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 Posted Sunday, June 6, 1999

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May 2, 1999

We are bandits guilty of murder

By Harold Pinter


THE Nato war is a bandit action, committed with no serious consideration of the consequences, confused, ill thought, miscalculated, an act of deplorable machismo. Yet, according to opinion polls most British people support this war, believing we may have a moral duty to intervene and the moral authority to do so.

WHAT is moral authority? Where does it come from? How do you achieve it? Who bestows it upon you? How do you persuade others that you possess it? You don't. You don't have to bother. What you have is power. Bombs and power. And that's your moral authority.

Until the West started negotiating with the Kosovo Liberation Army, thus bestowing moral authority on its uprising, the number of people who died in Kosovo through political violence was fewer than in the preceding decade in Northern Ireland. Think about that.

The British populace and media have accepted 40 days of bombing in this, the biggest conflagration since the Second World War, with surprisingly few questions. Images of the real and horrible plight of the Kosovo Albanians produce an emotional upsurge whereby we feel right to intervene, and that somehow contributions to Kosovo appeals and support for bombing have a moral equivalence.

Macedonian Refugee Not enough questions are asked of the politicians, spin doctors and Nato commanders and of what they knew. They knew that when the bombing began, immediate and major ethical cleansing by Serbian paramilitaries was likely to occur as part of a planned operation. Intelligence reports showed the cleansing was coming but Nato leaders claim they had no idea it would be on such a scale. They did not need spy satellites to learn that as long ago as October, when Nato first threatened bombing Serbia, Vojislav Seselj, the loathsome vice-president and suspected war criminal, promised in parliament that as soon as the first Nato bomb dropped "all the Albanians would vanish from Kosovo".

Contrary to the usual accusations, President Milosevic is not an all-powerful tyrant. He managed to stay in power only after losing popular electoral support by making a pact with opposition hardmen such as Seselj. Cleansing Kosovo in the event of a Nato attack was the likely price of the deal with Seselj. Bomb-happy Nato began hurling weapons, and hundreds of Kosovar refugees, televisual victims, spewed through border posts and on to our screens. Less than half of British people polled in surveys had supported bombing when it began. But now Blair and his war party had a war that people would support.

Nobody disputes that the Kosovar Albanians were brutally expelled. Yet who asked whether the bombs were dropped responsibly (if bombs can be dropped responsibly)? Nato pinned the blame for the exodus solely on the Serbs and they were being cynical with the truth.

A fundamentally inaccurate picture of Serbians has given rise to their being demonised. It is time to unmask the repeated distortions, disinformation and plain ignorance propagated by this Government with the effect of fostering public support for the war. Ministers gave the impression that Serbs were somehow "to blame" for being bombed because they supported Milosevic. Yet in the last election, in autumn 1996, Milosevic was defeated! The bonehead bombing by Nato of a people, as opposed to strictly military targets, had the consequence of enraging them and stifling opposition so that Milosevic strengthened his previously tenuous grip on power.

The Government's mantra is: "We tell the truth. They lie." We are being spun and managed, and kept on message with the desperate assertion that this a replay of the Holocaust and Milosevic is Adolf Hitler. The trains on to which ethnic Albanians were forced did not lead to gas chambers but to Macedonia. I cannot see how you can compare "ethnic cleansing", which is essentially the expulsion of people from a given area, to the extermination of a race. But if you even question these assertions you run the risk of being called an appeaser or pro-Serb by Clare Short.

Let us probe some of our lies, such as the one given in writing on April 12 to the International Federation of Journalists that Yugoslav television would not be bombed. Ten days later it was, with the loss of some two dozen lives. As Nato "always tells the truth", these civilians had no reason to expect to die. This was justified by the Nato spokesman, Jamie Shea, because Belgrade television displayed "tolerance for brutality".

"Tolerance for brutality" - remember that phrase - remember it if this conflict continues to deepen, remember it if it lasts months or years. Tolerant Tony Blair shrugged off the deaths, there were no words of regret. Whatever one might say about Radio Television Serbia's ugly output, the Geneva Convention states quite clearly that only civilians directly involved in hostilities may be killed. The make-up girl who was killed wielded a powder compact, not a Kalashnikov.

So we are guilty not only of lying but of murder, and also hypocrisy. We rightly condemned the killing of the journalist Slavko Curuvija, who wrote things that Milosevic did not like. But Nato killed Belgrade media workers for saying things that Nato doesn't like.

It is not the point that Serbian paramilitaries have committed far more murders. In ignoring the United Nations and all customary guidelines of international law the "19 democratic nations" (as Nato wrongly calls itself) may claim the moral authority to intervene on humanitarian grounds if their own credentials are beyond question. Let us cite the record of a Nato member, democratic Turkey: 1.4 million Kurds cleansed in a repression far worse than Kosovo, including air bombardment of its own citizens. Furthermore, I will reveal in a television programme on Tuesday how the Clinton Administration aided ethnic cleansing in former Yugoslavia in 1995.

If you are going to start a war it is a good idea to have a war aim. Our media accept each different pronouncement of "why we bomb" with sleepy equanimity. At first our bombers went to "prevent a humanitarian catastrophe" and enforce the Rambouillet agreement from several miles up. When the humanitarian catastrophe duly came, the non-compliance of Milosevic meant Rambouillet was tossed aside.

It would be amusing, if it were not so depressing, to trace, for example, the shifting position on what kind of peace force we want. As cruise missiles continued exploding to no avail, Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, began to drop the stipulation that it should be a Nato or "Nato-led" force. Then, when Russian diplomacy edged towards the notion of a truly international peace force, this prospect was duly rejected and the "Nato led force" idea crept back into play. On another front, Clinton declared that the arrest and indictment of Milosevic as a war criminal is a stated aim. Soon after, Robin Cook and Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State, declared on Breakfast with Frost that justice, in the shape of arraigning Milosevic, would be a nice by-product but is not a war aim.

Is it about getting the Kosovo Albanians back? No air war has ever worked without a ground assault, nor - if anything were left of Kosovo after a ground war - would a Nato protectorate be likely to help ethnic Albanians return. In nearby Bosnia, despite the presence of tens of thousands of Nato troops, only 78,000 of the 1.2 million people displaced by the war have been able to return to their homes.

These are the kind of facts we need to be thinking about. This is how we will come to understand that Tony Blair is leading us in a sanctimonious crusade that bestows a sheen of moral purpose but is fundamentally hollow. If we are not to be guilty of hypocrisy by tackling only Milosevic, we risk a permanent state of global war. Messrs Blair and Clinton will need to continue like humanitarian sharks, constantly swimming and gobbling up nasty little minnows as and when they decree. But no bigger fish like Turkey or China, please! Then we might really start having to look at ourselves.

* Harold Pinter and Stuart Urban, the film-maker, have made the first programme for British television arguing resolutely against the war. Counterblast is on Tuesday, BBC2, 7.30pm
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