Operation Allied Force: Was the NATO Bombing of Yugoslavia Justified?

Ava Jakominich

On March 24, 1999, NATO began a bombing campaign against Yugoslavia. Code named Operation Allied Force, the bombing was justified as a “humanitarian intervention,” carried out in response to the ethnic cleansing of Albanians in Kosovo by Serbian forces.

Despite declaring its independence in 2008, at the time of Operation Allied Force, Kosovo was a province of Serbia, one of the two republics making up the revitalized Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. As Kosovo was only incorporated into Serbia in 1913, the majority of Kosovo’s population are ethnic Albanians, a cause of much tension between the Kosovar Albanian majority and the Serbian minority. Kosovo previously enjoyed autonomous status within Serbia until 1990, when the infamous Milošević administration introduced a new constitution that not only eliminated Kosovo’s autonomy but also began the systematic repression of Kosovar Albanians. Efforts were made to remove Albanians from all levels of social and political life in Kosovo, as the Albanian language ceased to be taught in school and the sale of property to Albanians was banned. Thousands fled the Serbian persecution and those that stayed put engaged in various forms of resistance. A nonviolent parallel political system was organized, operated by the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK). Despite the LDK’s success in gaining support from Albanians around the world and effectively providing education and healthcare to Kosovar Albanians, its failure to gain independence or international recognition paved the way for a new, violent form of resistance. The Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) emerged and engaged in guerilla warfare with Serbian forces. When international diplomatic efforts to stop the violence fell flat, NATO began Operation Allied Force.

The 78-day bombing campaign cost nearly 500 innocent civilian lives and billions in infrastructure damage and ended with a peace agreement and the establishment of an international peacekeeping force in Kosovo, restoring Kosovo’s autonomy. Despite this perceived success, the legitimacy of the bombing campaign is still debated today. The campaign targeted Serbian military bases and infrastructure, however, miscalculated bombings cost the lives of hundreds of Kosovar Albanians, KLA members, and Serbian civilians. In possibly the worst mishap, the Chinese embassy in Serbia was bombed, killing three Chinese journalists and triggering a diplomatic crisis. Additionally, the chaos and violence caused by the campaign was exploited by Serbian forces, who took the opportunity to kill approximately eleven thousand Kosovar Albanians and displace close to a million. However, the most controversial fact about the bombing is that it was carried out without prior approval from the UN Security Council, as Russia and China both exercised their veto powers, blocking sanctioning of the operation.

Whether the operation was justified or not, it did pave the way for Kosovo to declare its independence in 2008. The bombing campaign highlighted the severity of the human rights abuses in Kosovo and the exhaustion of diplomatic negotiations with Serbia. Both these conditions are key criteria for remedial secession, the theory that a population which has been systematically oppressed by the central government has the right to secession. Although Kosovo is now recognized as an independent state by 117 countries, the rest of the world has not followed suit, demonstrating how remedial secession is not completely effective in practice.