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Interview with Mary Robinson, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

Media Transcription Service


The Media Monitoring Service for Peace, Human Rights and the Environment

BBC-2 Television "Newsnight"

Thursday 13th May 1999

Kosovo/Nato bombing:

"After fifty-one days of bombing the Nato campaign in Kosovo is in trouble. After touring the region, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has concluded unequivocally that the Kosovan Albanians have been the victims of systematic State-sponsored terrorism. But, she also believes that the Nato campaign is fundamentally flawed."

Extracts from an interview with Mary Robinson, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

Presenter (Jeremy Paxman): "Tonight (Mary Robinson) was at the UN in Geneva. I asked her which of the two versions of why the refugees had been leaving Kosovo was correct?"

Mary Robinson: "I have no doubt about why the Kosovo Albanians left their homes and crossed the border. From my own listening to quite a number of them and from the work of human rights monitors that I have sent to Macedonia, to Albania and to Montenegro, from OSCE verifiers, we're all hearing more or less the same harrowing story that men in uniform: in police, military or paramilitary uniform came, rounded up the villagers, or came to the town, came to the street, came to the house, forced people to leave. Gave them five-minutes, maybe half an hour to leave. Some of them were able to take something with them, others weren't even able to take anything. In many cases they were deprived of their identity and possessions, of their identity card and registration or other property titles. And not only were they forced brutally from their homes but quite often even going to the border were several cruel encounters of traumatised families being stopped, being harassed, being asked for money. And then at the border again sometimes actually the worst event would happen at the border. I met one woman with her four young children just across the border in Macedonia and she and her husband and four children had got as far as the border and he wasn't allowed through and was pulled back. And so at the last minute she had the terrible trauma.

"I asked any of the families that I spoke to directly, I always put the question 'did you leave because of the bombing?' And they said: 'Oh no, it had nothing to do with the bombing, we left because we had to, we were forced to, we were shouted at, we had guns put to us and we just had to leave'."

Presenter: "When you went to Belgrade and tried to see Mr Milosevic and tell him he had to stop this, what response did you get?"

Mary Robinson: "Well certainly, part of my concern having gathered in and were documenting and recording this very sad human rights story, I wanted to be a direct witness and to bring that story directly to the authorities in Belgrade. I had hoped to do it to President Milosevic himself and had requested a meeting with him. I had met the Presidents of the other five countries that I had been in - he's the only President who didn't seek to have a meeting with me and I regret that. But with the foreign minister in a detailed meeting this morning I did put to him the detailed account - and I gave him some first-hand accounts myself and said that the human rights monitors all get the same account and it tallies and we are cross-verifying and we are able to check a number of the stories and they are true. And he said that his government, the government did not have a policy of 'ethnic cleansing' and I said well if you are hearing as I'm telling that it is happening over and over again by those in military, and paramilitary and police uniform, then to tolerate that is to have a policy, is to have an accountability. And to a certain extent he said he noted what I was saying. He for his part raised the civilian casualties and the impact of the bombing in Serbia and in Belgrade itself and in Nis, a city that I had visited the day before."

Presenter: "Now, you were told then by the Yugoslav foreign minister of the extent of the casualties attributable to the Nato bombings: what is your own view as to the legitimacy of the Nato air campaign given the number of civilian casualties we are told about by the Yugoslavs?"

Mary Robinson: "I think there are two fundamental issues. One is that I don't equate the Nato military campaign and bombing with the deliberate, cruel, vicious acts of direct violation and 'ethnic cleansing'. But we have to look at the fundamental principles. There is an issue of the principle of legality - and that is in fact being canvassed at the moment in the International Court in The Hague and it may be an issue for the International Criminal Tribunal if any proceedings are brought before that tribunal. There's also an important principle of proportionality - and it's one that I've been emphasising - because the whole motivation and the whole purpose of the Nato bombing was for humanitarian reasons - that's the concern - and I would say both a genuine concern and a very real concern - humanitarian and indeed human rights concern but that makes it all the more important that the means adopted in this campaign would not result in civilian casualties if at all possible and would be carried out in a way that minimised civ ilian casualties. And I do have worries: the fact that it's purely an air campaign without a commitment from the beginning to ground troops means that it's a particular type of, it seems almost unfocussed, the range of targets seems very broad and quite clearly civilian residences, hospitals, schools, have felt the effects of the bombing. There are too many mistakes. I visited a high-rise poor housing estate in Nis yesterday and went into an apartment of a man who invited me in to see the damage to his apartment and glass and shrapnel from a cluster bomb in his blankets on the bed. I went on another terrace and looked at a low roof, where there was an unexploded cluster bomb and there were children playing there and old people. As I went into the apartment, a terrified old lady was being brought out. And this is a residential area, there was no target of any kind in the vicinity. And it's happening again and again."

