Promoting Dialogue and Preventing Atrocities: The UK Government Approach
THE INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT COMMITTEE
“Promoting Dialogue and Preventing Atrocities:
The UK Government Approach”
Written evidence submitted by Dr Aidan Hehir, University of Westminster,
17th January 2022
I have published widely on the issue of humanitarian intervention and the Responsibility to Protect, with a specific focus on the former Yugoslavia, especially Kosovo; I am the author/editor of the following books:
- Kosovo and Transitional Justice (Routledge, 2021)
- Hollow Norms and the Responsibility to Protect (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019)
- Protecting Human Rights in the 21st Century (Routledge, 2017.)
- Libya, The Responsibility to Protect, and the Future of Humanitarian Intervention (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013)
- Humanitarian Intervention: An Introduction (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013)
- The Responsibility to Protect: Rhetoric, Reality, and the Future of Humanitarian Intervention (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012)
- International Law, Security and Ethics (Routledge, 2010)
- Kosovo, Intervention and Statebuilding (Routledge, 2010)
- Humanitarian Intervention after Kosovo (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008)
- Statebuilding: Theory and Practice (Routledge, 2007).
Dr Aidan Hehir
Reader in International Relations
School of Social Sciences
University of Westminster
I present the following in relation to the topic:
“Lessons learned in atrocity prevention from Bosnia and other contexts since the 1990s (particularly lessons for the UN system and relevant international law)”
I wish to highlight that peace and security in the Balkans is threatened by Serbia. Any conflict in the region caused by Serbia runs the risk of precipitating atrocity crimes.
Serbia’s determination to provoke instability has manifest most obviously in Bosnia and Herzegovina but also in Kosovo.
While the presence of KFOR limits the prospects of violence in Kosovo, the situation could suddenly degenerate quickly in the near future, owing to Serbia’s increasingly aggressive behaviour and inflammatory rhetoric, the rising sense of anger and hopelessness amongst Kosovo’s majority Albanian population, and the persistence of antipathy between the Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo.
One of the primary lessons learned from the international community’s response to the collapse of Yugoslavia is that appeasing aggressive nationalists may lead to short-term peace but will inevitably precipitate conflict.
The UK should, therefore, act to counter the threat posed by Serbia to regional peace and security by:
- Openly condemning and challenging Serbia’s increasingly authoritarian disposition internally and its aggressive foreign policy.
- More forcefully demonstrating its commitment to Kosovo’s sovereignty.
- Working to redress the causes of the societal anger within Kosovo that could serve as the foundation for future conflict.
The Threat Posed by Serbia
- The decline in Western power since 2008, and the simultaneous rise of Russia and China, has fundamentally altered the strategic calculations of states in the Balkans.
- Russia has significantly increased its interference in the region and sought to undermine stability in several states. Serbia is Moscow’s primary ally in the region.
- China has also sought to increase its presence in the region, and, like Russia, it has chosen Serbia as its primary ally.
- Serbia’s President Vučić has proved adept at preying on the West’s diminishing influence; Vučić has convinced the EU to adopt a fawning stance towards Serbia by capitalizing on Brussels’ desire to include Belgrade within the West’s – rather than Russia’s – sphere of influence.
- Emboldened by both the support afforded to it by Russia and China and the West’s evident unwillingness to confront it, Serbia has become overtly authoritarian domestically, and more aggressive regionally.
- Since coming to power in 2012, the Serbian Progressive Party has persistently undermined democracy and media freedom.
- Powerful political figures – including the President and Prime Minister – have engaged in overt revisionism/denialism regarding Serbia’s role in the wars of the 1990s.
- This aggressive, sectarian, and nationalistic rhetoric has ominous parallels with that advanced by the Milosevic regime prior to the outbreak of violence in the 1990s.
- The proliferation of this discourse – particularly the calls to unite “the Serbian World” – has emboldened Serbian nationalists within Serbia, but also in neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo.
- The Serbian government is striving to undermine the capacity of both Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo to function by leveraging the local Serbian community in each state.
- The intention is to render both states dysfunctional to enable the eventual redrawing of borders to incorporate Serbian-majority areas in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo into a “Greater Serbia”.
