Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ The Kosovan Legacy

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Mar 30, 1999

Posted to NewsTrolls 31 March 1999

And they utterly destroyed all that [was] in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword. - Joshua 6:21

Let me let you in on a little secret: I'm a pacifist. I have worked and organized for nuclear disarmament. I joined those who protested against the Gulf War. In general, I favour reduction of the military, and would be happy were Canada not a part of NATO, and not a part of the military community in general.

But here we have Kosovo, a small province in the history-driven Balkan penninsula, with a legacy as ancient as Caesar and a future today being written in blood.

So far as independence and nationality is concerned, I am in favour of self-determination by referendum. Thus for example, while opposed to the idea of my homeland, Quebec, separating from Canada, it is my position that this is the right of her people to choose. And in a similar fashion, it should be the right of any people to determine what country, if any, they wish to be a part of.

Seccession is never easy and the passions rise on both sides. Some seccessionist movements - such as those of Timor or Tibet - have relatively recent roots, and with the full power of nearsighted hindsight, a just cause against a repressive government. Other seccessionist movements - such as those of the Basques or the Scots - have their roots in more ancient history; their causes are not as clear, their justice not so self-evident.

But nations often define themselves by their borders. It's what they fight each other over, it's what determines what is ours and what is theirs, it's where a nation's historical moments and monuments are located, it's what they are. For while on the one hand, while a nation many be identified as a people, any people will tell you - like the Palestinians - that for a people to thrive and flourish, it must have land.

The tragedies of history occur when two people define themselves in one land. Inevitably, they must learn to live together - always with the danger that their distinct identities may be submerged in the other - or one people will be dispossessed, driven from their land, perhaps exterminated.

We sometimes pretend that genocide is a twentieth century phenomenon, but we know it's not, and that indeed, it has been standard practise for nations for millenia. The first act of the Isrealites - at least as recorded in the Bible - upon arriving in the promised land was to exterminate or enslave the locals. The Romans often conquered by assimilation, but just as often by destruction and depopulation. The combined armies of Ferdinand and Isabella drove the Moors from Spain, and the Jews were then expulsed from that country in the Inquisition of 1492. The American west was won through a process of relocating the Indians. Canada's aboriginal Beothuk nation was exterminated.

We are historically a tribal species. We have historically banded together for mutual protection, and if lucky, the rapine and enslavement of competing nations. The ebb and flow of nations through the centuries has resulted in a patchwork of nationalities, many of whom have a historical attachment to the same land, the same cities, and sometimes even, the same people.

And so it is in Kosovo. The 'heartland' of Serbia, occupied at various times by the Romans, the Goths, the Huns, the Turks, and the Serbs, is a land where the people today call themselves 'Moslems' and 'Albanians', an interesting mix of people who share a history of occupation, of conversion (from Roman paganism to Christianity to Islam), of repression, of language, of heritage.

In truth, nobody other than the Kosovars can define the Kosovars, and they define themselves as distinct, which makes them a target for occupation, repression, and perhaps extermination, unless they can defend themselves or make powerful friends. And just so, the Sebians, themselves an interesting people with a unique history and strong national identity, see the Kosovars as aliens, as foreigners, who for 500 years have exacted the benefits of a similar campaign, won by the Turks, with similar vigor and intent.

There is no 'right' side in such a war.

If strategic bombing is indicative of power, then the Kosovars have made themselves some powerful friends. It is an unlikely alliance; as has been mentioned many times, the allied NATO nations have no particular stake in Kosovo, and risk alienating the Serbians' powerful friends in the process. Much has been made of the higher purpose of this war, of the humanitarian value of initiating a bombing campaign involving some of the most advanced and destructive weaponry on the planet.

What makes this war unique for Canada is that it is the first time since the founding of the United Nations that we have gone to war (and make no mistake, it is war) without the explicit sanction of the United Nations. While our allies have in the past not worried so much about the U.N. seal of approval, the concept of a global code of law and conduct is one which has been for the last five decades a cornerstone of Canadian foreign policy.

