War crime tables turned on NATO

Most of the staff of Yugoslavia's state television in downtown Belgrade had gone home for the night when the missiles struck

Most of the staff of Yugoslavia's state television in downtown Belgrade had gone home for the night when the missiles struck. In the early hours of the morning, at the height of NATO's spring bombing campaign, the missiles smashed into the roof and sliced through half a dozen floors before exploding deep in the bowels of the building. Twelve people died, including a make-up artist working late.

"War crime!" say the Serbs, pointing out that NATO justified the attack because it wanted to silence the TV station for putting out propaganda. The Geneva conventions, they say, are clear that in war, life can only be taken when there is a military necessity.

This incident is thought to be one of many which the head of the UN War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, Ms Carla Del Ponte, says she is studying to see if they warrant investigations against NATO members.

The issue has been thrown open this week as Yugoslavia launches a parallel action in another tribunal, the International Court of Justice, charging that eight NATO nations broke UN rules about interfering with the sovereignty of another member. Critics of the United States say its veto of plans in 1998 for a full-time international war crimes court was because it did not want to see its own troops on trial.


It is hard to see how the legitimacy of the war crimes court - which has indicted more than 100 people, mostly Serbs, from the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo, including Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic - can survive unless all sides are subject to scrutiny for human rights abuses.

The UN War Crimes Tribunal spokesman, Mr Paul Risley, insisted NATO was not immune to prosecution. "We're very sensitive to the allegation that any party would be exempt to our investigation," he told The Irish Times. "It's important to the tribunal that any party to the conflict falls within our scrutiny."

The basis of the Geneva Conventions is almost paradoxical: to bring law into war by stopping killing which has no military objective. NATO's bombing campaign was controversial because many of its targets were chosen not for their military capacity, but be cause bombing them would put pressure on the Milosevic regime to agree peace terms. These included power stations, oil plants and bridges far from the battle zone.

Some diplomats say the tribunal must be more public about its investigations - given the suspicion that NATO will not be prosecuted because NATO nations pay most of the court's bills. "Western democracies can only maintain the moral high ground if they are ready to open themselves up to examination after the event," said Mr Duncan Bullivant, author of a forthcoming report on Kosovo for London's Centre for European Reform.

"There were aspects of the NATO campaign against Yugoslavia that were in breach of accepted norms of warfare, the greatest example being the bombing of the TV station. NATO deliberately targeted unarmed civilian non-combatants, that's the bottom line," he said.