Presenter: "Is it acceptable?"

Mary Robinson: "I think that it is very worrying and all I can do in the context of addressing human rights issues is to say that it is not acceptable that civilians are so much in the front-line. It is happening in modern conflicts. It's not military deaths and injuries we hear about, it's civilians."

Presenter: "And indeed there have been cases during this air campaign where the targets have been known to be specifically civilian. I'm thinking, for example, of the television station that was hit a couple of weeks ago. Is that acceptable?"

Mary Robinson: "I was very distressed by that particular example because it was known that there were people in that building and they were killed: journalists, a make-up artist and it is not acceptable, particularly because it's possible to prevent communications through targeting transmitters. And there is no doubt that it is possible to be very specific with the modern weaponry. So it is very worrying and I think there has to be a constant vigilance about it."

Presenter: "Apparently - according to 'Le Monde' this afternoon - President Milosevic is saying perhaps we can have a peace deal but it will involve giving immunity to those people who have perpetrated these acts of 'ethnic cleansing'. Is that a runner?"

Mary Robinson: "I haven't heard that but certainly that would not be my viewpoint. I am compiling evidence in order to have accountability in order not to have impunity. These have been very deliberate acts of driving people from their home, there cannot be a real restoration of people to their home in peace and in justice unless there is accountability. Again I come back to the fact that this was done by people in uniform, done with the clear intent of exercising an authority of the uniform for these gross violations of human rights."

Presenter: "Taking your comments in sum, would I be fair in saying or believing that it is your view that this war isn't working?"

Mary Robinson: "I'm afraid that I'm distressed to see that the results so far are so very negative. We have the terrible violations in Kosovo: people driven from there in very large numbers, people displaced there and great concern about their safety. There are civilian casualties and a whole effect on a civilian population in Yugoslavia. Children haven't been to school since the bombing started - so that's 51 days. There are hospitals where there have been direct hits or where there is no electricity at certain times of the day. They have four-hour generators. In many cases they can't ensure some of the life-saving machinery. I saw the damage to infrastructure, I heard the concerns yesterday evening about ecological damage, environmental damage - which is very serious. Now, I know that people talk about costs of war but I think if there is to be a military campaign for humanitarian purposes, it must be very targeted as a military campaign on military targets and I think there must be a willingness to pay a price with military personnel. There has to be the integrity of that commitment and it would give a focus that would ensure that the campaign was clearly seen for what it is. And I think one of the worries at the moment is that this campaign is not seen as being so targeted, it's…seen as being too indiscriminate in relation to civilian casualties. And it is certainly causing damage in every sense and in each of the countries of the region that I visited the economy has been going downhill, greatly worsened by the Kosovo situation. You have a vulnerable Macedonia that has taken more than 200,000 refugees - upsetting an ethnic balance and with an economy that is in very real problems. You have Albania generously opening its doors to all of the refugees but with huge problems as the poorest country in the region. You have Montenegro - which is squeezed as being part of the Federation - but not supporting Milosevic or the policy of 'ethnic cleansing', distancing itself totally from it, squeezed by the sanctions and squeezed by the policy of Milosevic in closing the port at Bar so they cannot get humanitarian assistance to cope with the refugees who have come across from Kosovo to Montenegro. So we have a huge problem and at the heart of this is a very real concern for human rights, a need to support infrastructures and capacity building in human rights to prevent this kind of terrible conflict. But my considered view at the end of this difficult mission, where I've heard so many harrowing stories, where I've met very courageous people, whe re I've supported the work of humanitarian and human-rights activists who are in the front line - and they are still there and will be there next week, next month and - unhappily - for months to come. I think the real message that I've received as High Commissioner is the need to put more emphasis on prevention and the need to have accountability, not to have war criminals walking round free years after they have been indicted as war criminals."


Transcripts are typed from a recording and not copied from the original script.

Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, MTS cannot vouch for their total accuracy although every possible care is taken during the transcription process.

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