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From Labour Focus on Eastern Europe, No. 63, 1999

Oskar Lafontaine on the War in Yugoslavia

[Oskar Lafontaine, who resigned from his post as finance minister in the German government at the beginning of March, made his first public appearance following his resignation at the May Day rally organised by the DGB (German Trade Union Federation) in Saarbrücken. We print  below extracts from his speech that dealt with the war in Yugoslavia. The original was published in the German daily, Junge Welt, and the translation is by Gus Fagan.]

In taking a position on the war in Yugoslavia today, I would like to remind ourselves that this is not the only war in our world. Poverty and misery, death and expulsion are sadly present in quite a few countries: I'm thinking of Africa, of Algeria, Ethiopia, Sudan, Rwanda, the Congo. I'm thinking of Asia and of the persecuted Kurds in Turkey, a member state of NATO. I'm thinking of Tibet, Afghanistan and of many other countries where we find gross injustice and large-scale human misery.
But it is of the war in Yugoslavia that I want to speak today. I don't want to simplify because none of us have simple answers. But what has to stand in the forefront of all our thinking is, in my view, this: How can we alleviate, as quickly as possible, the suffering of the people there?   How can peace be established as quickly as possible?  And the issue is not one of saving face, as some suggest it is. The sole issue is the suffering of people and the preservation of human life.
Of course, all of us are concerned about the people of Kosovo who are being expelled and killed. We are also concerned about the people in Serbia who are afraid and who are suffering from bombardment. We are thinking of the people in Serbia who have been the victims of the bombing. And we are thinking of the deserters from the armies who are also persecuted and who are suffering because they don't want to take part in the war.  As I have already said, there are no simple answers to these terrible events. And I don't want to give the impression that I have any simple answer. And I would like, right from the beginning, to distance myself from the placard against the Chancellor. This style of argument leads nowhere. The issues that we are facing are to serious for this kind of argument.
We know now that mistakes have been made with respect to Yugoslavia and some of these mistakes were made some years ago. I often hear it said that German shouldn't go its own way, but I must remind you that, at the very beginning of all this, Germany did indeed go its own way in pushing through the official recognition of the independence of Yugoslavia's constituent republics, against the resistance of Paris, London and Washington, and on the basis of a false understanding of the concepts of freedom and self-determination.  Freedom and self-determination are not compatible with national exclusion and ethnic exclusion. Freedom and self-determination are only imaginable and can only be lived and experienced when they are linked with solidarity and human fellowship. That's why it was wrong to give recognition to this small-state nonsense (Kleinstaaterei) based on ethnic differences. It was also a mistake when NATO bombardment made it possible for Croatia to drive the Serbs from Krajina. I want to bring this to your attention today when we speak about the war in Yugoslavia.
It would be a mistake to believe that only one of the nations in the multi-national Yugoslavia suffered expulsion. The Serbs have suffered expulsion. I'm saying this because it is important that we don't adopt a one-sided view. I believe,  I am firmly convinced, that that we can not advance one step when we demonise one particular national group and see the others as the good side. The reasonable thing to do is to recognise that there are many people in that country, and not just people from one group, who have suffered unjustly, who have been unjustly persecuted, and it is therefore false to divide the people there into good and bad national groups. Peace will never be achieved in this manner. Serbian men also have wives and children who weep for them, they also have friends who weep for them. We shouldn't forget this. We too have had our experience with dictatorships and we know that many soldiers follow orders but their hearts are not in what they are doing. We know that and that's why I mentioned the deserters.
With regard to the present situation I want to distinguish political from military considerations. First, the political reasoning of recent weeks and months. There is no doubt whatever that Milosevic is pursuing a criminal policy that we must all condemn. And there is also no doubt that we must do everything possible to bring this criminal policy to a halt. And we should recognise that the Western states did attempt to do this, that they did make this effort, but in spite of this we still are obliged to consider critically whether the decisions made up to now have been correct.
With respect to the decisions of recent weeks and months, two serious errors have been made that will have long-term consequences. Firstly, the UN was pushed aside. That was a serious error that we have to learn from. If we want peace, then we have to strengthen the law. And if we want international peace, then we have to strengthen international law. There is no other way. And international law can be constituted only by the United Nations, not by any other bodies that are self-mandating. It is good, therefore, that an attempt is now being made to bring in the United Nations. We can learn from our mistakes and we should learn from this one, and here I appeal not just to the German government. I appeal to the European governments. We have to make clear to our American allies that pushing the UN aside was a mistake, that, in the long term, we can have a politics that is reasonable and right, just and peaceful, only if we base ourselves on the rules of international law, however difficult that may be in any particular case.
The second big mistake, and here I appeal to the governments of Europe to take a stand against it, was to take advantage of the present weaknesses of Russia in order to exclude her. We can not achieve peace in this world without Russia. And we can not bring about peace in Europe without Russia. And we Germans should never forget what Gorbachev did for this nation, for Germany. We have a duty to be fair to Russia, to bring Russia on board, and I welcome the fact that the attempt is now being made to involve Russia more strongly.