- Any moves to redraw the borders of Yugoslavia’s successor states along ethnic lines would almost certainly lead to renewed violence.
- While the Serbian government has yet to engage in violence to achieve its goals, this cannot not be ruled out. There are two plausible scenarios that could lead to violence:
- The Serbian government encourages proxies within Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo to provoke the central government into using force; police/army action is then framed by Belgrade as “aggression” against local Serbs and used as the pretext for Serbia to deploy troops to “protect” its people.
- Actions taken by local Serbs in Bosnia and Herzegovina /Kosovo either to disrupt the functioning of the state or assert their own nationalist/separatist agenda – such as the erection of roadblocks and/or the staging of inflammatory nationalistic rallies – could provoke other communities to react violently.
The Situation in Kosovo
- While the recent degeneration of the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina has attracted much attention, the situation in Kosovo is in many respects more perilous.
- Kosovo has long held an existential importance in Serbian nationalist folklore to a much greater extent than the Serb-majority Republika Srpska within Bosnia and Herzegovina; given the sensitivities involved in what Serbian nationalists see as the “occupation” of “the cradle of Serbian civilisation”, the potential for conflict to erupt over Kosovo is greater than Bosnia and Herzegovina.
- Belgrade exercises more direct control over the Serbs in Kosovo than it does in Republika Srpska, and has a greater capacity to stoke tension there.
- Serbia has continuously sought to prevent Kosovo’s Serbs from integrating into Kosovo. As a result, Serbs and Albanians within Kosovo remain divided and suspicious of one another, particularly in the North of Kosovo.
- Belgrade has in recent years sought to foment instability in Kosovo and provoke the government and the Albanian community into acting in ways that can be framed as “anti-Serb”.
- To date these efforts have failed but given the rising sense of anger, betrayal, and hopelessness in Kosovo, it is debatable as to whether the Albanian community will continue to resist rising to Belgrade’s provocations.
- Kosovo’s fortunes have declined precipitously in recent years creating a climate of increasing anger and despair:
- Unemployment, migration, and corruption continue to blight Kosovo.
- Since 2014 Kosovo has endured persistent political instability.
- Kosovo’s international status remains unresolved; efforts to consolidate Kosovo’s sovereignty have stagnated if not in fact gone into reverse.
- Despite unprecedented public support, it is highly unlikely that Kosovo will join the EU for the foreseeable future.
- The “Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue” brokered by the EU has achieved little to date.
- To the dismay/anger of its people, Kosovo is the only state west of Russia (bar Belarus) which has yet to be granted visa-free travel in the Schengen zone.
- Kosovo’s citizens feel aggrieved that Kosovo has been forced to make a series of painful concessions – at the behest of their erstwhile allies – to neighbouring states.
- The legacy of Serbia’s aggression in Kosovo in the 1990s continues to constitute an open wound; Belgrade’s refusal to atone for, or in many cases even acknowledge, its culpability for the violence is a constant source of anger amongst the Albanian community.
- The cumulative effect of these issues has led to a rise in anger and hopelessness amongst the majority Albanian population. To date this has been channelled into support for Vetëvendosje; while the party now enjoys a comfortable parliamentary majority, abides by progressive democratic ideals, and continues to espouse a pro EU/NATO agenda, it faces two key challenges:
- Vetëvendosje’s anti-corruption agenda has made it the target of a campaign waged by a powerful corrupt elite within Kosovo who continuously strive to undermine the government’s capacity to govern effectively.
- The pro-Belgrade stance taken to date by the international community – especially the EU – runs counter to Vetëvendosje’s determination to confront rather than appease Serbia; it has found itself increasingly isolated internationally as a result. The hostile stance adopted by the EU and others towards Vetëvendosje plays into the hands of the corrupt elite within Kosovo who frame Vetëvendosje as singularly responsible for Kosovo’s diminished international status.
- Unless measures are quickly taken to reorientate the current strategy towards Serbia and Kosovo there remains a distinct possibility of a sudden escalation of inter-ethnic instability within Kosovo which could ultimately lead to conflict.
- Given the despair felt by the majority Albanian community and the lack of meaningful reconciliation between the Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo, what may initially constitute minor incidents could rapidly escalate.
