Comment: Here's a deal that Milosevic just might be forced to take

UN trusteeship excludes partition of Kosovo but does not prejudge the question of independence
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THE CONTINUED credibility of Nato is a fundamental Western interest. Therefore, this war against Serbia cannot be allowed to weaken Nato. That means Nato's wholly legitimate war aims have to be secured before the bombing ceases. These essentially are, stripped of references to Nato and Rambouillet, that all Serbian armed forces, paramilitaries and armed policemen must be withdrawn from Kosovo and all refugees, whether of Albanian or Serbian origin, must be free to return to their homes in Kosovo, protected by an effective armed international force.

In the midst of war, criticism has to be muted. No supporter of Nato wants to undermine its armed forces or bring comfort to those who oppose it. Nevertheless, it is necessary for Nato to admit to itself that it was a mistake not to build up large conventional forces around Serbia, demonstrating to President Milosevic that Nato was ready, if necessary, to invade Kosovo.

Had such a build-up been started before and during the Rambouillet negotiations, then President Milosevic would have negotiated more seriously and very likely neither Nato bombs nor missiles would have been used. It was for political reasons that ground forces were not deployed, but public opinion has hardened in the US as well as in Europe over the need to reinforce air attacks with conventional forces.

Nato should respond immediately to the Serbs having put troops into the small UN area on Prevlaka between the Bay of Kotor and Croatia, by deploying marines on ships in the Adriatic. Nato should also be openly putting airborne forces on alert, and moving tanks and heavy equipment, such as bridge materials, close to Serbia.

Unfortunately, given what has happened politically in Macedonia as a result of the massive influx of refugees from Kosovo, Nato has little alternative other than to keep to its pledge to use its forces deployed on Macedonian territory for the implementation of a settlement. In effect, this means building up troop levels and equipment in Hungary, a new Nato member state, and in Albania, a member of Nato's Partnership for Peace.

There were good political and historic arguments for not involving these two countries at the outset, but, for Nato's war aims to succeed, their territory is vital.

This has the virtue of demonstrating that Nato is not a debating society but a military alliance, membership of which carries obligations and responsibilities. During this conventional build-up, while air attacks must continue, their targeting should openly demonstrate to the Serbs that Nato is preparing for a ground invasion, not just into Kosovo but also, if necessary, into Montenegro from the sea and from Hungary into the Vojvodina.

Meanwhile, diplomacy should be undertaken by a combination of the UN Secretary General and the Russian Federation. President Yeltsin, though his envoy Viktor Chernomyrdin, has an opportunity to play an influential role in the G8. Individual Nato countries should not take peace initiatives; instead that should be left to the five Nato members in the Contact Group to negotiate directly with Russia and to liaise with the UN.

President Milosevic should be offered a largely non-negotiable alternative to Nato invasion. But he, Russia and the UN should be under no illusion that once any Nato ground attack commences, all peace offers are off the table.

The basis for a UN-Russian-led peace settlement should be that under the UN Charter trusteeship provisions Kosovo would be declared a Strategic Trust Territory where all UN administration would come under the Security Council.

The sizeable international military implementation force necessary to ensure the basic war aims would be authorised by the Security Council to act with full authority under chapter VII of the UN Charter.

Whether the military force should be under UN command or military authority be vested by the Security Council in the OSCE (Organisation for European Security and Co-operation) will depend on the negotiating process. It is unlikely that Russia would accept the type of military deployment in Bosnia since Nato is in all essentials in control, but if they did, so much the better.

Whether the force were under the UN or the OSCE, a sizeable element would have to come from Nato, and from Russia and non-Nato European countries.

The virtue of trusteeship is that it excludes partition of Kosovo but it does not prejudge the question of independence. It is a simple mechanism for transferring authority to the UN and allowing for a military protectorate. The Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro) has to take the decision to transfer sovereignty over Kosovo to the UN. Yet, the UN is the only international organisation that the Serbs still respect. They must know that no change in the UN trusteeship could occur without the agreement of the Security Council.

In that way, the Serbs could feel that the future of Kosovo was left open, and that they had not succumbed to Nato control or lost out to the KLA.

If the OSCE is to be involved, then the FRY should be readmitted. The people of Kosovo under UN trusteeship would, of course, be granted the maximum possible degree of self-government with full protection for minorities and respect for human rights, and religious sites would be protected, with open access to all from within and outside Kosovo.

A Balkan Conference would follow UN trusteeship, the return of refugees to Kosovo and the establishment of a stable administration. At that conference, to which the FRY would be invited, a global solution to all outstanding problems would be on the table. The EU could play a significant economic and political role, mapping out a future in which all Balkan states who wished to do so could eventually become full members of the EU.

President Milosevic would be told that if he rejects a UN-Russian brokered diplomatic offer, agreed with Nato, then, after a military invasion in which many brave Nato soldiers will have lost their lives, not only will he lose all influence on Kosovo's future, but Nato will support Montenegro's President Milo Djukanovic; and that new oil and other sanctions will be applied to Serbia. These sanctions, he should be told, will not be lifted until those leaders under arrest order from the War Crimes Tribunal are delivered to The Hague.

Lord Owen was the EU representative for Yugoslavia, 1991-1995