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Kosovo 1999: An Example of Effective Humanitarian Intervention?

Humanitarian intervention is one of the controversial concepts in international law studies. These debates have two dimensions: legal and moral arguments (Bellamy & Wheeler, 2014). While the legal argument is more concerned with the concept of intervention, the moral argument deals with the humanitarian part. Despite many discussions about the legality and legitimacy of humanitarian intervention, it is a fact that many interventions have taken place so far. NATO's intervention in Kosovo in 1999 is one example. The intervention, which took place due to the conflicts between Albanians and Serbs, had different long-term and short-term consequences for Kosovo. Below is a closer look at the concept of humanitarian intervention, the reason why intervention in Kosovo occurred and the short and long-term effects it had on Kosovo.

Figure 1: Map of the Former Yugoslavia

Although there is no legal definition of humanitarian intervention, it can be described as the use of military force on the territory of a third state in pursuit of humanitarian objectives. (Heywood, 2011). In essence, “intervention” is against international law as international law is shaped around respect for state sovereignty (Heywood, 2011). The reason for this being that sovereign states are expected to protect their citizens' security (Bellamy & Wheeler, 2014). Humanitarian intervention arose out of the question of what would happen if states failed to meet this responsibility in the Post-Cold War era (Bellamy & Wheeler, 2014). The reason this topic was not discussed prior to the end of the Cold War was the believe that the sovereignty of states had priority over the rights of individuals. This view changed in the 1990s because the end of the Cold War brought to an end an age centered around power politics (Bellamy & Wheeler, 2014). Instead, a ‘liberal peace’ was founded on a common recognition of international norms (Heywood, 2011).

However, humanitarian intervention is still a controversial issue among states for legal and moral reasons as the United Nations expressly prohibits the use of force with two exceptions; these are Article 42, which allows the use of force only if the UN Security Council authorizes it, and Article 51, which allows the use of force only if a state is acting in self-defence (UN Charter, 1945). Moreover, Article 2(7) of the UN Charter clearly prohibits intervention in domestic jurisdiction (UN Charter, 1945). On the other hand, the moral argument pro humanitarian intervention is constructed on the basis of humanitarian motives behind the intervention that aim to save lives by stopping mass violations (Bellamy & Wheeler, 2014). In that regard, while humanitarian intervention itself is not considered the legal exception to the prohibition of the use of force, it can be justified because of its humanitarian motives. Beyond these discussions, in current international law, without an exception, if there is a UN Security Council authorization, humanitarian intervention can be considered legal. Nevertheless, its effectiveness is still in question.

Figure 2: Humanitarian intervention in Kosovo, 1999

For centuries Kosovo has been a region where Albanians and Serbs have lived together. After the Second World War, Kosovo found itself within the borders of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which was established in 1945 under the leadership of Josip Broz Tito (Tito). The Kosovar Albanians could not obtain the same rights given to the other republics (Croats, Serbs, Bosnians, Slovenes, Montenegrins, and Macedonians) that made up Yugoslavia. The central problem for Albanians was their status as a minority group instead of a nation. Consequently, they did not enjoy the rights that nation status provides, like having their language considered an official language: Kosovar Albanians did not have the right to education in their own language, and they did not have their own government institutions (Taşdemir & Yürür, 1999). For this reason, they demanded that they be given republic status, but were unable to obtain it (Oduncu, 2019). However, from time to time, the demands of the Albanians reached the level of armed conflicts, and mainly to stop the violence Tito gave them limited rights (Oduncu, 2019). For instance, with the 1974 Constitution, 29 years after Yugoslavia's foundation, Kosovar- Albanians finally achieved representation in the federal government and parliament, and were able to nominate candidates for presidential elections (Pakhlov, 2014).