We want - rightly, I believe - a world in which such disputes are mediated though discusion, arbitration, and where necessary, referendum. Thus we have engaged in peacekeeping missions in such nations as the Congo, Cyprus, Isreal, Vietnam, Somalia and Haiti with the intent of keeping the armies apart long enough for the people to decide for themselves what they want. It was a concept which worked well in regions with clearly defined borders and clearly organized armies. But it is a concept which has faced increasing challenges in the light of such debacles as Rwanda, Somalia, and Bosnia.

In these three nations, several factors converged to make the missions particularly difficult. First, the 'sides' were not clearly delineated. Especially in Somalia, nobody spoke for any of the warring factions (the one identifiable 'warlord' was branded a criminal and hunted). Moreover, there were no definable borders. It was impossible, for example, to say where Hutu territory began and Tutsi territory ended. And finally, neither party wanted to stop the fighting.

After all - they were fighting for land, and hence, for survival. One does not dissuade the lion from eating its prey, nor the prey from trying to escape. For one to live, the other must die. That is the lesson we have learned through history, and history has taught us well, that those nations which do not fight to live, die.

Peacekeeping in such an environment is thus an order of magnitude more difficult than peacekeeping in a land where two exhausted armies face each other across a clearly defined no-man's land. In the latter, peacekeeping forces were introduced by invitation, while in the former, peacekeeping began to assume the character of an invasion. No doubt the Somalis, watching the cameras watching the SEALs emerge from the Gulf of Aden, no doubt felt they were being invaded.

But we have endured under increasingly difficult and hostile environments because more and more the other side of our historical practise of dispossession and genocide has become apparent to us. In the twentieth century we have (among others) the awful examples of the Armenians by the Turks, the Ukrainians by the Stalinist Soviets, and the Jews by Hitler, graphic lessons in the dehumanizing and barbaric nature of genocide.

Probably no sight stirs western European emotions more deeply than the sight of the gas ovens of Auschwitz in which many thousands and millions of Jews perished. It stirs us, not because we feel any deep affiliation for the Jews, who are, after all, just another nation, but because we have come to see that this method of resolving our interests and promoting our national objectives is fundamentally and deeply wrong.

Where we struggle is with the questions, "what was wrong with it?", and "what would we do if we encountered it again?"

The answer to the former should be obvious but is not, for we are all members of nations who have at one time or another to more or less a degree expulsed or exterminated another nation. Otherwise, we wouldn't be here to feel guilty about it, for we would then be one of the exterminated. It is not simply that the systematic destruction of a people was attempted, or even that the identification for destruction by race or religion was attempted, for both have numerous and less infamous precedents through history.

I think, that what finally tweaked our goat, was the scale of Hitler's genocide. With modern technology, it became possible, and was actually attempted, to exterminate a race of tens of millions of people, so much so that six million of them perished.

And another factor, I think, was the closeness of the event. This wasn't some anonymous Turkish government oppressing an unknown people. This was a purportedly civilized nation, with a tradition of intellect and integrity, which had in the name of nationalism murdered six million people, as it turns out, before our eyes.

As McLuhan said, we now live in a global village, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to depict peoples and nations as unknown and far away. Probably the first realization of that came during the revolution of the small Nigerian province of Biafra, which was countered, as we all know, by embargo and mass starvation. Other nations were soon thrust into our consciousness; hence we see George Harrison appealing to rich western radicals with his Concert for Bangladesh, and in more recent history, Bob Geldof's Band Aid and Live Aid in support of the starving victims of a nasty Ethiopian war.

In Canada, at least, and in most democracies around the world, we have reached an age where it is no longer acceptable to allow mass suffering, whether brought on by nature or by man. We have reached an age where it is no longer possible to put such images out of our sight, and when confronted with such images, find them unbearable. Thus even though the mission becomes increasingly difficult, we nonetheless make the effort to stand between the warring factions, to separate armies from populations, to feed the hungry, heal the wounded, and shelter the homeless.

Then came the horror in the beautiful lakes district of east Africa, where despite our having troops on the ground, where despite a United Nations approved peacekeeping mission, a genocide was allowed to happen, a genocide which we knew was going to happen, could have prevented, and yet, did not.

