Did Kosovo Beget East Timor?

Never have so many different forces been deployed in the same place. Hungarian soldiers guard “Film City,” the former movie studio that is now a hilltop command post for NATO-led international forces in Kosovo’s capital of Pristina. French soldiers and Italian police guard the bridge that divides Serbian from Albanian communities in Mitrovic near Serbia. Russian troops man a checkpoint in the West just a few miles from where Albanian civilians demonstrate against them. British soldiers guard a road in the South not far from where Serbian civilians demonstrate against them. Polish forces in armored vehicles patrol the hills near Macedonia. Meanwhile, the United Nations is assembling a police force with men and women from countries including Ghana, Jordan, Portugal and Sweden.

Although Kosovo remains part of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, the Western-led international community has governed it since June. The society’s links to Belgrade have been broken, and the province has just begun to develop its own institutions; yet its future is still in doubt. Though Albanian Kosovars widely yearn for independence, the province is likely to remain an international protectorate for at least one decade. International forces already have been in nearby Bosnia for five years, and its ethnic tensions are still burning.

Every matter in Kosovo — from who should be allowed to broadcast over local radio stations to breaking up fistfights over fender-benders — is now handled by either international officials or troops. NATO, Russia, and the United Nations have jointly assumed the responsibility for nation building. They face the formidable task of forging a multi-ethnic society in the wake of mass ethnic violence. So far they have enjoyed only marginal success. That, however, has not stopped the United Nations and a new multilateral force under Australian command from assuming the same responsibilities in East Timor amidst another tense climate.

Changing the tenor of the debate

The international community’s mandate in both places is to forcibly uphold human rights. The new role is consistent with other recent trends around the world, including the establishment of ad hoc U.N. tribunals for the Balkans and Rwanda and the national prosecutions of suspected perpetrators of crimes against humanity in Chile and Hungary. The common denominator in all these events is the premise that the time-honored tradition of national sovereignty is now secondary to the universal value of human rights. This is nothing less than a seismic shift in the international order.

The invention challenges, too, the basic premises of American realists who have dominated the landscape of U.S. international relations since the 1970s, most notably Henry Kissinger (Then Secretary of State Kissinger accompanied President Gerald Ford in December 1975 to meet then Indonesian President Suharto in Jakarta one day before Indonesia invaded East Timor). Realists long have argued that moralism is overly ambitious, whether driven by anti-communism or human rights.

The Clinton administration’s actions over Kosovo are as radical to the foreign-policy establishment today as Kissinger’s were to it in his time. “Focusing the vast strength of American foreign policy on a tiny former Ottoman possession of no strategic importance or economic value, with which the United States had no ties of history, geography or sentiments, is something that not even the most powerful and visionary of her predecessors — not Thomas Jefferson or John Quincy Adams, not Charles Evans Hughes or Dean Acheson — could ever have imagined, let alone achieved,” writes Johns Hopkins professor Michael Mandelbaum in the current Foreign Affairs. “But as American bombs fell on Yugoslavia, [Secretary of State] Madeleine Albright had done both.”

Neither Albright nor President Clinton have yet to articulate real guidelines or limits for international human-rights enforcement. A vacuum has been created in that absence. Last week U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan stepped into the gap.

“To avoid repeating [more] tragedies in the next century, I believe it is essential that the international community reach consensus — not only on the principle that massive and systematic violations of human rights must be checked, wherever they take place, but also on ways of deciding what action is necessary, and when, and by whom,” Annan wrote in The Economist. “A new, broader definition of national interest is needed in the new century, which would induce states to find greater unity in the pursuits of common goals and values.”

At the same time, a new kind of moralism is on the rise. Though many observers like journalist Allan Nairn predicted Indonesian military and paramilitary forces would launch attacks against East Timorese residents as they finally voted their desire for independence from Indonesia in an Aug. 30 U.N. referendum, few foresaw that the intensity of attacks would provoke the international community to launch another Western-led multilateral intervention to stop them.

Though the U.N. force for East Timor will be led by Australian troops, they will be supported by military and police forces from nations including the United Kingdom, Portugal, New Zealand, the United States, Thailand and China. Still, the troubled territory’s future remains in doubt. The United Nations will govern East Timor in cooperation with Indonesia, even though no Western nation but Australia has ever recognized Indonesia’s annexation of East Timor.

UN Forces working with Indonesian police

Universal values — to be credible– must be applied consistently. One tenet held dear by most realists is that one can negotiate with even the worst thugs, as long as they are not mere freelancers but in fact heads of states. Richard Holbrooke negotiated the end of the Bosnia war with Slobodan Milosevic upon this premise, although the latter’s subsequent indictment by an ad hoc U.N. tribunal is consistent with a moralist approach.

Just as consistent would be the indictment of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein for crimes against humanity including acts of genocide upon evidence already gathered by U.S. forces after Desert Storm. Other Western practices are also inconsistent with the new trend. The United States continues to provide arms and training to Turkey, and it is escalating the same to Colombia even though they, too, have each undeniably committed crimes against humanity. Meanwhile, China participates with multinational forces in East Timor 50 years after it unilaterally seized Tibet.

The approaching century will no doubt be marked by more economic integration. Will it also be marked by effective international efforts to defend universal values? The effort remains crippled by inconsistency. Moreover, by now everyone knowing that the original estimates of what it might take to achieve even reasonable goals were grossly understated. Though they led the first charge, neither Clinton nor Albright has risen to the task of leading the trend that is developing its own dynamic. Without backing from the United States, Annan is likely to fail, as well.

In the United States there are advantages to having any watershed issue break before an election year. Although most of the presidential candidates have yet to take a stance on it, the notion of neo-moralism and whether or how America should try to lead it hangs before each of the candidates like a curve ball nearing the strike zone. Of course, the entire field lacks depth on foreign matters, which may explain why nearly everyone but Pat Buchanan is still hesitant to answer the question. But they cannot afford to ignore it forever, even if Clinton et al go on taking the pitch.

Frank Smyth, a freelance journalist who has also served as an investigative consultant for Human Rights Watch as well as Amnesty International, is a contributor to Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know, edited by Roy Gutman and David Rieff.