Figure 3: Demonstration of ethnic Albanians against Serbian pressure, 1988

After Tito's death in 1980, Slobodan Milosevic took over the administration. The events that paved the way for NATO's humanitarian intervention in Kosovo in 1999 intensified during this period due to bad economic conditions and Milosevic's nationalist policies (Oduncu, 2019) These events gave rise to Albanian nationalism (Oduncu, 2019). Economically, Kosovo had been the poorest region in Yugoslavia, and it was most affected by its deteriorating economy (Oduncu, 2019). Through the nationalist policies of Milosevic, in 1989, the autonomy of Kosovo was removed, and it became a subordinate unit to the Serbian State (The Guardian, 1999). Albanian schools were closed, and Albanian workers were replaced by Serbian workers in factories (Oduncu, 2019). In 1990, tens of thousands of Albanians started a civil uprising. This uprising quickly turned violent and was suppressed with Yugoslavia's military intervention.

Figure 4: Albanian Nationalists in Kosovo in 1990

In 1991, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia started to collapse. Having lost hope that Kosovo's independence would be achieved in peace, Albanians started attacks against Serbian security forces in 1996 (Oduncu, 2019). The Milosevic administration responded harshly to the attacks. Milosevic started to use pressure and violence against the entire Albanian nation, without making any distinction between civil and militia (Oduncu, 2019). In 1998, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) emerged as a separatist movement against the Serbian authorities, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) and those who cooperated with them (Greenwood, 2002). In 1998, during the conflicts between the KLA and FRY forces, 1.500 Kosovar Albanians were killed and 300.000 were forced to flee their homes (Robert, 1999). After that, a resolution was adopted by the UN Security Council on March 31, 1998, condemning the use of force against civilians (Greenwood, 2002). Neither this resolution nor the diplomatic negotiations proved successful, and the insufficiency of these attempts led to the NATO intervention on March 24, 1999.

Right after the NATO bombardment of Yugoslavia, Yugoslavia realized that it could not resist the attacks and accepted the draft containing NATO’s peace terms (Oduncu, 2019). This acceptance brought about a ceasefire. In the short term, humanitarian intervention achieved its purpose as it was able to stop the on-going genocide. Organized ethnic violence also fell significantly (Bellamy & Wheeler, 2014). On June 10, 1999, the UNSC adopted resolution 1244, which created the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) and the Kosovo Force (KFOR) to create and maintain the conditions of the post-war period (Greenwood, 2002). UNMIK's goals include to return refugees to their homes, to create an environment for the creation of civil administration, to support democratic elements and ensure their development (Oduncu, 2019). Nevertheless, UNMIK was not able to execute these goals successfully due to ongoing ethnic conflicts and poor economic conditions. In light of this, it can be said that after tremendous death and chaos, humanitarian intervention was able to create peace in a short time period.

Figure 5: NATO's humanitarian intervention in Kosovo, 1999

However, it is important to observe what happened after the discussed intervention. After political uncertainty in 2008, Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia. After 14 years, Kosovo still faces obstacles to its integration with the international community. Namely, the independence of Kosovo is still not recognized by world powers such as Russia and China, as well as Serbia. This presents a problem for Serbia in terms of membership in the European Union (Oduncu, 2019) as the European Commission stipulated that Serbia should normalize its relations with Kosovo in order to start candidacy negotiations (Republic of Türkiye, Ministry of Foreign Affairs Directorate for EU Affairs, 2019). Furthermore, ethnic divisions remain quite pronounced within the country (Bellamy & Wheeler, 2014). The conflicts of 2004 and 2011 are indicative of the fact that the conflict between Serbians and Albanians has not ended (Akgün, 2012). In 2004, the events reached heightened levels of violence and, consequently, 4,000 Serbs had to leave their homes (Akgün, 2012). As Serbia does not recognize the independence of Kosovo, Serbs living predominantly in the north of Kosovo do not recognize Kosovo's authority, which weakens the country's institutions and generates conflict (Akgün, 2012). This, in consequence, does not allow KFOR's military restructuring of the country and a reduction of the soldiers present within Kosovo, as originally planned (Akgün, 2012).