The United States, Belgium, France and the UN Security Council all had prior warning about the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and could have prevented it, says a new report published by the US-based Human Rights Watch group,

"The Americans were interested in saving money, the Belgians were interested in saving face, and the French were interested in saving their ally, the genocidal government," said Alison Des Forges, a scholar on Rwanda and author of the report.

UN officials are accused of consistently refusing troop requests by the commanding officer of the UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda.

Lt Gen Romeo Dallaire of Canada warned of 1994's systematic killing, but support forces were never sent.

from Rwanda slaughter 'could have been prevented', BBC News, 31 March 1999.

As Canadians, we not only failed to prevent a genocide, we presided over it, watching as Hutus and Tutsis attempted systematically to exterminate the other. We understand, we know intellectually, that the conflict is rooted in centuries of history, just as in most other such conflicts, and the Hutus and Tutsis are each interesting peoples with proud histories and noble traditions. Trying to survive. Trying to exterminate the other.

And to some degree, succeeding.

Canadian soldiers returning from Bosnia and Croatia reported experiences as difficult to accept and to live with as those in Rwanda. As time goes by, and more mass graves are uncovered in those nations, the extent of the genocide there is becoming better known. We as a people are better able now to recognize when a genocide is about to happen, or worse, in progress. And we as a people are less and less able to stand back and watch as it works its way to its inevitable, horrible, conclusion.

That is why we as a nation - and our allies, as nations - are sending warplanes into Kosovo and Serbia. And our action - ineffectual as it is to stop the bloodshed - is at least a partial recognition on our part that we cannot sit back and watch something like this happen.

It's a realization which comes too late, too incomplete, and which is - sadly - not shared by all nations of the world.

We have seen before that the United Nations does not feel it has a mandate to preserve the lives and liberties of the peoples of the world. Despite its brave pretensions - such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or the good works of UNICEF - its primary goal is to act as a mediator between nations. Its primary principle is that national borders, and national soverignity, is inviolate.

And there are good reasons for this. Were the United nations to sanction intervention by one nation into the internal affairs of another, then such events as Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, Indonesia's absorption of East Timor, or China's annexation of Tibet could stand as candidates for official U.N. approval. The first and only purpose of the United Nations is to prevent nations from invading each other.

Such global security - especially in the recent light of the Second World War - was prudent and necessary. It was bad enough that Hitler carried out his fascist and genocidal program in Germany; he also exported it to other nations. It was a principle the great powers of the world could accept, each of whom suffered from more of less a degree of invasion in that great war and in wars previous. It was a blatant recognition of our tribalism, and a recognition of the fact that, if we were to survive as a species, then we must call an end to tribal wars.

But - sadly - nations do not resolve into tribes, and within each nation - and especially in the illogical nations of Africa, defined by colonial incursion and not national origin - there are many tribes, many peoples. And insofar as tribalism runs rampant within the borders of nations - which it does as much in western democracies as anywhere else in the world - it does so with the tacit approval of the United Nations. Thus the U.N. has no role in the negotiation of Basque liberation movements in France and Spain, Ulster Unionists in Northern Ireland, Eastern Pakistanis, or the remaining republics of the now disintegrated Yugoslavia.

Moreover, this policy of national non-intervention has had the unintended side-effect of encouraging the ascendence of petty despots, and the latter half of the twentieth century has seen a proliferation of them, each free to run without outside interference this or that population in their 'nation' into the ground. Murder, rapine and torture have been the weapons of choice by the likes of Amin, Mobutu, Somoza, Duvalier, and countless other dictators. It is only through painful revolution that the countries of eastern Europe and South America have begun to emerge from that shadow - yet the danger still lingers, that any one of them, or us, could fall back into such a hell, and the nations of the world would be powerless to help them.

For let us not forget, that these very dictators, are also those who run the United Nations. While it is nice that Canada has a seat on the Security Council, and even that democracies such as Great Britain and the United States have vetos, let us not forget that nations such as Indonesia and Algeria are members, and that nations such as China continue to exercise an effective veto. There is no momentum within the United Nations to change, because there is no will on the part of so many of its members to allow it to change.

