."

Knightley said more than 2,700 media people accompanied NATO forces last year, more correspondents than had ever covered a war.

John Pilger, of Britain's New Statesman, charged that in the UK, "propagandists, not journalists, reported the Kosovo tragedy. They rightly claimed credit for putting the government's case."

Pilger suggested that "perhaps the most uncomfortable fact of all is the return of unrestrained imperialism," and added: "In another age, NATO's expansion into Eastern Europe, the Balkans and the Caucasus would be called imperialism ... but the word is banned."

"More than half the civilians in NATO's campaign in Yugoslavia were children and women, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees," said The Times' Eve Ann Prentice, author of the book "One Woman's War."

She observed that "in many ways the press can affect the lives of those civilians. This is mostly because we journalists can and do affect public opinion back home."

Prentice said she was critical of NATO's actions in Yugoslavia because "I believe the alliance took sides in a civil war, with, at best, no consequent reduction in the level of human suffering in the area, while, at worst, more people died across the region than would have done if the West had stayed away."

Robertson acknowledged in his speech earlier this month "some incidents occurred where there were unintended civilian casualties," but he defended NATO's approach to the military action.

"NATO paid unprecedented attention to preventing accidental harm to civilians," said Robertson. "Many legitimate military targets were taken off our list because of the possible risk to non-combatants." Robertson also said that NATO was "acting to stop deliberately inflicted human suffering, perpetrated on a massive scale," and said the use of "precision attacks... stopped that humanitarian tragedy."

Prentice escaped without injury when five NATO bombs fell on a group she was travelling with in Kosovo on May 30 last year. Her Yugoslav interpreter was killed in the attack.