Sometimes the organs of the UN and the Security Council are justly criticised when what is at stake are proposals that we consider right but, in this respect, I would like to remind you that some very good proposals have been put forward for the reform of the UN. The UN, created after the war, is in need of reform today. The right of veto over international law enjoyed by certain individual powers is questionable.  So let us reform the UN but let us not push it aside.
It isn't possible today to pass judgement on whether everything was done to use peaceful means to achieve a solution and to stop the killing and the exclusion. I wasn't part of many of the negotiations and, as I have said, these efforts and decisions go back over many years.  I would like to make clear, however, how the recent decisions were arrived at: following the victory of the red-green coalition last year, and at a time when the Schr”der government had not yet been formed, the Kohl government invited us to find out if we could agree with a decision of the German parliament, the old German parliament, that in the event of a state of alert (Alarmbereitschaft) for the NATO allies, German troops would be made available.
I feel it is my duty here today, once again, to point to the fact that, as leader of the German Social Democratic Party in these negotiations, I posed the question whether such a decision of the German parliament and the German government would set an automatic process in motion which would require no further consultation before a military attack. The answers given by the defence and foreign ministers of the then government were not consistent. I got a written confirmation from the foreign ministry at that time that a positive decision by the German parliament would not set an automatic process in motion ....[speech interrupted by medical emergency in the audience] As I was explaining, the decision of the German parliament in October [1998] did not set up an automatic process; it would be possible beforehand, before any military attack,  to enter again into a political discussion in which a decision would be made, a political decision, about whether the state of alarm would lead to a command to intervene  militarily.
On this basis I gave my agreement as leader of the German Social Democratic Party because it would not have been responsible, after all the preparations, and after all that had been achieved by the governments of Europe and by the United States, to stop it or even to change it in just a few days. However, I insisted in the cabinet, during the days of the Rambouillet negotiations, that before the cabinet came to a decision that would involve German approval of a military intervention, that there would have to be a detailed discussion of the military plans because it is my view that it is not possible to agree to a military intervention without knowing and carefully considering the plans and their effects.
Up to the time of my resignation as finance minister, there were no further discussions on the military question, so I can only judge after the event. It is my view that the present military operation could only be justified if the goal were, following these attacks, to get Milosevic's signature to an agreement to end the war, as happened a few years ago. Only if there were solid reasons for believing that this would happen would the military attacks be justified and understandable.
If, however, there were no firm reasons for believing this, if, as the later discussion indicated, the most important goal of the military intervention was the protection of the Kosovo population, then the military intervention plans were not justifiable from any point of view.
Every metaphor limps. But what would we think of a police force which, discovering that a group was on the way from A to B in order to expel and murder the people at B, decided to bomb the bridges, refineries, railways, etc in A? A country would not accept for a minute this behaviour on the part of the police. I know that things are not as simple as the metaphor suggests. But it does make clear that the military planning was inadequate because it did not take into its calculations the possibility that Milosevic would not capitulate and because it is now, in my view, in a dead end street.....
Regardless of what army generals or politicians may say,  bombing is a form of collective punishment. All the talk about systematic attacks on the enemy, about degrading his capacity, about wearing him down and eventually destroying him, only serves to cover over the fact that the innocent are also being hit. This is the problem that the bombing has led us to: increasing numbers of innocent people are the victims of our bombs. And that is why today, here from the Deutsch-Franz”sischer Garten [in Saarbrcken], I call on the responsible authorities to call a halt to the bombing, and to find a way at the conference table to end the killing and expulsions in Yugoslavia, by bringing in the United Nations and Russia and also by consulting with the Chinese....
I welcome the fact that the Chancellor has brought a Marshall Plan into the discussion and that some thought is being given to the reconstruction of what has been destroyed. But when we look at the television in the evening and see the bridges that have been destroyed and think how they will now need to be built again, we ask ourselves what is the sense of this bombing, what is it leading too, and in what kind of reason is this activity based.  What is needed is a lot of diplomacy, not megaphone diplomacy because, as all of us familiar with international mechanisms are aware, this only creates resistance. I hope that the European governments and, following the decisions of the American Congress, the Clinton administration will recognise that they have reached a dead end and that what they have to do is return to the negotiating table.
I hear it said quite often now that NATO can't lose face. It has no choice; it has to win.  In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietsche wrote, 'Let your peace be a victory'. In the present case I  ask, whose victory would the victory be? And what does victory mean in the context of the human suffering from this war? The important point is not victory or face-saving, the important point is saving lives and ending the misery in Yugoslavia...
No one can offer simple solutions and no one is in the position today to offer a solution that is guaranteed to take us out of this situation. But we should hold on to what we have achieved over many years. And I say this to my friends in the German Social Democratic Party, what we need to do is to carry on the  peace and d‚tente policies of Willy Brandt, the best tradition of social democratic foreign policy since the war.