NATO at least has the advantage of being formed by mostly democratic countries. As demonstrations in all western capitals have shown, there is a price to be paid in democratic nations for the ultimate act of going to war. It is not a decision entered into easily, or happily, and while sometimes - as in the case of Thatcher's Falklands adventure, the payoff is re-election - just as often the reward is electoral defeat. The fog of war applies as much on the home front as it does the battlefront.

But the era is upon us where we as a species must reconsider how we govern ourselves as a planet.

The Kosovo war is significant just because the nations of the western alliance have defined a point where the long arm of the United Nations no longer holds sway. It is significant because they have decided that - at least in some places - the abuses tolerated in so many of its member states are no longer to be tolerated. NATO by no means constitutes an alliance of the democracies of the world, but it is an alliance of democracies, and in that fact is forced to act without the sanction of - and possibly in opposition to - the United Nations (though the Security Council, by a 12-3 vote, refused to condemn the bombings).

We must come to grips with the fact that our current world government - if it could be called that - is itself fundamentally undemocratic, and for the most part doesn't give a hoot about democracy. For every Dag Hammarskjold there is a Kurt Waldheim. China will again chair the Security Council. The politics of bribery and corruption are alive and well in that august body. Like the International Olympic Committee - headed by Juan Antonio Samaranch, a former henchman of the Franco dictatorship - the U.N. is accountable to nobody for nothing, and especially, is not accountable to the people of the world.

It's a hard recognition, especially in Canada, where the government and the people have been passionate supporters of the world body since its inception. But to be in the position of a General Dallaire - even vicariously - is to be in the position of helplessness, realizing that it does no good to ask a dictators' organization for help against a dictator.

So the bombs fall in Kosovo, and I am deeply troubled, for I am a pacifist, and I cannot bear to see my nation stand by and watch. And with each burning village in that Balkan countryside, with each new mass grave, with each new refugee's story of torture and rape and murder, my resolve is deepened, that we must do something, that we cannot bear to witness another Rwanda, another Ethiopia. And so the bombs fall, and I too descend into that tribalism that has so hindered and so defined the human species for four millenia and more.

Kosovo is the consequence of a failed policy. Can we not build something positive out of the experience?

Let us begin by creating legitimately something which has been born of illegitimate origins. Let us begin by recognizing that the combined weight of the democratic world must itself be democratic. Not a NATO - for NATO is too limited, and too military in orientation - but also not a United Nations, because that body does not have a sufficiently discriminating threshold for entry.

The world needs an assembly of democratic nations, representatives elected by the people of those nations, and which will have as its mandate not merely the sovereignity of nations but also the protection of fundamental human liberties and freedoms. Let this body be a pact, on the part of each nation with the other, that should any of them fail in their democratic intentions, that the others would preserve them in that institution, such that, once a nation has decided to embrace democracy, it agrees that other democracies have the right to maintain that democracy.

Let such a body be the voice of appeal for nations which do not have countries, and of countries seeking to resolve differences between nations, a place where people individually or as cultural groupings may stand, be recognized, and justly and fairly given their due. There is no need particularly, for example, for the Basques to have a country, if instead they have their own national assembly, law and culture, freedom of movement, and right to own and cultivate property.

Let any nation which wishes to call itself a nation be recognized as a nation, and let the governments of the world as much as possible confer the rights and responsibilities of self government onto that nation.

Let the democracies of the world expressedly agree that the extermination of any nation, either by war or by assimilation, is a violation of the rights of nations, a violation of the right of people to govern themselves, in freedom and security, with faith and belief that their land, their culture and their hertiage are safe and secure, protected not merely by the good will of a national government, but by the sovereignity and might of the combined democratic nations of the world.

Only through such a means may the failed policies which led to Kosovo and so many other tragedies be discarded, and so many future tragedies be prevented.

Yes, let the bombs fall, for we cannot stand by any more. But let us also build the foundation for democratic global government, and end dispossession and genocide forever.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

Copyright 2024
Last Updated: Jul 22, 2024 9:54 p.m.

Canadian Flag Creative Commons License.