NATO Rejects Charges of War Crimes in Yugoslavia

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:08 PM EDT

London ( - NATO Wednesday rejected as "baseless and ill-founded" allegations by a leading human rights organization that the military alliance violated the rules of law during last year's Balkans conflict.

While "in a few cases" regrettable mistakes had occurred during the alliance campaign to end Serb violence against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, "such incidents must be weighed against the atrocities that NATO's action stopped," General-Secretary George Robertson said in a statement released in Brussels.

He was reacting to a 60-page report released Tuesday in the U.S., and on Wednesday in Britain, by Amnesty International, the London-based human rights monitor.

AI said it was not judging the legality or morality of NATO's 78-day bombing campaign in Yugoslavia, but wanted an investigation into attacks on targets where civilian casualties were likely. United Nations officials recently all but ruled out the likelihood of an inquiry.

Amnesty cited the bombing of important railway bridges and the building housing the Serbian state broadcasting network, among other examples.

"NATO member states must bring to justice any of their nationals suspected of being responsible for serious violations under international humanitarian law," the organization said.

The civilian death toll during the bombing campaign - between 400 and 600 according to Belgrade's figures - could have been "significantly reduced if NATO forces had fully adhered to the laws of war."

Amnesty said the decision to conduct bombing raids from higher than 15,000 feet to protect alliance aircraft from enemy fire made adherence to humanitarian law "virtually impossible."

It acknowledged the difficulties in a 19-member coalition waging a war, as well as those faced by military planners and soldiers engaged in combat.

"However, the most powerful military alliance in the world cannot afford but to set the highest standards of protection of civilians according to international humanitarian law."

AI based its findings on "available evidence," including information from the Red Cross and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, NATO's operation reports, and statements made by NATO during a meeting with officials last February.

Last week Carla del Ponte, the chief prosecutor at the UN International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, told the Security Council that after fully assessing complaints, she was "very satisfied there was no deliberate targeting of civilians or of unlawful military targets by NATO during the bombing campaign."

Del Ponte said there was no basis for opening an investigation into the allegations made against NATO.

In his statement, Robertson said NATO had "made every effort to minimize civilian casualties" during the war.

"Unfortunately, as we have always acknowledged, among over ten thousand bombing missions, in a few cases mistakes were made, or weapons malfunctioned, leading to civilian deaths or injuries. We deeply regret such incidents."

He emphasized NATO's view that Operation Allied Force had ended "the most brutal ethnic violence seen in Europe since World War II."

TV target

One of the bombing missions that NATO does not define as a mistake was the targeting on April 23 last year of the Belgrade headquarters of Radio and Television of Serbia. Sixteen civilians were killed in the raid, which destroyed a newsroom and studios.

A British minister, Clare Short, defended the decision, telling reporters in London that President Slobodan Milosevic's "propaganda machine" was prolonging the conflict.

Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon also justified the mission, calling Serbian TV "as much a part of Milosevic's murder machine as his military is."

Amnesty said in its report the bombing "was a deliberate attack on a civilian object and as such constitutes a war crime."

Also see:
Was Serb TV a Fair Target for NATO Bombs? (April 30, 1999)

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow