On the final day of the UN Commission on Human Rights, Mary Robinson, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, criticized NATO’s use of force in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, saying:
“Under the [UN International Criminal] Tribunal’s statute, the Prosecutor may investigate war crimes committed by any of the parties to the armed conflict. The actions of individuals belonging to Serb forces, the KLA, or NATO may therefore come under scrutiny.”
“Unless diplomacy succeeds, Kosovo will be thoroughly cleansed of Albanians while Serbs will, on present performance, be bombed without end.”
“In the NATO bombing of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, large numbers of civilians have incontestably been killed, civilian installations targeted on the basis that they are or could be of military application, and NATO remains the sole judge of what is or is not acceptable to bomb.”
Analysis: The UN is a system, based at its core, on the imposition of legal concepts on state action. Its strength comes from the legitimacy which these legalisms provide. But as anyone with a passing acquaintance of law will recognize, legalisms in the absence of perspective, rectitude and good judgment empty the law of its moral grounding.
To a great extent, the Western liberal ethic has come to be the dominant moral, political, economic, and social paradigm. As part of this paradigm, we recoil in horror from unwarranted and apparently wanton use of violence, whether state-sanctioned or stemming from proclaimed freedom-fighters.
Yet this ethic cannot be a prophylactic for the demanding decisions that international action sometimes requires. Who can sleep easy when required to make difficult decisions of life and death? Those who stand for the enduring principles that murder on the base of ethnicity is wrong; that stripping civilians of all traces of their identity is wrong; that the policy of forcing victims to carve out their graves before being slaughtered is wrong, must sometimes call upon their inner reserves and, in the words of John F. Kennedy, “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship,” to take the actions necessary to safeguard these basic principles of humanity.
There are those within the United Nations who are called upon to be the bellwether of our common morality. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has frequently and honorably fulfilled that role. Most recently, regarding the situation in Kosovo, he had the determination to say: “It is indeed tragic that diplomacy has failed, but there are times when the use of force may be legitimate in the pursuit of peace.” Within the United Nations human rights sphere, not all are willing to stand by this position.