Opinion Story: No genocide, no justification for war on Kosovo - November 3, 1999 Richard Gwyn - Toronto Star - Nov. 03, 1999

No genocide, no justification for war on Kosovo

IN THE GENOCIDE of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo by the forces of Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic, the worst incident occurred at the Trepca mine.

As reported by American and NATO officials, large numbers of bodies were brought in by trucks under the cover of darkness. The bodies were then thrown down the shafts, or were disposed of entirely in the mine's vats of hydrochloric acid. Estimates of the number of dead began at 1,000.

That was six months ago, in the middle of the war undertaken to halt what both U.S. President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair called ``a human catastrophe.'' Estimates of the number of ethnic Albanians slaughtered went upward from 10,000. U.S. Defence Secretary William Cohen put the count at 100,000.

Three weeks ago, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia released the findings of Western forensic teams investigating the horror at Trepca. There were not 1,000 bodies down the mine shafts at Trepca, reported the tribunal. There were not 100 bodies there. There was not one body there, nor was there any evidence the vats had ever been used to dispose of human remains.

Shortly afterward, the tribunal reported on its work at the most infamous of all the mass graves of ethnic Albanians, at Ljubenic near the town of Pec. Earlier, NATO officials had said 350 victims had been hastily buried there by the retreating Serb forces. There were not 350 bodies at Ljubenic, though. There were five.

So far, not one mass grave has been found in Kosovo, despite four months' work by forensic teams, including experts from the FBI and the RCMP.

This discovery - more accurately, this non-discovery - first was made public three weeks ago by the Texas-based intelligence think tank, Stratfor. Stratfor estimated the number of ethnic Albanian dead in Kosovo at 500.

Last weekend, the story was broadcast for the first time by the TV Ontario program Diplomatic Immunity. (Last Sunday's New York Times was still using the ``10,000 deaths'' figure.)

The story has begun to appear in European newspapers. Spain's El Pais has quoted the head of the Spanish forensic team, Emilo Pujol, as saying he had resigned because, after being told to expect to have to carry out 2,000 autopsies, he'd only had 97 bodies to examine - none of which ``showed any signs of mutilation or torture.''

Because 250 of 400 suspected mass graves in Kosovo remain to be examined, it's possible that evidence of mass killings will yet be found. This is highly unlikely though, because the worst sites were dug up first.

No genocide of ethnic Albanians by Serbs, therefore. No ``human catastrophe.'' No ``modern-day Holocaust.''

All of those claims may have been an honest mistake. Equally, they may have been a grotesque lie concocted to justify a war that NATO originally assumed would be over in a day or two, with Milosevic using the excuse of some minimal damage as a cover for a surrender, but then had to fight (at great expense) for months.

There's no question that atrocities were committed in Kosovo, overwhelmingly by the Serb forces, although the ethnic Albanian guerrillas were not innocent. Quite obviously, these forces, acting on Milosevic's explicit orders, carried out mass expulsions of people, terrorizing them and destroying their homes and property.

Acts like these are inexcusable. That they occur often in civil wars (far worse are being committed by the Russians in Chechnya), is irrelevant to their horror. But they have nothing to do with genocide.

No genocide means no justification for a war inflicted by NATO on a sovereign nation. Only a certainty of imminent genocide could have legally justified a war that was not even discussed by the U.N. Security Council.

No genocide means that the tribunal's indictment of Milosevic becomes highly questionable. Even more questionable is the West's continued punishment of the Serbs - the Danube bridges and the power stations remain in ruins - when their offence may well have been stupidity rather than criminality.

The absence of genocide may mean something else, something deeply shaming. To halt the supposed genocide, NATO bombed targets in Serbia proper. Because of ``collateral'' or accidental damage, such as the bombing of a train, some 500 civilians were killed (Belgrade claims almost 1,000 deaths). NATO very likely killed as many people as were killed in Kosovo.

The number of these dead isn't large enough to justify NATO's actions being called a ``human catastrophe.'' But, unless proof of genocide can be produced, NATO's actions were clearly a moral catastrophe.