- Conflict in Kosovo would have serious regional implications; it would directly threaten peace in North Macedonia, where there is a sizeable Albanian community in the north-west, Serbia itself, especially in the Albanian-majority towns located in the Preševo Valley in the south-east of the country, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, where local separatists would likely be inspired by conflict in Kosovo.
- The international community’s response to the collapse of Yugoslavia is widely regarded as having been disastrous. One of the primary lessons learned is that appeasing aggressive nationalists may lead to short-term peace it will inevitably precipitate conflict.
- The current approach towards Serbia bears a striking similarity to the appeasement of Milosevic and other authoritarian nationalists in the early 1990s. It is naïve and dangerous to imagine that President Vučić, backed by Russia and China, can be dissuaded from pursuing his goal of forging a Greater Serbia if he is fawned over by Western leaders.
- Given its power internationally, its role within Kosovo since 1999, and its favourable standing amongst the population of Kosovo, the UK has a unique capacity to catalyse the following initiatives that will lessen the prospects of instability.
- The policy of appeasing Belgrade must end. The Serbian government’s erosion of democracy and media freedom should not be ignored; it should be challenged and condemned. The UK should support a more robust approach and advocate that Serbia should incur censure for its actions, such as sanctions or the suspension of its membership of NATO’s “Partnership for Peace”.
- The approach taken in the “Belgrade-Pristina” dialogue to date has facilitated Serbia’s interests in undermining Kosovo’s status. The UK, with the US, should support a new approach which treats Kosovo and Serbia as equal parties, recognizing the sovereignty and territorial integrity of each.
- The UK should work with Kosovo and other regional partners to counter Russia and China’s nefarious interference in the region. In particular, the UK should work to expose and degrade Russia’s disinformation campaign.
- The presence of KFOR in Kosovo remains a significant barrier to Serbian aggression. The UK should continue to support this mission and do so in a more overt fashion. Additionally, the UK should undertake joint military exercises with Kosovo as a means of further deterring Serbian aggression.
- An independent Kosovo is no threat to peace and security in the region; Serbia attempting to regain control over all or some of Kosovo is. So long as Kosovo’s independence remains unconsolidated, Belgrade will continue to stoke instability, thereby threatening regional peace. The UK should forcefully support Kosovo’s independence internationally; specifically, it should work to convince those Western European states that still do not recognise Kosovo to alter their position so that Kosovo can join NATO and the EU and thereby consolidate its independence.
- The UK government should support the Vetëvendosje-led government as it pursues reparations from Serbia for its campaign of violence and displacement in Kosovo in the 1990s.
- To redress the societal anger that could contribute to an escalation in inter-ethnic tension should provocative acts perpetrated by Belgrade occur, the UK should:
- work with the government of Kosovo to address unemployment, especially youth unemployment.
- support the Vetëvendosje-led government in its attempts to tackle corruption within Kosovo.
- do more to promote inter-community dialogue and interaction in Kosovo; rather than doing so in the traditional top-down fashion, it should seek to enable civil society organisations from all communities to engage in collaborative bottom-up initiatives.
 Russia was allegedly behind an attempted coup in Montenegro in 2016 and tried to dash a treaty between North Macedonia and Greece in 2018.
 In 2018 Freedom House reduced Serbia’s status from “Free” to “Partly Free”; in the period since, Serbia’s score has decreased further and in its most recent report Freedom House noted that the Serbian government ‘has steadily eroded political rights and civil liberties’ (https://freedomhouse.org/country/serbia/freedom-world/2021). The Economist Intelligence Unit’s “Democracy Index” for 2020 listed Serbia within the “flawed democracies” group giving it an average grade of 6.22, its lowest since the index began in 2006 (https://www.eiu.com/n/campaigns/democracy-index-2020/#mktoForm_anchor). A recent report from the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia warned that the Serbian government ‘is inciting the nazification of its politics and the society as a whole’ (Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia (2021) ‘The Rise of Political Violence’, 3 December, p. 1).
 President Vučić has praised Milosevic as ‘a great Serbian leader who undoubtedly had the best intentions’ and denied that massacres occurred in Kosovo. Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabić has also denied that genocide took place in Srebrenica in 1995 (https://prishtinainsight.com/srebrenica-recak-and-the-triumph-of-the-lie/).
