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Jeremy Scahill Headshot

Kosovo: The Hypocrisy of the U.S. Cries to Respect International Law

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News Flash: The Bush administration acknowledges there is a such thing as international law.

But, predictably, it is not being invoked to address the US prison camps at Guantanamo, the wide use of torture, the invasion and occupation of sovereign countries, the extraordinary rendition program. No, it is being thrown out forcefully as a condemnation of the Serbian government in the wake of Thursday's attack by protesters on the US embassy in Belgrade following the Bush administration's swift recognition of the declaration of independence by the southern Serbian province of Kosovo. Some 1,000 protesters broke away from a largely non-violent mass demonstration in downtown Belgrade and targeted the embassy. Some protesters actually made it into the compound, setting a fire and tearing down the American flag.

"I'm outraged by the mob attack against the U.S. embassy in Belgrade," fumed Zalmay Khalilzad,the US Ambassador to the United Nations. "The embassy is sovereign US territory. The government of Serbia has a responsibility under international law to protect diplomatic facilities, particularly embassies." His comments were echoed by a virtual who's who of the Bill Clinton administration. People like Jamie Rubin, then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's deputy, one of the main architects of US policy toward Serbia. "It is sovereign territory of the United States under international law," Rubin declared. "For Serbia to allow these protesters to break windows, break into the American Embassy, is a pretty dramatic sign." Hillary Clinton, whose husband orchestrated and ran the 78-day NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999, said, "I would be moving very aggressively to hold the Serbian government responsible with their security forces to protect our embassy. Under international law they should be doing that."

Yes, the Serbian government had an obligation to prevent the embassy from being torched and ransacked. If there was complicity by the Serbian police or authorities in allowing it to be attacked, that is a serious issue. But the US has little moral authority not just in invoking international law (which it only does when it benefits Washington's agenda) but in invoking international law when speaking about attacks on embassies in Belgrade.

Perhaps the greatest crime against any embassy in the history of Yugoslavia was committed not by evil Serb protesters, but by the United States military.

On May 7, 1999, at the height of the 78 day US-led NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, the US bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, killing three Chinese citizens, two of them journalists, and wounding 20 others. The Clinton administration later said that the bombing was the result of faulty maps provided by the CIA (Sound familiar?). Beijing rejected that explanation and alleged it was deliberate. Eventually, under strong pressure from China, the US apologized and paid $28 million in compensation to the victims' families. If the US was serious about international law and the protection of embassies, those responsible for that bombing would have been tried at the Hague along with other alleged war criminals. But "war criminal" is a designation for the losers of US-fueled wars, not bombers sent by Washington to drop humanitarian munitions on "sovereign territory."

International law matters only when it is convenient for the US. So too are the cries for "humanitarian interventions." And despite the extremism of the Bush administration, this is hardly a uniquely Republican phenomenon. In a just world, there would be a humanitarian intervention against the US occupation of Iraq -- with its indiscriminate killings of civilians, torture chambers and widespread human rights violations. There certainly would have been such an intervention during the bipartisan slaughter, through bombs and sanctions, of Iraq's people over the past 18 years. But that's what you get when the cops and judges and prosecutors are the criminals. US policy has always operated on a worthy victim, unworthy victim system that is almost never primarily about saving the victims. Humanitarianism is the publicly offered justification for the action, seldom, if ever, the primary motivation.

If you are a victim who happens to share a common geography with US interests, international law is on your side as long as it is convenient. If not, well, tough. The UN is just a debate club anyway. Just ask the tens of thousands of Kurds who were slaughtered by Turkey with weapons sold to them by the Clinton administration during the 1990s. Or the Palestinians who live under the brutality of Israel's occupation. In some cases, the "victims" allegedly being protected by the US actually get bombed themselves, as was the case with President Clinton's "humanitarian" bombings of the north and south of Iraq once every three days in the late 1990s.

In the bigger picture, the Bush administration's quick recognition of an independent Kosovo has given us a powerful reminder of a fact that is too often overlooked these days: empire is bipartisan, as are the tactics and rhetoric and bombs used to defend and expand it.

Read my article on Kosovo at Alternet