Humanitarian Bombers in Court

27/1/04 by Noah Tucker

Wim Kok before the judge

For the first time since the Nuremburg trials of Nazis in 1946, the former leadership of a western country was forced to attend court yesterday to defend accusations that their country had committed war crimes. (…)

Wim Kok, who had been a trade union firebrand before becoming prime minister of the Netherlands, and is now a corporate board member of Shell and the Dutch Telecoms company Telfort, avoided giving a view on whether the NATO attack on the Belgrade RTS TV Studio was justified, saying he had only found out after the bombing that 150 civilians had been inside the building at that time. Ex foreign minister van Aartsen on the other hand, appeared enthusiastic about the attack. When the advocate for the victims' families, Nico Steijnen, asked him about the Amnesty International report which concluded that the TV studio was a purely civilian site, the former cabinet member claimed that the studio was in fact a 'dual use' installation which also had a function for the Yugoslavian armed forces. Van Aartsen also stated that the Dutch govenment had in written correspondence with Amnesty International on several occasions before this bombing stating that communications centres in general could be considered legitimate targets; this, he suggested, could be considered sufficient warning to the civilians inside the RTS TV building in Belgrade. Even Judge P. A. Koppen, presiding over the courtroom, appeared to have difficulty concealing his amazement at this statement.

Sixteen people, all civilians, died in the attack, which put the television station out of action for three hours before transmission was resumed.

When asked about the NATO cluster bomb attack on Nis, a Serbian town near a military airfield, Wim Kok stated, "It's even more sad, seeing that a market and a hospital were hit, that the actual target was missed." Following the 15 deaths and 70 injured in Nis, the Dutch government decided that its own F16 warplanes would cease dropping cluster bombs on Yugoslavia; the other components of the NATO forces did not change their policy of using these terrifying weapons.

The packed courtroom heard an account of the NATO strategy of gradually increasing the range of sites which it was permissible for US and West European forces to attack, moving from strictly military targets in phase one of the war, to phase two, phase two-plus, and phase three, in which communications, transport and other infrastructure would be destroyed.

Steijnen (for the victims' families): 'What was the difference between phase two-plus and phase three'

Kok: 'In the NATO Council, the transition between phases two and three was considered sensitive. So we had phase two-plus, which included 'C-three centres' ' command, control and communications targets.'

Steijnen: 'Why was it sensitive, the move to phase three'

Kok: 'That was my perception.'

Steijnen: 'A parliamentary document states explicitly that civil targets were included. Was that the cause of this 'sensitiveness''"

Kok: 'I can't say more. The decisions on specific targets were not posed to the Netherlands and did not have to be.'

One could conclude that only a country with no real possiblity of hitting back at its opponents could thus be coldly, systematically brought to its knees in the 78 days of this bombardment, the first major war in Europe since 1945. The tensions within NATO had more to do with keeping public opinion on board than any likelihood that Yugoslavia could score any military successes.

The court appearance was part of a preliminary hearing in an action for compensation from the Dutch state on behalf of victims of the NATO attacks on Nis and the RTS TV Studio. The former defence minister Frank de Grave has yet to to give evidence, and ex-leader of parliament Jeltje van Nieuwenhoven is refusing to attend the court.

After today's proceedings, Meindert Stelling, a leading member of the campaign for the bombing victims and a founder member of Lawyers for Peace, was optimistic about the outcome. "We have established that the Dutch government was involved all the way, in the decision-making process about what kind of targets would be attacked in which phases of the war. Also, our former foreign minister made it clear that NATO forces needed to operate within the protocol of international law, meaning that a target can only be selected for attack if destroying it or putting it out of action will create a definite military advantage for the attacking party, according to plans and in the circumstances of the time. The government will have to prove that the RTS TV studio was actually in use by the Yugoslavian military. They will also need to show that it was reasonable to drop cluster bombs at Nis, so close to a civilian inhabited area."

Stelling, himself a former Dutch Air Force pilot, commented further on the day's evidence. "Our former prime minister showed that he was not in control in Holland's relationship with the NATO military apparatus. He was not in control of whether the war was conducted within international law. This amounts to neglect."

Stelling concurs that it might have been convenient for the Dutch leadership and some other European NATO top politicians not to know which specific sites were to be targetted, in case they were illegal.

My discussion with Stelling moves onto the wider issues of the 1999 NATO war against Yugoslavia, and it transpires that, by coincidence, we have both read the recent book by General Wesley K. Clarke, who is currently in the running to be the Democratic Party candidate for election as President of the United States. Although the politicians in the courtroom today had referred to the bombardment of Yugoslavia as having the aim of 'bringing Milosevic to the negotiating table', it is clear from the account of the former Supreme Commander of NATO forces and other insiders (for instance Michael Hirsh of Newsweek) that before the bombing started, the western countries made no attempt to negotiate seriously, and instead drew up an ultimatum, the 'Rambouillet Accord' which they knew the Yugoslavian leaders could not accept because it included the stationing of foreign troops on Serbian territory with no jurisdiction over their activities by the Serbian and Yugoslavian authorities.


This was a good war for NATO, one that kept the western allies together, put Russia in its place and established a precedent for rich western countries to use military means to intervene in the 'humanitarian' affairs of poorer nations. A war that caring liberals, like Clinton, Blair and Wesley K. Clarke could be proud of. A war with no casualties at all on the NATO side.

Nearly five years later, Kosovo is no nearer independence. It is still formally part of Serbia, but is run as a NATO protectorate. Ethnic Albanian militias have ethnically cleansed the Jews, Gypsies and Serbians from the province. Its economy is managed by the World Bank. US company Brown and Root Services, a subsidiary of Halliburton, is reported to be making good profits from the construction of a huge permanent US military base, Camp Bondsteel, which is conveniently located near vital oil and gas energy corridors including the Trans-Balkan Oil Pipeline.

Cluster Bombs do this

As we leave the courtroom, an hour after the end of proceedings for that day, a group of middle-aged women, Serbian civilians, have dismantled the little shrine of crosses and photographs on the concrete steps and are picking up the pieces.


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