Although Serbs became a minority after 1999, with the support of Serbia, this ethnic group continue to boycott state institutions and elections in Kosovo. These boycotts prevent public services such as schools and hospitals from reaching the north of the state (Akgün, 2012). In terms of population, UNMIK has difficulties in bringing back refugees who were forced to migrate to Kosovo as it has an insufficient economic budget and most of the property of the people who migrated was looted and their homes were destroyed (Akgün, 2012). In economic terms, the unemployment rate of young people is high, up to 70% in some regions (Akgün, 2012). In economic terms, the unemployment rate of young people is high, even up to 70% in some regions (Akgün, 2012). Remittances sent by Kosovar employees, especially in Germany and Switzerland, constitute 30% of the national income (Foreign Ministry of Türkiye). Finally, the order of law is insufficient. Judiciary and policing institutions have remained weak, and this has made it harder for them to fight criminal organizations (Akgün, 2012). Consequently, Kosovo has become a haven for organized crime (Bellamy & Wheeler, 2014).

Figure 6: Kosovar Albanians fleeing Kosovo in 1999

To sum up, the humanitarian intervention in Kosovo, the declaration of a ceasefire and the paving of a path for the return of thousands of people who had to leave their homes, were positive effects when the short-term outcomes of the intervention are evaluated. In this context, the humanitarian intervention of NATO can be considered successful in the short term. However, when considering the long-term outcomes, the intervention was unsuccessful. The current situation in Kosovo shows that none of the aims of the intervention were realized. Although Kosovo, which aimed at Republic status since the foundation of Yugoslavia, finally declared its independence in 2008, it faced the problem of recognition in the international arena.

Kosovo, which has been the poorest region of Yugoslavia since the very beginning, maintains its poor economic conditions after the intervention. The biggest factor in this is that the population forced to leave the region before the intervention, as predicted by UNMIK, cannot be brought back and people still lose their lives or migrate due to the ongoing conflicts. The fact that the foreign exchange sent by the immigrants working in Europe is among the important income sources of the country is an indicator of the poor conditions of the economy. State institutions established under the leadership of UNMIK are still not functional, as Kosovar Serbs do not recognize Kosovo's authority. As a result, it is not possible to provide security and establish an environment of peace and stability, one of the principal objectives of a humanitarian intervention. This framework shows us that the intervention in Kosovo has failed in the long term. The biggest reason for this is that ethnic conflicts are still a major obstacle for restructuring programs. Making plans on paper through institutions is not functional as it does not reduce nationalism in the region. In the case of Kosovo, it has been understood that this cannot be done in a short time.

Bibliographical Sources

Akgün, S. (2012). Kosova’da yeniden yapılandırma çalışmaları kapsamında bugünkü durum. Gazi Akademik Bakış, (10), 249-268.

Bellamy, A. J. & Wheeler, N. J. (2014). ‘Humanitarian Intervention in World Politics', in Baylis, J., Smith, S. & Owens, P. (eds), The Globalization of World Politics, (6th ed., pp. 479-496). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Foreign Ministry of Türkiye. (n.d) Kosova'nın Siyasi Görünümü. available at: [Accessed August 7 2022]

Greenwood, C. (2002). Humanitarian intervention: the case of Kosovo, 141-175.

Heywood, A. (2011). Global Politics. Macmillan International Higher Education.

Oduncu, T. (2020). 1999 Kosova Krizi ve NATO'nun Kosova Müdahalesi. Bucak İşletme Fakültesi Dergisi, 2(1), 1-15.

Pakhalov, M. (2014). Kosovo Field Experiments. Top War. available at: [Accessed August 6 2022]

Republic of Türkiye, Ministry of Foreign Affairs Directorate for EU Affairs, (2019). Serbia. Available at: [Accessed August 6 2022]

Roberts, A. (1999). Nato's ‘humanitarian war’over kosovo. Survival, 41(3), 102-123.

Taşdemir, F., & Yürür, P. (1999). Kosova sorunu: Tarihi ve hukuki bir değerlendirme. Gazi Üniversitesi İktisadi ve İdari Bilimler Fakültesi Dergisi, 1(3), 135-152.

The Guardian News. Timeline: a Chronology of Conflict. available at: [Accessed August 4 2022].

United Nations, Charter of the United Nations, October 24 1945, 1 UNTS XVI, available at: [Accessed August 4 2022]

Visual Sources

1 Comment

Excellent article and interesting topic, especially in today's current situation. It would be great to see the same approach applied also to other country contexts.

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Yaprak Akkaya

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