 Illustratively, in September 2021 Serbs in northern Kosovo blocked roads and burned down checkpoints in protest at a change in licence plate regulations. The Kosovo government sent special police units to halt the violence which prompted the Serbian government to send artillery units and fighter jets to the border zone. That same month tensions erupted in Montenegro when the Serbian Orthodox Church appointed a new leader in the country thereby angering Montenegrins who viewed this as Serbia undermining Montenegro’s sovereignty.
 This policy has been successful in the four northern Serb-majority municipalities – Leposavić, Zvečan, Zubin Potok and North Mitrovica – though less so amongst Serbs living throughout the rest of Kosovo.
 Some, 25% of Kosovo’s labour force are unemployed (https://www.worldbank.org/en/country/kosovo/overview#3). The European Commission’s most recent report noted that youth unemployment stands at ‘an alarming rate’ of 49.1% (https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/qanda_21_5278). Between 2015 and 2019 there was a ‘continuously negative’ migration balance of over 210,000 people which is estimated to have caused an annual loss in GDP of €519 million. Between 2008 and 2018 a fifth of the entire population tried to leave Kosovo; 2015 was the single worst year, with an exodus of 122,520 people (https://balkaninsight.com/2019/04/25/leaving-kosovo-legal-migration-upsurge-causes-depopulation-fears/). The European Commission described corruption in Kosovo as ‘widespread’ and ‘an issue of serious concern’ (https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/qanda_21_5278).
 The 2014 general election led to period of prolonged political instability as the incumbent party of government – the PDK – fought to hold on to power, which they eventually succeeded in doing. During the term of the new PDK/LDK coalition government, parliament was suspended a number of times when opposition parties set off tear gas inside the assembly in protest at both the border deal with Montenegro and the establishment of the Specialist Chambers. Following the 2017 general election a “war coalition” was formed comprising parties linked to the KLA; the Prime Minster Ramush Haradinaj eventually stood down after he was summoned for questioning by the Specialist Prosecutor’s Office in The Hague in connection with allegations of war crimes. Following the subsequent election in 2019 a coalition government was formed by Vetëvendosje and the LDK; this government only lasted a matter of months, however, when the LDK – allegedly at the behest of the US – pulled out of the coalition and formed an alternative government. In November 2020 Hashim Thaci resigned as President of Kosovo when the Specialist Prosecutor's Office in The Hague issued an indictment against him for crimes against humanity and war crimes. In December 2020 the formation of the LDK-led government was judged to have been unconstitutional by Kosovo’s Constitutional Court and new elections were held in February 2021 which saw Vetëvendosje emerge victorious
 Kosovo’s attempts to join UNESCO in 2015 and INTERPOL 2018 both failed because of Serbia and Russia’s counter campaign, with some states that recognise Kosovo even voting against its application to join. In recent years the number of states that recognise Kosovo has in fact declined due to the success of a campaign by both Serbia and Russia to convince recognising states to rescind recognition.
 Kosovo’s Prime Minister recently described the lack of visas as ‘a great injustice’ (https://www.euractiv.com/section/politics/short_news/kosovo-asks-for-visa-liberalisation-prior-to-eu-western-balkan-summit/ ).
 These include the creation of the Association of Serb-majority Municipalities in 2013, the establishment of the Kosovo Specialist Chambers and Specialist Prosecutors Office in 2015, and the border deal with Montenegro in 2018.
 It is worth remembering that the deadly riots which consumed Kosovo in March 2004 started as the result of a lie, namely that three Albanian children had drowned fleeing from Serbs.
 Of particular importance are the UK’s status as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, membership of NATO’s North Atlantic Council, and position within “The Quint” (with the US, France, Germany, and Italy).
 KFOR is a NATO-led peace support mission that was deployed to Kosovo under the terms of UN Security Council Resolution 1244, on 12th June 1999.
 This could take the form of exercises similar to the US’ joint military exercises ‘Joint Defender 21’ which took place in May 2021 with members of the Kosovo Security Force.
 Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Spain, Slovakia do not recognise Kosovo.