We should not break the law in order to impose the law

On my reckoning, four international laws have been disregarded in launching this campaign
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The Independent Culture
THE NATO attack on Serbia is neither legal nor humanitarian nor serves our interests. It feels right in only one sense. It evokes an emotion similar to the feeling one would have if one saw a gang of thugs beating up passers-by and called the police. When the perpetrators were arrested, there would be satisfaction. Intolerable behaviour had been stopped by the lawful authorities.

Except that my analogy is inaccurate in one crucial respect. The Nato action isn't, strictly speaking, lawful. That is the real meaning of the alarming phrase constantly used in the opening days of the conflict - "the first attack by Nato on a sovereign state in its 50-year history".

It is as if, seeing the gang of thugs in action, the spectator called on some local security guards to intervene rather than the police.

In the face of suffering, naturally enough, most people wish to dispense with such considerations. "Get real," they say. Emotionally I agree, but I cannot brush aside this lack of legality.

On my reckoning, four international laws have been disregarded. Article 2 of the UN Charter prohibits the use of force against a sovereign state where it has not committed aggression on other states. Nato's own charter claims it is a defensive organisation only committed to force if one of its members is attacked. There is also the 1980 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties which forbids the use of coercion and force to compel any state to sign a treaty or agreement. Moreover the Helsinki Accord Final Act, 1975, guarantees the territorial frontiers of the states of Europe.

The language used by our political leaders obfuscates this point. In listing the reasons for going to war, President Clinton first cited: "To demonstrate the seriousness of Nato's opposition to aggression and its support for peace." You can put it that way if you like, but who doesn't notice that, while we battled Iraq to defend Kuwait's borders, in the Balkans we say that a state's frontiers don't matter so much?

The use of the word "humanitarian" has also been misleading. The foreign ministers of the European Union declared: "On the threshold of the 21st century, Europe cannot tolerate a humanitarian disaster in its midst." No, indeed not, but we all know humanitarian aid when we see it: food, medical supplies, doctors and nurses, aid workers, temporary shelters. It is not dropping bombs and dispatching missiles. Tony Benn put the point well in the House of Commons on Thursday: "They say that it is a war for humanitarian purposes. Can anyone name any war in history fought for humanitarian purposes? Would the Red Cross have done better with stealth bombers and cruise missiles?"

As it happens, the events on the ground in the past five days have shown how naive it is to wage war for humanitarian purposes. Thus far, more ethnic Albanians within Kosovo have been terrified, have been forced to leave their homes, been deprived of their goods, injured, tortured, compelled to flee their country or killed than would have happened had this so-called "humanitarian" war not started. The attack has had a perverse result: rather than frightening the Serbian police in Kosovo, it has impelled them to accelerate ethnic cleansing.

It is the same with the notion that our interests, or those of our neighbours, are at risk. What is happening in Kosovo is civil war. Such conflicts are always more cruel and harsh than conventional military action, as the examples of Ireland in the 1920s, Greece in the late 1940s, Northern Ireland since the 1970s and numerous African states in the 1990s show us. Civil wars generally affect neighbouring states in only one respect - they create flows of refugees seeking to cross frontiers. They rarely threaten the security of contiguous countries.

But as the argument for self-interest cannot be made in the usual terms, the point again has to be stretched. We must do something, we are told, because Kosovo is part of Europe. Our ideals of human rights and freedom must be observed in every part of the continent. If they are denied anywhere, it is an affront to us and we must act.

I have two problems with this view. In the first place, I do not believe that moral imperatives can be limited by geography. Are we saying that we can bomb in the Balkans but not in Turkey? Second, when human rights and freedom can only be secured by the presence of foreign troops, I am not sure that they are fully the real thing. The test would be what happens when the occupying force is withdrawn.

To be sceptical, however, is not to be unserious. The people of Kosovo are in agony; Serbia and Montenegro are being bombed; the lives of Allied troops are at serious risk. At the same time the most important initiative in international relations since the founding of the United Nations is being taken without national governments debating the issues frankly with their peoples.

Tony Benn puts the classic case for the existing arrangements. You eschew force, you work through the United Nations, you provide humanitarian help, properly understood, where needed.

Remarkably, it was Ken Livingstone who, in an equally effective speech, put the new doctrine. He said we are no longer in a world divided along ideological lines. The end of the Cold War has made a more dangerous and deadly world for many minorities who find themselves on the wrong side of an international border. It is the duty of the nations that have the military power to protect individual communities from systematic genocide by evil regimes.

This means, Mr Livingstone neglected to say, bypassing the United Nations, where Russia and China, with their long histories of brutal repression of troublesome minorities, will always use their veto power to prevent action. It means expanding Nato's mandate to conduct "out-of-area" operations in the Middle East, the Gulf, the Caucasus and perhaps beyond. Nato would also become a global tool for combating international terrorism, drugs trafficking and nuclear and biological weapons proliferation. More than ever, the Western alliance would run the world - and police it.

Well, at least one can say this about Nato's attack on Serbia: we shall find out soon enough whether the Western alliance, and its chosen instrument, can successfully intervene in a sovereign state to secure internal peace, respect for human rights and democracy. I do not believe that it can.